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KING LEOPOLD’S BRUTAL LEGACY: Congo’s war against women

9 min read.

CLAUDIO BUTTICÈ shows how rape has been routinely used a weapon of war in Africa’s most resource-rich country for more than a century and why the international community has remained largely silent about this devastating crime against humanity.

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KING LEOPOLD’S BRUTAL LEGACY: Congo’s war against women
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This year the Nobel Peace Prize went to the Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, a doctor who is known for his amazing skills in repairing through reconstructive surgery the terrifying damage inflicted on women who have been raped.

Although official data from the government states that sexual violence has declined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the so-called “rape capital of the world” still remains hell on earth for countless women. Congo is a country where sexual violence has been (and probably still is) used as a weapon of war, mirroring the traumatic colonial experience it went through. But weaponised sexual violence does not occur only in this country; it is a very well-known and widespread practice in almost every theatre of war across the globe.

Doctor Miracle’s crusade

Dr. Denis Mukwege, the so-called “Doctor Miracle,” is not the first black African to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The first recipient was Albert Luthuli, who was awarded the prize in 1960 for his non-violent activism against apartheid. Since then, many African personalities, such as Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, and Leymah Gbowee, have won the Nobel Prize for their relentless non-violent struggle for the safety of African men and women whose civil rights are routinely violated. Every time a Peace Nobel is awarded, we can’t but celebrate the impressive efforts that these men and women did to make Africa (and the entire world) a better place. Yet, it is sad to think that in 2018, we still need people like them to fight for human rights that we should have for granted across the entire globe. The world would really be a better place when there is no need to award a Nobel Peace Prize anymore.

Dr Denis Mukwege. Photograph by Torleif Svensson/EPA

Denis Mukwege is one of the few Africans who were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to train and graduate in gynaecology in France. However, he did not choose to pursue a better, high-paying career in Europe. Rather, he came back to the Congo to help those who needed him most. He studied medicine because he wanted to assist women in his own country where pregnant women were dying unnecessarily during childbirth due to complications.

Dr. Mukwege’s life’s mission changed in 1999 when he encountered a woman whose genitals had been horrifically mutilated after soldiers raped her with a gun, which they then fired. “Her whole pelvis was destroyed. I thought it was the work of a madman, but the same year I treated 45 similar cases,” he explained. The same year, he founded the General Referral Hospital of Panzi in Bukavu, DRC, and spent the next 20 years advocating for women’s rights internationally. Since then, he and his team of specialists have changed the lives of more than 40,000 victims of rape. The gynaecologist is now recognised as one of the world’s leading experts on repairing injuries caused by sexual violence.

Dr. Mukwege’s life’s mission changed in 1999 when he encountered a woman whose genitals had been horrifically mutilated after soldiers raped her with a gun, which they then fired. “Her whole pelvis was destroyed. I thought it was the work of a madman, but the same year I treated 45 similar cases,” he explained.

Dr. Mukwege never stopped spreading the message about the atrocities perpetrated not just in the Congo, but in every other country where rape is used as a weapon of war – a weapon that is more devastating than bullets and bombs. Doctor Miracle lobbied to raise awareness about a heinous crime that destroys entire families through social stigma, that devastates human bodies through mutilation, that spreads diseases, and that leaves behind a trail of unwanted children that serve as a living reminder of the injustices of war.

In September 2012, Dr. Mukwege had the courage to address the United Nations where he criticised the Congolese government and neighbouring countries for their lack of commitment to stopping “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war“. A month later, a group of four men took his daughters hostage and killed his guard during an assassination attempt. After he narrowly escaped death, he was forced into exile in Europe for a few months. He came back to Bukavu on January 14, 2013 after his patients raised funds to pay for his return ticket by selling pineapples and onions.

Named African of the Year in 2009, the 63-year-old doctor has been the recipient of numerous other prizes and accolades, including the UN Human Rights Prize. And it’s not a coincidence that Dr. Mukwege keeps receiving awards to this very day even the war in the DRC officially ended in 2003. In the DRC and in other parts of Africa, rape is still used very frequently as a tactic to brutalise entire communities and to control the continent’s immense wealth. Nonetheless, is one of the most underreported war crimes that often occurs with the complicity of the deafening silence of the international community.

Colonial legacy

Under the Belgian King Leopold II’s brutal regime, the population of Congo was halved from 20 million to 10 million due to deaths by disease, starvation, and torture. The levels of savagery and cruelty reached by the Belgian colonialists and their minion army have rarely been witnessed throughout human history. Countless women were kidnapped and raped and children were forced into labour camps where they were routinely whipped and abused. The hands of labourers who didn’t meet their daily quota of rubber were brutally chopped off. In 1886, a German journalist counted that the puppet soldiers of Leopold’s army severed over 1,300 hands in one day, including those of many children.

These heinous crimes were committed by the Belgians with the silent consent of the Americans and the Europeans, who had a voracious hunger for rubber and ivory. Raw materials were in high demand, as they were needed to drive the industrialisation process that brought motorised transport and many other commodities in Western countries. It didn’t matter if they came at the expense of millions of Congolese lives lost – the Belgians’ thirst for blood was as unquenchable as their King’s lust for new riches. By exploiting the Congo, Belgium became a wealthy nation that was even admired for its philanthropic efforts in civilising the “savages” who inhabited the country. As an African proverb says, “Until the lions have their historians, the tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”

The levels of savagery and cruelty reached by the Belgian colonialists and their minion army have rarely been witnessed throughout human history. Countless women were kidnapped and raped and children were forced into labour camps where they were routinely whipped and abused. The hands of labourers who didn’t meet their daily quota of rubber were brutally chopped off.

Eventually, independence came in 1960, but the country’s nightmare was not over. After the first democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s assassination in 1961, Belgium and the United States supported the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, a corrupt leader who kept Congo on a short, West-friendly leash for another 30 years.

Even after Mobutu was finally overthrown in 1997, a new war consumed the country, leaving at least 4 million people dead and countless victims of rape, torture, violence, and human exploitation in its wake. Today, it’s hard to tell whether the vicious cycle of brutality that continues to ravage the Democratic Republic of Congo is the legacy of one century of colonialism.

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The Western press has every interest in reinforcing the stereotypical idea of African countries being doomed to failure and tribalism after their white paternalistic guides left them on their own. Nonetheless, it’s undoubtedly true that those who are exploiting the human and natural resources of Congo through violence are black Africans who learned their lessons from their colonial forefathers. But while Western interference never stopped being present in the country, those who govern Congo today must be held fully accountable for every crime they keep committing.

Rape as a weapon of personal destruction

Rape is always an atrocity, but what happened in Congo in the last few decades is well beyond horror. Women of all ages were dragged into forests by militia, tied to a tree and raped for months. The internal walls of their genitalia got torn as a result of repeated forced intercourse. Objects, such as guns, were also frequently brutally shoved into their vaginas. The rapists did not consider the age of their victims. As Cecile Mulolo, the psychologist at the Panzi Hospital, explained in an interview a decade ago, the oldest victim she came across was in her 80s and the youngest was just 16 months old.

When the walls of the uterus and bladder are perforated, a fistula forms, which prevents the woman from being able to control her bowels. Urine comes out involuntarily, and chronic pain becomes a constant companion. This mutilation becomes her mark, as she is ostracised by her husband and villagers treat her like a leper. The violence thus never stops after the atrocity.

Rape is always an atrocity, but what happened in Congo in the last few decades is well beyond horror. Women of all ages were dragged into forests by militia, tied to a tree and raped for months. The internal walls of their genitalia got torn as a result of repeated forced intercourse. Objects, such as guns, were also frequently brutally shoved into their vaginas. The rapists did not consider the age of their victims. As Cecile Mulolo, the psychologist at the Panzi Hospital, explained in an interview a decade ago, the oldest victim she came across was in her 80s and the youngest was just 16 months old.

Sometimes the aggressors are so angry, drunk, or just mad that they even fire their guns while they’re inside the women. The consequences are beyond devastating. Those who are lucky (or unlucky, depending on the point of view) to survive must bear the consequences of this horrific act of violence for the rest of their lives. The repulsive moments they endured are forever lodged in their minds and the physical and psychological after-effects of the rape stay with them forever.

Rape is an abhorrent practice that knows no gender either. Males are raped almost as frequently as females, and possibly even more. A survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in Eastern Congo 22% of men reported that they had been raped during the war, compared to 30% of women. But since fewer than 1 in 10 male rapes are reported because of the heavy social stigma associated with it, it’s easy to understand how these numbers can be much higher.

Rape is an unacceptable act of violence that dehumanises those who experience it. Even the few who are not excluded from their own community must live with the shame of what happened to them. Women are victimised twice as they must bear the burden of rape in the form of unwanted children who will grow up as estranged human beings marred by a crime they didn’t commit. Sexual crimes in war must be dealt with zero tolerance, and not any differently from how the international community views chemical and biological warfare.

The indifference and guilt of the international community

Sexual violence has been used as a terror tactic during wartime for centuries. Rape is used to humiliate and dominate the enemy, and when the conflict originates from ethnic reasons, it can also be used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a known example of this, as evidence suggests that military leaders actively endorsed this practice. Muammar Gaddafi went as far as purchasing a large number of Viagra-like drugs to “encourage” his troops during the Libyan civil war. This is not a problem that affects just Africa; war rape happens, again and again, every time a conflict erupts between two different religious, ethnic, or cultural groups. It happened in the Darfur region in Sudan, during the Bosnian wars, and to oppress the Tamil minority in the Sri Lankan conflict.

But what did the international community do to stem this plague? Well, for the most part they talked a lot about it and did a lot of “condemning”. But in practice they did not do much. When the Bosnian rape camp where the Serbian troops kept Muslim and Croatian women captive in order to impregnate them were found in 1993, rape was finally recognised as a crime against humanity by the Geneva Convention. But in the aftermath, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found a total of just five men guilty of crimes against humanity in the form of rape and sexual enslavement. Despite the many (rather weak) actions taken by the UN to prevent wartime sexual violence from occurring, including the famous resolution 1820 that defined this practice as a war crime, mass rapes are perpetrated over and over again everywhere. Condemning is not enough, it never was enough.

But what did the international community do to stem this plague? Well, for the most part they talked a lot about it and did a lot of “condemning”. But in practice they did not do much.

But why take action after a rape has been committed when common sense would suggest that the best way to stop a crime is to prevent it from happening in the first place? On several occasions, the UN’s peacekeeping forces have failed the local population, leaving local militia and rebels free to wreak havoc on civilians. Ten years ago, the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide fled to Congo, and together with the Congolese Mai-Mai militia, they began a spree of sacking and gang-raping 20 miles from a UN base. Why did the “keepers of the peace” ignore the warnings of the local community leaders?

The truth is actually worse than one can imagine. When over 95% of peacekeeping soldiers are males who carry out their operations in a hyper-masculine cultural environment, that’s nothing short of a disaster waiting to happen. Abuse and sexual exploitation of women and minors have a long-standing history, and all of the major contingents of the UN peacekeeping forces eventually appear to be implicated. During the 1993 Bosnian genocide, for example, UN soldiers took advantage of brothels in Sarajevo run by Serbian slavers who forced local women into prostitution. In Sudan, when the civilians took shelter in their headquarters, the Egyptian peacekeeping army raped at least six women who were they were supposed to be protecting. The Uruguayan peacekeeping contingent had to be withdrawn from Haiti because of protests sparked by the rape of a 14-year-old boy. In Congo, senior officials were even accused of bribing witnesses in an attempt to cover up several sexual scandals. The sexual exploitation and abuse of children by UN peacekeepers have also been reported in other strife-torn countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone.

As a weapon, rape is much more devastating than bullets. To quote the words of Jeanna Mukuninwa, a 28-year-old victim of rape from Shabunda, Congo: “At least with a bullet, you die. But if you have been raped, you appear to the community like someone who is cursed. After rape, no one will talk to you; no man will see you. It’s a living death.”

African women don’t need another hospital in Bukavu to treat the devastating consequences of rape and brutalisation on their bodies. African women don’t need another heroic man like Dr. Mukwege who devotes his entire life to reconstructive surgery to patch up the damage inflicted by a handful of cruel beasts. African women and men need (and deserve) to live in a world where they are respected as human beings, where their bodies are never violated, and where rape is a barbarity of the past rather than a present threat. A world where the dark cloud of colonialism has finally lifted.

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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty and science. Many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, Techopedia, Digital Journal and Business Insider. Dr. Butticè has also published pharmacology and psychology papers in several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

Politics

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.

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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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Politics

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.

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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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Politics

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?

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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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