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UTHAMAKI, GOD AND THE ECONOMY: ‘Tano Tena’ fails to deliver the Kingdom of Prosperity

13 min read. As the economy takes a turn for the worse, many of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s disappointed followers are seeking solace in religion. By DAUTI KAHURA

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UTHAMAKI, GOD AND THE ECONOMY: ‘Tano Tena’ fails to deliver the Kingdom of Prosperity
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1 October 2018 was a market Monday just like any other that has come and gone at the Githurai fruits and vegetables market, one of the busiest markets in Nairobi that is located 10 km from the central business district. Githurai Market is busy because its catchment area spreads all the way to Thika town and its environs. Although the older and more famous Wakulima Market, aka Marigiti, located in Nairobi’s CBD, could be busier, its market reach is not as widespread and does not go as deep into the hinterland as Githurai Market does. But, just like Marigiti, Githurai’s produce is transported from as far as Mbeya in southern Tanzania and Soroti in eastern Uganda.

This year has been one of the toughest years that the market women at Githurai Market have faced in recent times. Six out of every ten traders at Githurai Market are women. The market is largely run by resilient and seasoned female fruit-and-vegetable sellers, all of whom are Kikuyus and who in the true sense of the word, are entrepreneurs, whose grasp of the trade encapsulates the dictum: What they did not teach you at Harvard (or Yale) School of Business.

It was not the first time I was going to Githurai Market; this year alone, I have made enough trips there to get to grips with what makes the market tick, engaging with the women traders, sharing lots of cups of tea and chapatis, as well as listening to their stories about the funnier side of the market’s shenanigans.

That the market women had great faith that the economy would improve and eventually stabilise had become a point of sore contention between them and me. I often asked them what miracle they expected President Uhuru Kenyatta to perform to wish away their economic woes.

All of this year, the market women have kept telling me how bad business has been. But strong-willed and tough-spirited as they are, they have held on to their undying optimism and belief that matters will eventually even out; in the long run, the economy will be fine and everything will flow smoothly. Their optimism is not pegged on any economic principle or the variables of fresh produce market dynamics, but on the presumption of a shared political-cum-tribal commonality through imagined ties with the ruling Kikuyu elite (referred to as Uthamaki). Hence, their presumed political correctness and unquestioned and unparalleled loyalty; in their minds, their Kikuyu tribe ought to serve as an economic shield, especially in tough economic times. “Uhuru ndangerika tuone uru. Kai twamucaguraga wake?” (Uhuru cannot let us suffer. That is not the reason we elected him.) The women’s unshaken faith in President Uhuru Kenyatta, in the face of very obvious economic turbulence, is truly puzzling, but also admirable.

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That the market women had great faith that the economy would improve and eventually stabilise had become a point of sore contention between them and me. I often asked them what miracle they expected President Uhuru Kenyatta to perform to wish away their economic woes. The country had mounting debts that ran into trillions of shillings, runaway theft that had crippled the state coffers in his first term and a Standard Gauge Railway project that had turned into a white elephant was gobbling Sh750 million in losses every month. Their chorus answer was always: “We should not keep saying the economy is bad. God is on our side and He will protect us.” It was a curt answer to a painful situation that threatened to fester indefinitely and which they were not prepared to talk about openly and publicly.

Sometime in July, when I told them that the government would impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel come September, they outright rebuked me: “Aaah Uhuru ndangetikira.” (Nah, Uhuru will not consent to such an arrangement.) The VAT came and Kenyans immediately started experiencing the impact of the harsh tax. Matatu Saccos hiked fares overnight and kerosene prices shot up.

Meanwhile, the Githurai Market women’s optimism and faith in the person of President Uhuru was getting blurred and confusing. On this Monday, their spirits were beginning to break. It was 10.30am and the market was dull, inactive and quiet. The hustle and bustle had disappeared. The brisk business that used to be a permanent feature at the market throughout the week had whittled away. Something was just not working right, the unswerving belief in President Kenyatta’s “political abracadabra” and perpetual trust in the eternal Almighty notwithstanding.

To kill time as they waited for customers, the market women spontaneously formed a quasi-baraza and delved into the politics of the day. “Nitwarie caruruku,” said one woman, meaning “Let us brutally and honestly talk with one another other”. “Ithue nio ahari aa rua, no one riu uria turaria thina” (We are the people who do the lowest of the menial jobs, but look how now we are suffering). The Kikuyu idiom she used describes men who scrub and treat animal skins for a living. It is considered the lowliest job that any man could do.

“We supported Uhuru to the hilt but look at what he is doing to us now,” said one of the women. The trader said that President Uhuru had annoyed them so much that they did not want to have anything to do with him. It is obvious that it took a lot of courage to be publicly emotional about President Uhuru, a sacrosanct subject among Uthamaki loyalists, but the fact of the matter is that the market women are hurting financially and the prevailing political climate is anything but reassuring.

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“Ni gaitu ga gweciarira” (It is our very own son) had been the rallying call for the market women to come out in large numbers and vote for President Uhuru in the August 8 and repeat October 26 elections. In this ethnic logic, their son had let them down terribly and now they had their back against the wall: First, the VAT on fuel had increased the transport expenditure of many of the traders who bring in fresh produce from within and across the county’s boundaries by more than Sh5,000 per trip, per truck. Second, the economic hardship was slowly resuscitating the proscribed Mungiki gang.

The nefarious activities of the Mungiki was another taboo topic: in public, they defended the youth, arguing that as their sons, they offered protection to them at the market, ensuring it was not invaded by intruders. During the repeat presidential election on October 26, many of the so-called Nairobi Business Community (a pseudonym for Mungiki) ferried to the CBD were from Githurai. “If we didn’t have these youth, who would have protected the Kikuyu businesses in the city centre?” the women challenged me. But in private, the women dreaded “their sons”. The Mungiki blackmailed and extorted money from them. In the words of one market woman, “They reap where they do not sow.”

Githurai Market is completely under the control of Mungiki godfathers who live in the sprawling Githurai neighbourhoods, especially those bordering the railway. All the trucks that offload fresh produce pay protection fees to their agents. The police and the community are aware of these activities, but at Githurai Market and its environs, nobody mentions the M word; when the youth come to collect money, no banter is exchanged. The communication rules are very clearly spelt out – have the loot ready for the young man to pick up and no delays or asking unsolicited questions. “Now,” said one trader to me in low tones, “the godfathers are demanding cash from not only the trucks, but they have sent word that the traders should now start paying ‘Mungiki Tax’”. The traders know what will befall them if they refuse to pay up. “Mungiki don’t blackmail Luos, they don’t chop Luo heads, it’s our sons that they will start killing.”

Githurai Market is completely under the control of Mungiki godfathers who live in the sprawling Githurai neighbourhoods, especially those bordering the railway. All the trucks that offload fresh produce pay protection fees to their agents. The police and the community are aware of these activities, but at Githurai Market and its environs, nobody mentions the M word

At the Githurai roundabout, Mungiki youth had erected a banner that read: Githurai Chapter of Nairobi Business Community supports Uhuru Kenyatta. A month ago, their vibandas (sheds) mounted on the Thika superhighway’s shoulders were demolished by a combined force of regular police, Administration Police (AP) and city askaris. “Why is Uhuru so careless and merciless?” asked a woman trader in total confusion. “Why is he demolishing businesses run by these youths? Does he know what he is doing? The trader said President Uhuru in just one swoop had unleashed Mungiki youth on them. “Turihetukagira ku riu?” (Where will we be passing now?)

The market women, in their ingenuity, had come up with a super idea: summon all these youth and give them fresh produce, mostly fruits, on credit to sell on the roadsides. Whatever they could not sell, they could return. It was a win-win solution for the youth and the women traders. Now even that idea had been undone by President Uhuru: The Mungiki youth who had been conscripted by the Jubilee Party to ostensibly “protect” Kikuyu businesses in the city centre were about to turn on their own, as they always do when faced with economic hardship.

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The women now questioned the utilitarian value of President Uhuru’s presidency to them, specifically as members of the House of Mumbi. “Uthamaki wa Uhuru ututeithetie na ke? (How has President Uhuru’s presidency helped us?) “Tungethura kihii riua ritigethua?” (If we elect an uncircumcised man (to be the president), will the sun not set?) The reference to circumcision was directed at Raila Odinga, President Uhuru’s chief rival during the election.

Still, after releasing all their frustrations and anger against their muthamaki (king/ruler), the traders were agreed in unison that “Mwathani nii ngutukinyaniria” (The Lord will protect us). Then they broke into the chorus of a famous Kikuyu song: Onei! Ni Wendo Utarii Atia – Look! What Great Love without Measure.

Hutia ria keri Ngai wakwa
Ndige kuona marundurundu
Niigetha nyone wega Baba
Bururi uria ndi riragitira.

Touch me twice My Lord
That I stop seeing darkness
So that I can see clearly my Father
The promised country I desire.

That weekend, I had attended a graduation party in one of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs, and although it was an opportunity to make merry while the sun shone, the prevailing religious undertones of the gathering could not be missed: three evangelical pastors – two men and a woman – had been invited to offer up an abundance of prayers for the Bachelor of Arts graduate.

When each of the pastors stood to administer The Word, it quickly became obvious that the prayer-warriors’ messages were not exactly geared towards the celebration of a degree in a time of austerity and tough economic times; they were meant to reassure the people assembled there – all Kikuyus – that although it was clearly evident that there was an air of political confusion and economic uncertainty a year into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and final term, this was not a time to despair or lose hope, but rather a time to recommit and rededicate oneself to God.

“We’re going through the hardest economic times in recent times and many of the businesses are doing terribly badly, some are even collapsing,” said the first pastor who was invited to speak by the master of ceremony. “But we cannot give up because we know the good God is watching over us.” The pastor said it was at times like this that the people ought to rediscover their relationship with God.

When each of the pastors stood to administer The Word, it quickly became obvious that the prayer-warriors’ messages…were meant to reassure the people assembled there – all Kikuyus – that although it was clearly evident that there was an air of political confusion and economic uncertainty a year into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and final term, this was not a time to despair or lose hope, but rather a time to recommit and rededicate oneself to God.

“The Lord Almighty must have a good reason for allowing us to undergo these trials and tribulations,” reaffirmed the pastor to a crowd that looked like it was hanging to his every word. “We’re a special people, anointed by God, to be an example to other communities, of our fearfulness to Him,” said the preacher man, pausing momentarily and peering into the peoples’ eyes to let the message sink in. “We are fearfully made, unlike the gentiles, who, we know, have been always setting traps for us. But all their tricks will come to naught.”

Speaking like he was now in a holy sanctuary, the pastor promised the gathering that the blood of the lamb was with them and Jesus Christ had thrown a protection ring around them. “We know, Lord Jesus Christ, you’re going to fight our battles on our behalf, even as you shame our mortal enemies.” Reminding the crowd that it should always be aware that it is surrounded by adversaries, he proclaimed that they were a chosen people and, therefore. they had nothing to fear.

“Always take comfort that the Lord’s people have never been admired or liked. Has anybody ever liked the Jews?” wondered the pastor, his deliberate comparison of the Kikuyus to the Jews slipped in for effect. “We’re going to triumph – but it’s incumbent upon us to be steadfast, because our Lord Jesus Christ is seated at the throne. I know many are beginning to question the reason why we now seem to suffer so, but this is not the time to question the Lord.” As he went to take his seat, he asked the people to sing with him the following chorus:

Nii ni gwenda Ngai umenyage ningenaga muno niwe
Tondu niujikaga wega na ukanyenda hingo ciothe
Irio ciothe iria ndiaga, mai maria nyuaga
Ona nguo cia kwihumba ciothe nowee uheaga
Muoyo naguo niwe waheire, niwe ugiragia ngue
Ungetheingia hinya waku, ndingiikara gathaa kamwe.

Lord, I want you to know that I’m much pleased by you
Because you take good care of me and love me so always
All the food I eat, the water that quenches my thirst
Even the clothes that I wear, it is you who has always provided
You gave me life and you protect me from dying
If you ever removed your almighty power, I wouldn’t last even for a second.

The second pastor, unlike the first, was more circumspect. “We’ve fundamental problems in Mt Kenya region,” boomed the pastor-cum-university don. “And if we don’t solve these issues decisively and promptly, it’s not going to augur well for the community. The Kikuyu people have a problem with money: “Kwina gathina haha Central…nitukwenda twicirie uhoro wa handu hau…na ndigutenderia muno.” (We’ve have a problem here in Central [Kenya]…and it’s incumbent on us to ponder over that issue…and I will not rub it in.)

The pastor observed that the Kikuyus had abnegated everything else for money. They only think of making more and more money, said the pastor. “It’s a problem the community must come to terms with, as it also tackles the other socio-cultural norms that the community has negated. As it is, things are not good now and the businessmen seated here know what I’m talking about: the economy is going south, state theft in the government has become the order of the day and you know what, a lot of that theft has been perpetrated by our very own people.

“Today our children are graduating from universities, every year in big numbers, but we don’t have anywhere to take them. Employment opportunities are shrinking by the day and doing business in this country has become extremely difficult, much worse than it was several years ago. But we cannot give up, because we must never allow the devil to triumph. Yet, we as the Kikuyu people, should, as a matter of urgency, ponder very seriously over these legitimate and pertinent issues that are afflicting the community – now and in the years to come – which we are afraid of talking about them openly and publicly.”

As he sat down he invited the crowd to sing along with him, the hymnal lyrical chorus that to many Kikuyus comes naturally to their lips, just like the Lord’s Prayer.

Ngukinyukia oo kahora
Njerekeire ya matuini
Naninjui ningakinya
Ngahuruke na mwathani
Niwega Ngai muhonokia
Nake Jesu ni mugate,
Roho waku munyotokia
Nii ndikahuta, kana nyote

Step by step
Heaven bound
I know I’ll reach
To rest with my Lord
Thank you God, my saviour
And Lord Jesus is my bread,
You holiness is a blessing
I’ll never go hungry or thirsty.

“In times of socio-economic and political distress, Kikuyus rediscover their prayerfulness and religiosity to numb their political confusion and mitigate their hard economic times with endless beseeching prayers. Every igogona (socio-cultural ceremony) is an opportunity to unearth and sing select religious songs to presumably comfort them,” an Anglican Church of Kenya elder from Waithaka parish recently pointed out to me.

As the graduation bash was coming to end, a businessman who has operated in downtown Nairobi for 28 years, and who I have known for 20 of those years, pulled me aside to moan about the economic meltdown that was taking place on Gaberone Road, Kirinyaga Road, Kombo Munyiri Road, Munyu Road, Nyamakima area, Ngariama Road and River Road, the strongholds of Kikuyu business.

“Businesses are shutting down in real time as we watch. What the heck is going on? Why is Uhuru doing this to us?” This was a lamentation from an Uthamaki fundamentalist who barely a year before had dismissed my economic projections as the musings of a person who did not have a proper grasp of national politics and the economic underpinnings of a country like Kenya that was supposedly led by a businessman.

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“For the very first time, in all my years as a businessman, I’m seeing tenants unable to pay shop rents,” he said. “Ona igitunyuo mwana, ni ikagirio mungu,” he proclaimed to me. The literal translation of this Kikuyu saying is that if you snatch a baby from an ape, the least you can do is throw a pumpkin at it to assuage its loss. Figuratively, the businessman was telling me that while they were not expecting saintly treatment from President Uhuru, the least he should have done is shielded them from the faltering economy so that their businesses would not collapse, and they would not be run out of town.

“Businesses are shutting down in real time as we watch. What the heck is going on? Why is Uhuru doing this to us?” This was a lamentation from an Uthamaki fundamentalist who barely a year before had dismissed my economic projections as the musings of a person who did not have a proper grasp of national politics and the economic underpinnings of a country like Kenya that was supposedly led by a businessman.

Businesses worst hit by the sudden tax collection regime are the hundreds of electronics shops at Nyamakima area south-east of River Road, said my business friend. Completely colonised by Kikuyu businessmen and women, it is famous for its trade in cereals pioneered by brazen Kikuyu women, who in a single day are known to collect hundreds of thousands of shillings. In the last twenty years or so, there has been an explosion of miniature electronics outlets lining the alleyways of Nyamakima, which have made scores of young men, especially from Murang’a County, rich.

“I know electronic shops that have been run out of town, unable to pay monthly rent and unable to import any more goods. In fact, many of my friends’ goods have been stuck at the Mombasa port because of being slapped with a sudden humungous tax,” said the businessman. “To complicate matters for the electronics businessmen, many of them have been accused of importing counterfeit goods from China. Has the government just discovered they have been importing contraband? Because of this, their goods have been impounded, and many have lost hundreds of millions of shillings.”

None of the businessmen can afford to import enough goods from China single-handedly, so they usually come together as a group and buy goods that can fill a 40-foot container. “So, it is very possible that some businessmen import substandard goods, but the government has never given them a catalogue of specifications of the types of electronics that they should bring into the country.” The businessman said four of his friends had shut their shops. “Today walk down River Road and Kirinyaga Road and Munyu Road, you will see prime business premises empty, their tenants having vacated them.”

After the nullification of the August 8, 2017 presidential election, businesspeople from downtown Nairobi came out in the open to show their undying support for Uhuru Kenyatta. They hung banners across the roads that read: Munyu Road Business Community Supports President Uhuru Kenyatta and Nyamakima Business Community Supports Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta. Others read: Ni Kumira Kumira, Wembe in ule ule.

“Just 12 months down the line, businessmen are gnashing their teeth,” said the entrepreneur. “The banners have since been pulled down and now they have printed new banners such as, Traders & Importers Association – Stop Killing Our Businesses.”

A scene in Muigai wa Njoroge’s video of his popular song, Mbari ya Kimeendero (The Oppressors’ Clan), shows some people carrying a banner reading: Matunda ya Tano Tena ni #Gutee…Stop Harassing Our Businessess (The Fruits of Five More [a rallying call for support for Uhuru Kenyatta’ second term] was a waste [of time]).” The popular singer reminds his listeners (and the President) that “the Nyamakima businessmen community celebrated your Tano Tena (five more [years]) victory by slaughtering many goats…now their goods have been razed down and declared fake…The person who bewitched us (Kikuyus) must have been paid real well,” concludes the lyricist.

As the preacher woman at the graduation ceremony concluded her prayers, she called on the people to join her in the chorus:

Thutha wa magirio ma thii enu
Jesu niakajoya anyinukie
Jesu wakwa hiuha mbara enu ni nene

After all the trials and tribulations of this world
Jesus (Christ) will take me home
My Lord Jesus, please come quickly,
the battle before me is big.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror

15 min read. IBRAHIM MAGARA argues that instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, the Kenyan state has adopted counterterrorism approaches and strategies that are deeply divisive and historically and contextually insensitive.

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The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror
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Since September 11, 2001, the war on terror and associated programmes, such a countering violent extremism (CVE), have been a major focus of attention among experts drawn from a multiplicity of sectors and disciplines. The “war on terror” has been an evolving yet controversial realm of academic inquiry and policy discourse whose implementation is characterised by controversial conceptual contours and dramatic practical turns, with important challenges both in the United States (its origins) and abroad. It is a war that remains as elusive in actuality as it is contested as a concept.

So far one cannot confidently point at any known example of a society that has waged and won this war and indeed there is scepticism as to whether any will for the simple reason that that the said war is unconventional. Perhaps the best known way to win the war on terror is not to start one. But Kenya has, over the years, positioned itself as an unswerving ally of the West, particularly the US, in this war and as such the country is already deeply engaged in one.

This then raises the question about what we know about better ways, if any, of going about the war on terror and CVE. A lot of commentators on this subject have consistently argued for the need to focus on “winning hearts and minds”, particularly of members of the affected society – the so-called “at risk” groups – as a better approach to CVE programmes and addressing the menace of terrorism broadly understood. This entails, among others, the ability to create and diligently transact on a counter-narrative to sentiments of violent extremism with the aim of winning the confidence of the most affected communities in view of (i) dissuading those already engaged in this barbarism; (ii) reducing and hopefully eventually eliminating new recruitments and; (iii) recruiting and deploying the concerned and/or “at risk” community as an ally in the fight against the vice.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned. However, I argue that there is a little problem here given the fact that the Kenyan state and the Somali community have historically not enjoyed good relations, hence raising the question about how such antagonism negatively impacts Kenya’s CVE programmes and its approach to the war on terror in general.

The cost of terror

Having suffered numerous attacks, stretching from the 7 August 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by elements linked to Al Qaeda to this year’s attack on the dusitD2 hotel complex in upmarket Nairobi, Kenya has undoubtedly paid a huge price with regard to terrorism, just as it has had its share of challenges related to CVE. Even as the country marks the 21st anniversary of the 1998 bombing that claimed over 200 lives, the risk of terror lurks, its smell lingers with its dangers obviously palpable as are its scars.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned.

The impact of Al Shabaab’s reinvention and sophistication was first felt in Kenya and indeed the world during the Westgate mall attack on 21 September 2013 that left 68 dead and more than 200 wounded. Before this incident, Al Shabaab was associated with arguably low-level attacks, such as hurling grenades and/or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at groups of people in public spaces, such as churches, mosques, markets and bus stops, coupled with incidents of hijackings and kidnappings, especially in the north-eastern and coastal regions of the country.

After Westgate, two other complex attacks have been executed by Al Shabaab that not only led to loss of life, but also caused untold pain to Kenya and Kenyans. These were the Garissa University attack on April 2, 2015 in which 147 people, most of them students, were killed and the dusitD2 hotel complex attack on 15 January this year that left 21 dead. Such attacks have raised questions about Kenya’s preparedness, its ability to deter such attacks and/or deal with them, and most importantly, whether there are assurances of non-recurrence.

The number of Kenyans who have since died as a result of Al Shabaab attacks is certainly staggering. While this is the case, the Kenyan government has arguably not put in place measures to ensure and assure its public and the world that such horrifying attacks will not happen again. Furthermore, the number and frequency of low-level attacks, especially targeting security personnel in the north-eastern region, is worrisome. Even more disturbing is what I call the “kawaidaness” (near normalisation) with which a section of Kenyan society is increasingly greeting the news of the latter kind of attacks.

It is no secret that Al Shabaab still remains a huge threat to Kenya and the region. The terror group appears to have been able to manipulate religion and other historical dynamics, such as Kenya’s troubled internal divisions and worsening political and economic fragmentation along regional and ethnic lines, to further its cause, making it a resilient monster and most importantly an enemy from within whose rise can be seen, in part, as a direct result of the Kenyan state’s (in collaboration with foreign allies) approach to CVE and the war on terror.

The problematic framing of CVE

Following the recent wave of white supremacist attacks in the US, some minority groups, particularly Muslims, including those from Somalia, have continued to express their displeasure with the profiling that is associated with the US’s CVE programmes. Such programmes have been criticised as being vehicles for profiling and criminalising Muslims and other marginalised communities. Similar programmes in the UK under “Prevent” among others, requires all public workers (for example, every public school teacher) to report on radicalisation, solidifying what can be seen as a new channel of “the school-to-prison pipeline” largely affecting immigrants, especially from countries that are predominantly Muslim and Arab.

These kinds of skewed CVE and war on terror programmes and approaches are certainly deeply problematic since they not only create resentment but also provide a clear path through which the targeted communities’ vulnerability to violent radicalisation may actually increase, hence ultimately becoming counter-productive. These kinds of programmes, disguised as security measures, are not by any means new in the world. For example, in the US, there has been the so-called Black Identity Extremist (BIE) programme that has historically been used by the FBI to portray black activists as terrorists and a violent threat to law enforcement, thus creating a dangerous nexus of CVE and BIE with black Muslims as the target of close monitoring and containment.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence. As such CVE programmes are not only ineffective but actually possible avenues of breeding and exacerbating different types and levels of violence, including what is conceived as violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism in many jurisdictions, including both in the global North and the global South, including Kenya.

Another problem that is closely related to these constructs and approaches is the “othering” associated with how the states in question decide who is “at risk” or who are the “concerned communities”. For example, looking at one of the CVE programmes in Boston, it is interesting to note that it outlines and documents social and economic trauma faced by the Somali community. Then it proceeds to lay out as one of the key solutions to such a social problem the establishment of opportunities and platforms through which the local police spend time with Somali youth aged between 13 and 17 years. It becomes difficult to ascertain if and how this is less humiliating and insulting than other programmes that, for instance, target similar sections of society with mental health support. This is for the simple reason that such programming has already judged and, in most cases, condemned, albeit covertly, a certain group of people as being dangerous, hence in need of help; otherwise they are terrorists, at least in potency.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence.

In short, what runs across such conceptions and praxis is a thoroughgoing governmentality with a long history of criminalisation of marginalised communities, which unfortunately is not an answer to violence but a tool to constantly exclude and then justify the suppression of official state-sanctioned oppression on the grounds of those groups being potential producers of insecurity and/or disruptors of peace and harmony. This is exactly what is happening in Kenya with the securitisation and militarisation of the Somali territories operating within a complex context of historical marginalisation based on contested Somali identity.

The history of the problem

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence. This is, however, changing significantly, given the Somalis’ current ventures into and gains from business and trade.

Somalis have equally been victims of state-led violence of atrocious nature committed across the years, including during the irredentist Shifta War and a number of massacres, such as the Wagalla and Garissa massacres, which collectively saw the killing of over 8,000 Somalis

Somali territories have historically remained highly securitised and militarised. It only takes a road trip from Garissa – just across the Tana River – to Mandera and you will easily appreciate this fact. I recall that during my frequent travels to the region between 2016 and 2018, my driver often jokingly said that “sasa tumevuka mpaka wa Kenya” once we crossed the security check, which is curiously right on top of the Garissa Bridge.

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence.

There are numerous accounts by experts tracing the history of the rise of Somali nationalism in the 1950-60s, the subsequent Kenya-Somalia border controversy and the associated cessation ideology and Shifta War. The systematic historical and contemporaneous alienation of the Somalis is traceable to the rise of Somali nationalism beginning towards the end of the 19th century into early 20th century. This was around the time of the advent of European colonisation and the partitioning of Somali-inhabited territories between Western powers.

The partitioning of the Somali nation between the British, the French, the Italians, and the Ethiopians was a critical moment in the political history of Somalis in the Horn of Africa. The permanent fragmentation of the Somali key grazing areas, which occurred when the British handed over the Somali-dominated, and still contested, Ogaden in 1948 and Hawd areas in 1954 to Ethiopians, was to follow. This set in motion not only one of the most disputed border areas in the Horn of Africa that renewed Somali resistance regionally, but also lay the foundation for Somalis’ later notions of “ambiguous citizenship in Kenya

The years leading to independence for both Somalia and Kenya were epitomised by intensified Somali political disturbances, which were repeatedly echoed in various means. The growth of nationalistic ideology led to the establishment of political parties, such as the Somaliland National League (SNL) and the Somali Youth League (SYL), with goals of furthering Somali nationalism

The quest for Somali unity does not fall too far from Al Shabaab’s dubious claims to unite the Somali people, especially the youth, and guard them against external (particularly Western) corruption, which resonates well with ideologies of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the Middle East.

We should not forget that before undergoing the two dramatic transformations that have led to the lethal terror group that Al Shabaab has become, the group was originally a youth militia associated with the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that rose to power in Somalia in early 2006 with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Somalia.

Perhaps the only nuance in the historical clamour for a Pan-Somali ideology is an emphasis on the need for the said Greater Somalia to be an Islamic state, which was always a factor anyway, although it was not as heavily pronounced back then as it has been in recent years. It is an ideology that Al Shabaab has continued to exploit and package in religious propaganda in furtherance of its terror activities. To this end, I think, we cannot dissociate the historical clamour for Somali unity with Kenya’s current challenges with the war on terror for the simple reason that the search for an all-inclusive Somali state was an unwelcome idea for the Kenyan authorities and had to be quashed at all costs and by adoption of all means, as was witnessed during the Shifta War.

The Kenya-Somalia border dispute was one of the earliest post-colonial border controversies and one that presented unprecedented challenges for the newly independent state, with Kenya adopting a militaristic pacification approach to quash the ideology. Revisiting such history is important, especially at a time when Kenya is again locked in an escalating territorial dispute with Somalia

While Somali leaders believed in the unity of the Somali people irrespective of the flags under which they lived, the Kenyan leadership, on the other hand, perceived the demands by the Somali population as an outright act of aggression on its territorial integrity. However, this is not a creation of the governments of independent Kenya since, in many significant ways, the strained relations between the Kenyan state and the Somali community is an inheritance from the colonial state’s blunders, including a referendum held in 1962 in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) regarding the political future of the inhabitants of the area, whose results the colonial government did not follow through, particularly due to opposition by Kenyan leaders who were serving in the colonial government, notably Jomo Kenyatta and Ronald Ngala

Expectedly, under Kenyatta, who had argued that no inch of Kenyan territory should cede, the newly-established post-colonial Kenyan state threw a cordon sanitaire around Somali territories of the country the same way the colonial government did. This meant that social, economic, cultural, and political activities of Somalis were seriously curtailed and human rights abuses against them intensified, marking the beginning of a bitter resistance (the Shifta War) whose consequences were historically disastrous and whose scars, particularly among the Somalis populations, remain to date. This became a major turning point in the “othering” of Somalis in Kenya, with far-reaching implications, especially as regards current CVE and war on terror. 

The othering of Kenyan Somalis

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate. It takes a simple observation of the patterns of the Somali lifestyle in urban set-ups like Nairobi to determine that they indeed live in same and specific locations, do business in specific spaces etc.

The historical disavowal of Kenya’s Somalis is based on several fetishes of differences relating to their language, culture and religion, but also with its own poetics, deeply invested in power as a product of discursive and hegemonic practices well theorised in mainstream discourse analyses. Under colonial rule, Somalis were stereotyped as “hostile”, “warlike” or “warriors”, concepts that the Kenyan government and the non-Somali Kenyan public seem to have easily accepted without question; they are assumed and adopted as true representations of Somali identity. This has come with a huge cost, as experienced through the so-called “violence of decolonisation” and indeed current struggle with homegrown extremist violence, which the majority of the Somali youth are perceived as highly exposed to.

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate.

The lack of integration of the Somali community and lack of interaction between them and the non-Somali populations in Kenya exist in and furthers relations of mutual suspicion. But since the government is seen as controlled by the non-Somali communities, the Somalis are simply victims of asymmetric relations in which they are viewed by the rest as troublesome. It takes a little attentiveness to the public mood and you will tell that such sentiments are heavily pronounced every time there is a terror attack. In such times, suspicion of the Somalis seems to surge and a lot of ordinary non-Somali Kenyans create a narrative that is openly aggressive to Somalis but somehow, with the help of the posture and conduct of the state, such aggressiveness is normalised.

It reminds me of an incident in 2015 after the Garissa attack when I attended a function in Nairobi in the company of a Somali driver who was wearing a kanzu. At some point after midday, he wanted to go for prayers in a mosque across the road and so he came to where I was to inform me about it. As he walked away, someone remarked, albeit jokingly, if “we were safe”, a statement that I found offensive, not only to my colleague but to Somalis and any reasonable person really. Of course, I raised my concern over the same, to which the said person casually apologised. This was especially annoying given the stature of the person in question and the nature of the event. It goes to show that as a society there is a prevalent perception about Somalis that we have been reluctant to interrogate in relation to the bigger discourse on terrorism.

The othering narrative discursively accentuates the distorted imagery of the Somalis as “warlike” or as the “enemy of the Kenyan state” and even birthed the derogatorily yet normalised stereotype of “wariah”, which is a rather unconscious continuation of the colonial representation of their identity as “warriors” by the public. This stereotype of Somalis has undoubtedly influenced the Kenyan government’s perceptions and handling of the Somalis but also positions the wider public against the Somali community.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”. Such images, real or imaginary, have continued to influence the Kenyan authorities’ behaviour towards the Somalis, leading to gross violations of human rights, for instance as was witnessed during Operation Usalama Watch that followed the Westgate attack. The historical othering was discursively articulated by portraying the Somali quest for independence as “secessionist” and its people as being anti the Kenyan state.

It is simply the nuanced formulation of such configuration that justifies the current narrative that associates Somalis with terrorism, or at least as sympethisers of Al Shabaab, and hence collectively perceived and dealt with as a threat to national security. Regardless of the political rhetoric of unity, the actions of the government and the mood of the general public regarding the place of Somalis in the wider scheme of CVE and the war on terror are that the community is a “problem to be fixed” – the same logic employed by the CVE programmes in the West, particularly in the US and the UK.

The relationship of antagonism between the state and the Somali community causes anxiety and uncertainty, especially at this critical moment when the state desperately needs genuine input from the Somali community if its CVE programme and the wider war on terror is to “succeed”. While there is a need for a sense of national unity and pride (patriotism) in the campaign against terrorism and extremist violence, the Somali othering obstinately negates the sense of that value by revealing the ambivalences of the Kenyan state as a stable unified entity, which creates fault lines that continue to be exploited to the advantage of terrorists, particularly Al Shabaab.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”.

Furthermore, this othering continues to be reinvented and redeployed as a tool for Kenya’s own precarious constitution as a “nation” but also as a justification for the perceived Somali revolt against their own country, including their indifference to the war on terror and government’s CVE programmes.

Which way now for CVE and war on terror?

Now that Kenya is already deep in the problematic war on terror, it is imperative to keep up the tempo of counterterrorism operations in order to eliminate threats and degrade the capabilities of militants, particularly Al Shabaab. Indeed, nothing can justify terrorism and violent extremism, but we must also acknowledge that they do not arise in a vacuum. As the United Nations Secretary-General (UN-SG) rightly notes, “actual or perceived injustice and promised empowerment become attractive wherever human rights are being violated, good governance is being ignored and aspirations are being crushed.” He particularly singles out state violence and abuse of power as “tipping point” for terror.

If the Kenyan state is to make and/or consolidate its gains, if any, on the war on terror, it must deeply reflect on its positionality in regard to the conception and approaches that it has since adopted and experimented on. This includes, but is not limited to, a genuine appraisal of how the state’s perception and handling of the Somali community undermine the country’s own efforts against extremist violence.

To address any type of violence, society must focus on the structures that disadvantage certain groups, including historically marginalised communities – not just obvious physical violence, but also structural violence, such as that related to and sustained by inequities. This is for the simple reason that violence, including terrorism, emerges and survives in environments of identity contestation, hence ultimately insurgencies are best defeated by political legitimacy.

In its attempts to tackle the drivers and enablers of extreme violence, Kenya needs to open a political conversation on the county’s painful history and create a platform through which to forge a future that promises opportunities for all its people. This is one of the pathways to enacting in its people the sense of patriotism and national unity that are vital ingredients in the struggle against insurgency and the ever-changing terrain of security challenges. This calls for re-imagination of ingenious and pragmatic approaches in forging solidarity in addressing the pressing security concerns of our time.

Unfortunately, instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, as suggested by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, it appears that the war on terror and approaches to CVE that the Kenyan state continues to adopt are deeply Western and historically and contextually insensitive. Hence they actually contribute to reproducing and deepening antagonism between the state and a section of its own society, thereby significantly undermining the former’s security objectives.

One then wonders if and how Kenya’s current CVE programme and counterterrorism strategies, tilted to Western framings and laden with American bias, will succeed. It certainly is a problematic issue area, especially when the CVE within the purview of the war on terror is perceived as nothing other than a violent return of the colonial past, with its split geographies of “us” and “them”; “civilization” and “barbarism”; and “good” and “evil”.

Without any intention whatsoever to validate such grave claims and conspiracies, one would want to seriously consider the implication of certain narratives that are prevalent in Kenyan society, especially during and around terror attacks. Issues, such as claims of Al Shabaab discrimination during attacks and/or conspiracy theories such as that there was word among Somalis about the impending attack at the Garissa University College, calls on experts to reflect deeply on such matters and place them in their historical-political context as they wrestle with the process of meaning-making of Kenya’s prospects as far as the war on terror is concerned and the positionality of the Somali community in these complex dynamics.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa

8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
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South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.

History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.

A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.

Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.

It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.

The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.

This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.

Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.

Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.

Stoking the flames

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.

South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:

Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.

After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.

On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.

Whither the Pan-African dream?

In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:

I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.

It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.

The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.

Glimmers of hope

All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:

Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.

Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.

Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”

The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State

7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State
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In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.

It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.

After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.

Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.

Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.

Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.

Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.

Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.

While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.

Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.

Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.

What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’

For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.

Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.

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This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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