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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins

16 min read. In this final part of a three-part series, PAUL GOLDSMITH traces the rise and fall of the lowland-coastal regions of East Africa and the Horn and examines why water management in these regions exemplifies the imbalance between the centre and the periphery. He argues that the Kenyan government’s failure to adopt indigenous knowledge and technological innovations has resulted in white elephant projects that have done little to solve the country’s water crisis.

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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins
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Major river systems are intrinsic to the long economic histories of the regions they transect. However, although the Tana River basin covers 20 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, the river itself, in terms of water volume and vital economic functions, is not the kind of waterway one associates with the world’s famous rivers. This, however, does not diminish the Tana River’s historical importance, which is critical to understanding the larger background against which the High Grand Falls Dam project is being framed.

Insofar as the three major rivers spanning the eastern highland-lowland gradient share the same highland water catchments and are also linked within the Vision 2030 policy framework, the case of the Tana cannot be examined in isolation from the Athi-Galana and Waso Nyiro North systems. The Athi-Galana takes a route similar to the Tana, skirting the contours of Kenya’s eastern highland-lowland gradient, but is often only a trickle by the time it reaches Malindi. The flow has been further reduced following the establishment of the one-million-acre Galana irrigation scheme bordering Tsavo East National Park. For people depending on Malindi’s tourism sector, this is a positive development as the drop in volume reduces the siltation of local beaches, a problem that contributed to the rise of Watamu as an alternative beach holiday destination. Before the scheme started, tourism sector stakeholders were advocating a plan to reroute the river to an outlet north of Mambrui.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river, judging by the large watercourses like the Malgis laga (Swahili for dry watercourse) descending from the highland areas of Samburu and Marsabit that fed into it and the channels it carved out north of Magogoni in Lamu. Both Magogoni and Dodori, both of which are next to the site of a proposed coal-powered plant, are much larger than the channel where the present-day Tana River meets the sea. This may also be due to the fact that some of the lower Tana’s waters disappear into the lakes and wetlands of the Tana Delta. The Delta is a uniquely varied ecosystem that supports a wide variety of habitats, including riverine forest, grassland, woodland, bushland, lakes, mangroves, dunes, beaches, estuaries and coastal waters.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river…

The Waso Nyiro now terminates at the Lorian swamp near Modo Gashe, but this too has changed over the past three decades. Its water often fails to reach Lorian due to the expansion of commercial farms and small-scale irrigation upstream. During most years, it often ends at a small outpost called Gotu; during extended droughts the flow is so reduced that animals in Samburu, Shaba, and Buffalo Springs reserves upstream can be seen drinking from puddles along its banks. The 1000-kilometre-long Tana River’s greatest attribute, against this backdrop, may be that it continues as a permanent watercourse transecting a long stretch of semi-arid lowlands before reaching the coast.

The rise and fall of coastal settlements 

The current condition of the three rivers linking Kenya’s eastern gradient to the Indian Ocean and the current focus on exploiting them close to their highland sources distract both from their important role historically and equally critical contribution to the livelihoods of the diverse communities downstream.

A thousand years ago, the region these rivers bisect were connected to the Shungwaya economy, whose main hub was located at Bur Gao, now a small town across the Kenya-Somalia border. Although colonial historians described Shungwaya as a kingdom, later work established that it was actually a trade network that linked the early Swahili city-states to the African interior as far as Lake Turkana.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

The volume of water these rivers carried was less important than their role as conveyors of people and their domestic animals, and trade. The Shungwaya economy catalysed the shift of coastal settlements to a maritime culture around a thousand years ago, when they became part of the growing Western Indian Ocean economy. All of this contributed to the process of creative syntheses giving rise to the Swahili language and culture, a distinctively African urban society characterised by its strong tradition of co-evolutionary interaction.

The decline of Shungwaya, attributed to the climatic shift mentioned above, coincided with the 13th century rise of the Ajuran Sultanate, a centralised state that exploited the Juba and Shebelle rivers to develop Africa’s only case of a hydraulic empire. The Ajuran presided over extensive irrigation works and constructed an extensive system of wells and cisterns that allowed them to control their nomadic Somali and Orma neighbours and a swathe of territory extending across much of southern Somalia to eastern Ethiopia. The Sultanate, whose capital was located at Afgoye, collapsed during the 17th century, but the system of agricultural production and taxation remained in place until the 19th century.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The wealth and reputation accompanying the growth of coastal settlements arising across the eastern Africa littoral between Mogadishu in the north and the Rovuma River in the south attracted the interest of the Chinese. The forty-ship fleets of large vessels commanded by the famous Admiral Zheng He, who led two expeditions between 1417 and 1422 to the region the Arabs dubbed the Land of Zinj, was significant even by today’s standards.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The rivers also played a role in the migrations of the proto-Meru, who abandoned their settlement on Manda Island following the onset of Portuguese hegemony. Their migration up the Tana covering several generations, and the interactions en route and after their crossing of the Tana into what is now Tharaka, underpinned their own process of creative syntheses, leading to the development of what is arguably Africa’s most sophisticated agro-permaculture system based on a multigenerational concept of environmental resource management that predated the Western embrace of sustainability by over two hundred years.

In his insightful 1989 book, Identities on the Move, Gunter Schlee documents how similar dynamics influenced pastoralist clans and niche adaptations in northern Kenya. Herders in the Lake Turkana area established contacts with the coast centuries ago, and following a large environmental calamity overtaking present-day Marsabit County over five hundred years ago, a number of clans sought refuge on the coast. This interaction left an imprint on the indigenous orientation of coastal Islam, which in turn is reflected in the religious practices of the Gabra and Rendille, who integrated the five daily Islamic prayer cycle into their own monotheistic belief system. There are three Bajuni clans of northern Kenya origin, and the Bajuni sorio purification ritual is a variation of the Rendille ceremony known by the same name, even though there has been no contact between the two communities for several hundred years. By the same measure, when Meru miraa traders began showing up in Lamu after independence, the Bajuni welcomed them as watu wa Pwani in recognition of their coastal origins.

The false Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy

The details of these historical interactions preserved in the traditions of these communities are indicative of the dynamic qualities of the cultural ecologies and pre-colonial political economy that developed in the river basins linking the coast to the mainland. The coast-mainland divide instilled during the colonial interlude is a false dichotomy in contrast, and these examples are also cited in order to posit that there is an alternative developmental model to the top-down planning imported by the colonial state.

The Tana River inscribes a long arc defining the border separating modern Kenya from the vast lowland expanses of “Kenya B” (a terminology used by the inhabitants living north of the river to describe themselves when making a distinction between them and “Kenya A” inhabitants south of the river). The region’s diverse cultural groups formed an economic mosaic that was beginning to enter a phase of proto-state formation during the late pre-colonial era. Similar developments were beginning to gather speed across much of what is modern day Kenya during the latter half of the 19th century. Imperial intervention short-circuited these processes, and with far-reaching ramifications for the inhabitants of Kenya B.

In the case of the coast and the lower Tana River hinterland, the unremarkable village of Kipini is emblematic of the lower Tana hinterland’s decline following the destruction of the Witu Sultanate and its satellite settlements in 1895 by a British expeditionary force. The population living within Witu’s fortified town walls was more than 50,000 at the time. The prosperous Sultanate welcomed slaves running away from the plantations run by the pro-Busaidi Lamu elite, and minted its own currency and postage stamps.

The irony of the Sultanate’s fall is that its demolition was triggered by the death of German loggers during an altercation that broke out after they racially abused their Swahili co-workers. The British were not happy that Witu had engaged their imperial competitors, but the killing of Europeans was a precedent they could not allow to go unpunished. Eliminating the Witu Sultanate solved two problems: it eliminated opposition to their imperial intrusion, while the agricultural collapse that followed allowed the British to annex the Lamu mainland as Crown Land.

The reduction of Witu’s population to just a few thousand people a century after its destruction is indicative of the malaise that spread across the larger region following the imposition of colonial rule. Decades of stasis became the basis for the region’s post-colonial marginalisation and social exclusion.

A similar trend overtook the ecologically and historically similar Juba River basin to the north in Somalia, with the exception of the commercial banana production that became Somalia’s only agricultural export industry. While traditional pastoralism dominated the large expanse between the Tana River and northern Somalia, these island ecologies contributed to the symbiotic relationships sustaining the livestock economy.

Prioritising dam building and state irrigation schemes over the livelihoods of communities long present in the region is a variation on the mono-culture developmental model Syad Barre attempted to implement in Somalia’s Juba River basin. Michael Maren elucidated the resulting conflicts in his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, and things went further downhill after its publication in 1997.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record. It manifests in the problematic record of large-scale projects and other planned interventions across the region. The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

There are indications that the larger region bordering the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands is recovering its mojo. However, many of the problems and historical injustices addressed by Kenya’s new constitution could have been avoided if the policy prioritising investment in high potential areas had been extended to the high potential economic sectors in Kenya’s neglected regions. But they were not, and if the Vision 2030 Big Water policy dominates the template for the area falling north of the Tana River, it may turn out to be a case of the worst is yet to come.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record…The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

We can only imagine the counterfactual scenarios that may have occurred if the local societies were in a position to manage the transition on their own terms.

Hydraulic states and rain-based social organisation

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water. Hydraulic states gave rise to impressive public works and statuaries that remain up to this time, and transformed kings into demi-gods and pharaohs.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Why the High Grand Falls Dam project is a bad idea

The hydraulic state is best understood as an ideal type based on environmental determinism. Debates generated by the concept led critics to argue that the hydraulic empires of antiquity were based on pre-existing central political organisation that enabled the rulers to expand their power through irrigation and water infrastructure. Marx and Engels’ Asiatic Mode of Production is another variation on the theme that emphasises a rigid and impersonal state’s monopoly of land ownership, political and military power, or control over irrigation systems.

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water.

Regardless of the order of events, domination through the control of water is a recurring idea that has resurfaced in science fiction like the Dune series and post-Apocalypse scenarios like Mad Max: Fury Road and contributes to the growing genre of eco-disaster films and other works of fiction.

Areas dependent on rain, in contrast to these examples, tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities. Range scientists have associated the problem of unpredictable rainfall and high levels of uncertainty with the opportunistic exploitation of natural resources—a proclivity that comes with an obligation to share and redistribute. While this opportunism is embedded in pastoralist societies, variations on the same “make hay while the sun is shining” meme, is also observable among their neighbours, and in discussions with civil servants and politicians.

Economies conditioned by rainfall dominated across most of eastern Africa and the Horn, the exception being the secondary states represented by the intra-lacustrine kingdoms. The configuration of small states in present-day Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi were the product of agro-pastoralist syntheses that, consistent with our discussion, were enabled by stable environmental conditions and plentiful water.

Areas dependent on rain..tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities.

Such variations highlight the influence of environmental forces and shared social orientations on regional political economies. Hard-nosed planners and developmental experts will dismiss the narrative presented here as a historical fairy tale with no relevance for the present. There are, however, multiple examples of how the forces of nature and historical pathways reassert themselves during periods of system transitions, and there are multiple signs from all over the region that the region’s periphery is entering a phase transition that will render many of their plans and projects irrelevant.

Gunnar Myrdal released his influential book, Economic Theory and Under-developed Regions, around the same time Wittfogel published Oriental Despotism. In his analysis, the same elements of resource control central to hydraulic empire also guided Europe’s colonisation of much of the global South. Colonies were resource-rich areas located on the periphery, and the imperial project focused on the extraction and control of these resources. This was accomplished through a type of agro-managerial despotism that parallels the example of hydraulic empires.

The post-colonial states in this part of the world have become vehicles for a maladaptive combination of the opportunism embedded in rain-fed systems and the rigidity of hydraulic states. Kenya’s water management is symptomatic of the larger imbalance between the center and the periphery. This helps explain the militarisation of northern Kenya and why the Tana Delta became one of the primary incubators for the Mombasa Republican Council’s secessionist agenda.

Following the present state-based pathway is likely to lead to more of the same – not a good idea when alternatives exist.

Post-colonial water hangover

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

The designation of water as a basic human right guaranteed by Article 43(1) of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution replaced that ambitious technocratic objective with a lofty principle but one that will not be attained because the operationalisation of water rights is a function of four factors: availability of the resource; investment in delivery and distribution systems; technological innovation; and the policy and planning process.

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

Nailing the process should be the easy part, but this has not been the case as the first two installments of this series documented. Lessons learned for developing water resources cited in one USAID case study highlight the importance of exposing decision makers to alternative institutional arrangements and successful models of service delivery involving local stakeholders, embedding frameworks for mediating conflicts, and devolving management to local institutions.

The Kenya government’s US$25-billion LAPSSET corridor scheme, whose objectives include the transformation of the lower Tana River basin, is a product of the exact opposite mentality. The problem is not the roads and the infrastructure, but the hegemonic policies that have long treated the larger region as an unproductive expanse requiring developmental planning from both without and above.

The High Grand Falls Dams project on the Tana River reinforces this assumption by minimising the import of the project’s impact on the communities downstream, and failing to acknowledge the value of livelihood strategies fine-tuned to the region’s environmental and infrastructural conditions. The lack of consultation with minority communities appears to be standard procedure, even for non-controversial projects, like the expansion of geothermal electricity generation at Ol Karia.

Unlike electricity, water cannot be generated, only conserved. In the case of Kenya, the water is there. Developing the delivery and distribution infrastructure and maintenance is the hard part. Constructing local dams where appropriate is obviously an important option; to this end, the government identified a number of Arid and Semi Arid (ASAL) sites for water storage development.

Marsabit is an important highland island in the middle of a large desert. Residents suffer from protracted water shortages aggravated by degradation of the mountain’s cloud forest. The Badassa Dam was initiated in 2009 to alleviate the problem. It is an example of a worthy project that enjoyed the full support of the local community, especially after some 1,000 goats keeled over and died after drinking water from an old well. Like in the recent case where eleven rhinos died after being moved to the Tsavo, the problem was due to seasonally high concentrations of minerals, according to subsequent analyses. The dam became another case study of how badly things can go wrong.

Construction of the Badassa Dam, which is designed to hold 5 million cubic metres of water, stalled in 2011. Design flaws and the shoddy work of the government-appointed contractor led to a court case in 2013. Contrary to the ruling of one of several court cases, the wealthy Marsabit businessman who filed the suit ended up taking over the project. Things went badly again, resulting in major losses for the new contractor, who was forced to sell property in Nairobi to survive after being forced to go into hiding. In another stroke of irony reminiscent of the Tana River’s shift away from the Hola Irrigation Scheme, The Standard reported in 2014 that Badassa Dam’s source of water had dried up.

These finance-draining dam stories continue to pile up across the country. The Crocodile Jaws Dam in Isiolo presents another variation on the same theme. There’s no need to describe it – just watch the Oscar-winning animated film Rango. The movie shares the same water-grabbing plot line – the diversion of precious water away from the town to support the big money resort, or the LAPSSET tourist city in this case, but probably without the Hollywood-style ending.

Meanwhile, the flooding of the towns next to the Tana River earlier this year was not due to the heavy rains, but due to the siltation of the Masinga dam that has proceeded at a rate six times the level anticipated when the dam was built.

Smart technology and precision agriculture

The problem remains. A 2017 study reports the proportion of Kenyans with access to clean water is declining, in part due to population growth outstripping the government’s capacity to provide. This highlights the array of small-scale water catchment solutions now taking root in places like Makueni, Isiolo, Samburu, and even in Kusa along the shores of Lake Victoria that feature enhanced rocky outcrop water catchments, sand dams, and home water storage tanks and dams. Such scale- appropriate developments and growing pace of technological innovations across the world are revising path-dependent approaches to water.

The Slingshot water purifier can turn the water from Lake Turkana or the from the polluted Nairobi River into super purified medical quality water. The machine, which is the size of a crate of soda, can purify 1,000 litres per day and costs US $35. There are inexpensive nano filters for water bottles with pores small enough to catch viruses. This tech is the best bet for eliminating the ubiquitous plastic water bottles that actually do not guarantee safe water and are choking the oceans. Even the traditional toilet, a water wasting device that has not changed for 130 years, is being redesigned to recycle the water and to use the waste to recharge your mobile phone while sitting on the thrown.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization. The future of Kenya’s food security is precision agriculture, not large irrigation schemes. Large farms on the slopes of Mt Kenya are implementing precision agricultural methods, enabled by the growth of companies offering the requisite support services. Players in the contract-farming sector are introducing precision agricultural practices to medium-sized growers in the lower zones, and it is only a matter of time before this spreads to areas like the lower Tana River with its untapped potential for small- and medium-scale agro-pastoral development.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization.

Ari.Farm is an exemplar of developments of the new economy emerging in war-torn areas after decades of stasis and conflict. Using a very original business model based on subscriptions from the community, the firm is a magnet for diaspora capital that has established greenhouse farms and camel dairies in Somalia’s riverine area to supply Mogadishu. Ari.Farm also has a farm in Kenya that is delivering camel milk to Nairobi. The ubiquitous goat, which is resistant to capital-intensive mass production, is becoming the high-end animal protein of the future, and Ari.Farm just may turn out to be the dryland’s version of Eastleigh’s Garissa Lodge phenomenon.

Fourteen counties on Kenya’s periphery have come together to form The Frontier County Development Council, predicated on a “holistic and integrated approach to promote and strengthen inter-regional linkages”. The Council is one example of developments behind the region’s shifting system state. Human capital investment and provision of basic infrastructure in these high potential but historically marginalised zones, together with symbiotic linkages to pastoralist capital, can transform the larger region. The lower Tana and its invisible stakeholders should be given the chance to become part of the process leading over time to a new diversified river valley economy, and a sanctuary where all the bird watchers of the world will congregate.

This is only the beginning. The road will be difficult, but a dynamic confluence of capital, culture, and technology will see the influence of the post-post-colonial African mode of production in the former Shungwaya region become water under the bridge. This is the point in the process when the stakeholders can determine what form of upstream water management should be undertaken.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

‘You’re Not Welcome Here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions to Stop Migration From Africa

8 min read. Instead of addressing the root causes if illegal migration to Europe – including the exploitation of the Global South by the Global North – EU countries are evading the problem by paying off African countries to intercept the migrants before they reach European shores.

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‘You’re not welcome here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions To Stop Migration From Africa
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It is a known fact that Europe has been struggling with a serious migrant crisis in the last ten years. What is less known is that the ghost of a tremendous accusation is hovering over the plans established by the European authorities to contain the apparently unstoppable flow of immigrants. According to some sources, the funds that have been allocated to control the migratory flows have been diverted to support paramilitary forces or other nefarious organisations involved in human trafficking.

These forces allegedly act as a buffer that prevent people from reaching Europe by all means (even the most violent ones) rather than addressing the root causes of irregular migration. The European Union (EU) authorities denied all the accusations, and even suspended some of these funds, a move that has been seen by some as an admission of guilt. Although cutting the proverbial Gordian knot and finding the truth may be impossible right now, let’s try to clarify what is happening today by providing a better overview of the current scenario.

Europe and the 2015 migrant crisis

Every year, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East flee complex emergencies, natural disasters, and wars. They join the already immense river of humans who try to escape poverty and desperation by immigrating to the Old Continent. The reasons for this huge flow of humans are many, ranging from the recent political turbulence following the Arab Spring, to the evolution of the many conflict theatres and the harsh consequences of climate change.

Even if a solution could be found to stop each one of these different scenarios, it would require many years before it could bring any tangible change or impact. A lot of rhetoric ensued until a huge divide split the cacophonous political debate into two entrenched factions whose opinions cannot seem to be reconciled anytime soon. For some, these people are an invaluable resource that can rejuvenate a dying continent suffering from a chronic lack of a fresh young unspecialised workforce. For others, they are just parasites who can undermine the very roots of the Christian-based European culture, endangering the entire social fabric of a society that has based its wealth upon slavery, colonialism, and the exploitation of people for centuries.

However, an indisputable problem still had to be dealt with – the number of irregular immigrants reaching Europe was way too high to be managed. With over 2 million illegal crossings detected between 2015 and 2016, it was clear that the old containment policies were desperately failing in so many ways that they held no water whatsoever. Extremist and right wing political forces took advantage of this crisis to pull the whole continent into a populist drift, with racism and segregation running rampant to fuel hate, fear, and ancient religious rivalries. For the first time in decades, the European Union (EU) was facing the risk of having to deal with a widespread social crisis that could destabilise the entire political and economic asset. A plan that could address the different root causes of these never-ending migratory flows could hardly be imagined.

But the EU authorities had to find a rapid solution. They didn’t have the time (nor the interest) to tackle the reasons why these people were desperate and poor. Rather than caring about the lives of these masses of destitute individuals who were immigrating to Europe, they decided to stop them in their tracks before they could cross the borders. To put it bluntly, desperate and poor people from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East were still left desperate and poor – they only had to be desperate and poor somewhere else.

Turning a blind eye to the massive human crisis

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

In a nutshell, the overall plan was quite simple: the EU authorities would ask other countries to “keep the migrants away” while they turned a blind eye on the methods used to achieve this goal. In theory, they were distributing hefty amounts of money to African and Middle Eastern countries to counter “human trafficking and smuggling” by breaking their “business model” in order to “offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”. In practice, these funds often ended in the hands of unscrupulous militia forces and shady organisations that prevented the most vulnerable people from reaching the borders of the EU member states with any means necessary – including the most inhumane ones.

One of the most important steps of this plan to “contain irregular migrants” was making arrangements with Turkey and Libya to prevent refugees from reaching the Old Continent’s borders by blocking all their land or sea routes. On top of that, whenever a migrant was caught crossing the Mediterranean to the nearby Greek islands, Spain or Italy, he or she would be sent back to Turkey or Libya to be “temporarily” locked in some prison. But the scenario that originated from these pacts was less than ideal at best, and eventually forced thousands of refugees to endure months of detainment in inhumane conditions in dilapidated detention centres.

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

Several organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles have alreay denounced the “degrading” conditions suffered by the detainees in Libya. Men and women are raped, abused, and beaten on a daily basis; some have spent months or years locked up. People are exposed to contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, and often die from sickness, malnourishment, or neglect while in detention. The UNHRC went so far as to determine that the conditions in some of these detention centers may even “amount to torture”.

Despite being fully aware of the inhuman conditions faced by these migrants, the EU keeps contributing to this massive process of human exploitation in many ways. The Libyan authorities have been provided with the necessary funds and resources to intercept men, women, and children at sea. Italy donated several patrol boats to the Libyan coastguard and the training required to operate them as efficiently as possible during Operation Sophia. Even the Visegrad Group countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) provided an additional 35 million euros on top of the 10 million handed over by the EU. It comes as no surprise since their borders are constantly under the pressure of the thousands of immigrants who hope to escape poverty and find a chance for a better life.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore. One may wonder whether this choice was just the result of a somewhat short-sighted strategy that only cared about reducing the death toll of people drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Maybe it is a component of a more complex (and inhumane) plan of externalising border control to Northern African countries. A strategy to keep poor people from escaping the poor countries where they live.

The Khartoum Process

Another action taken by the EU to stem the number of people reaching their coasts and borders was establishing the so-called “Khartoum Process”. Amidst the 2015 crisis, African and European leaders met in Malta during the Valletta Summit on Migration to discuss a common plan to address the problem. After the summit was over, the EU agreed to provide the African countries who accepted to help out in the crisis with an Emergency Trust Fund that was worth billions of euros. The fund was set up “to foster stability and to contribute to better migration management, including by addressing the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration.”

Many projects eventually fell under the banner of the Emergency Trust Fund, such as the Operation Sophia mentioned above, as well as the less known but no less opaque Khartoum Process. Once again, this initiative consists of a series of financial incentives provided by the EU member states to African countries who can help in the fight against human trafficking and people smuggling. The only difference is that these funds are provided to prevent exploitation along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe. The countries involved include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore.

Sudan, in particular, has been used as a buffer zone to exert effective extraterritorial control of the migration routes used by people who want to reach Europe from across Africa. Just like Italy did with Libya, Germany started a project to train Sudanese police officers and border guards, and an intelligence centre was founded in the capital Khartoum.

So, why did the EU announced the suspension of these projects in July, some of which were halted at least since March?

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”. The funds have been, in fact, used to deploy the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the heirs of the brutal Janjaweed led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo. We already talked about the violence that the Janjaweed unleashed upon Sudanese civilians during the recent uprising, as well as the war crimes and genocide they committed in Darfur back in 2003. The RSF fighters found their own solution to stop migrants – they tortured them, forced them to pay bribes, and in some instances, even smuggled them (possibly if they paid enough).

So, in a nutshell, the EU paid smugglers to stop human smuggling and traffic – and they were fully aware of that. It was even noted that the RSF could divert resources “for repressive aims”. Just like in Libya and Turkey, Europe knew what was happening, but preferred to simply look the other way.

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”.

Even if the project is now suspended, and the EU maintains that the RSF forces have never been funded or equipped, the Sudanese police received training and significant financial resources (40 million euros). This is the same Sudanese police that brutally repressed the pro-democracy, anti-government demonstrators during the last months of protest. Once again, all the projects that fall under the Khartoum Process umbrella do not address any of the “root causes” of uncontrolled migration and human trafficking. Without going so far as to say these projects are a true travesty, it can’t be denied that right now they’re nothing but extraterritorial disguised control of the borders.

Not my brother’s keeper

Today, Europe is simply turning a blind eye to one of the largest humanitarian crisis of this century. But hoping that desperate people will bring their misfortune somewhere else is not just a cowardly policy, it is a downright cruel choice made by people with no traces of humanity. It is highly hypocritical for Western countries to claim that they want to address the “root causes” of the tremendous strife that brings so many people to leave their homelands. In fact, most of these “root causes” originate from the endless exploitation of lands and resources of the Global South that seemingly sustains the whole capitalist system. In fact, when over 37,000 people are being forced to flee their homes every day, it doesn’t look like the situation has improved in any way. Today, the developed countries host just 16 per cent of these refugees, while the vast majority of them are found in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan.

When the Roman Empire had to deal with the massive migrations that occurred during the fourth century A.C., the Emperors simply preferred to close their borders, leaving countless displaced people to die of sickness and starvation in front of their doors. Open revolt ensued, however, when those masses of destitute people became so desperate as to kill Emperor Valen, eventually causing the fall of the entire Roman Empire.

History teaches us that everything that happened once may happen again – especially if so many people are driven up the wall for so long.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election

11 min read. The Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more about a competition between the two biggest political parties, and between two bitter rivals, Raila Odinga and William Ruto. It was also a dress rehearsal for the 2022 elections, which, if this by-election is anything to go by, promises to be highly contentious.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election
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Something startled where I thought I was safest. – Walt Whitman

My Dungeons Shook – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

On Saturday 9, 2019, two days after the hotly contested Kibra by-election had taken place and the dust had settled, Raila Odinga, aka Baba, was in an ecstatic mood: he gathered around some of his closest associates that had helped him campaign to retain the Kibra seat by hook or crook for a toast-up at his Karen home.

The ODM party candidate had triumphed over an onslaught that had threatened to torpedo Raila’s iron-grip stranglehold over a constituency that had, over time, become synonymous with his name and political career. But it was a victory that been won with “blood”: Bernard Otieno Okoth, aka Imran, took 24,636 votes while his closest nemesis, McDonald Mariga Wanyama, an international footballer-turned-betting-billboard-face, had carted away 11,230 votes. Although there were no casualties, voters had been roughed up and beaten.

As one of ODM’s foot soldiers from Ololo (Kaloleni estate, off Jogoo Road in Makadara constituency) later confided in me, “There was no way those rural folks (referring to William Ruto’s gang of MPs, mainly from western Kenya, and their supporters) were going to storm our grounds. Hii tao ni yetu, tumekuwa na mzae tangu 90s, na tumepingana vita nyingi sana…hao watu walikuwa wanacheza na nare.” This is our turf and we’ve been with Raila ever since the 90s, and we’ve fought many bloody wars, those people were stoking a war and playing with fire.

As a diehard supporter of Raila Odinga, the stocky foot soldier, now in his late 30s (he is a former bantamweight boxer)m said he had not slept for three consecutive days: “Kibra ni bedroom ya mbuyu na wewe unaleta mbulu pale…utatembea buda.” Kibra is the old man’s bedroom and you want to desecrate it…you’ll pay for it.

He said in those three days, all the foot soldiers’ work was to screen all “foreigners” entering Kibra. This was evident to me because I had also been forewarned by my minders that I should now be extremely careful when going to Kibra for my journalistic work.

And that is all that mattered. The rest of other 22 contestants were neither here nor there, including ANC’s Eliud Owalo, a one-time Raila’s confidante who collected 5,275 votes.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate. In the 2017 presidential election, 18,000 people voted for Uhuru Kenyatta, the Jubilee Party’s presidential candidate. The Jubilee Party candidate Doreen Wasike got 12,000 votes. The 6,000 extra votes that increased Uhuru’s number to 18,000 came from the Nubian community resident in Kibra.

As Raila and his friends were sipping champagne on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ruto was gnashing his teeth, furious to the point where he refused to meet with the buddies he had campaigned with, according to media reports. However, his chief noisemaker, the rabblerouser Dennis Itumbi, denied that his boss was in a foul mood after the by-election.

Kibra constituency, formerly part of Langata constituency, has been a hotbed of political contests ever since Raila opted to stand in the constituency in 1992, the year the country returned to multiparty politics. Two years before that, in 1990, Raila, who had been exiled in Norway, had come back to Kenya to be part of the “Young Turks” who agitated and pushed for political reforms. He had stood in what was then known as Kibera constituency in the first multiparty general election and from then on Kibera became his enclave. That is why, in the run-up to the by-election, Raila “privatised” the constituency and called it his bedroom, in a (desperate) effort to rally around his troops to vote for Imran and to affirm to his current biggest political rival, William S Ruto, that Kibra was impenetrable to the latter’s political whims.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate.

That is why the Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more of a competition between the two biggest political parties, the ruling party Jubilee and ODM, and between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Imran and Mariga were just pawns in a much bigger and wider plot linked to the 2022 presidential succession political chess game in which the two have staked their ambitions and claim.

Three weeks to the by-election, I met with one of Ruto’s bosom buddies who was coordinating the campaign behind the scenes. “If we wrestle the Kibra seat from the kitendawili (riddles) man, we’ll have completely changed the political map of not only Nairobi County, but of the country,” he had said to me. “We will configure national politics and consign Raila to a corner. And then relish to face him in 2022.”

The Ruto man told me that in the lead-up to 2022, their chief tactic is to draw Raila into a two-horse race, in which case, “I can assure you, we’ll pulverise the enigma [one of the monikers used to describe Raila] once and for all”.

It understandable, hence, for Ruto to have taken the defeat personally and Raila to have gloated – but for how long?

In many ways, the by-election was a curtain raiser, a preamble and a showdown of what to expect in 2022, the year Kenyans once again go to the polls to elect a new president. The violence witnessed in Kibra will be multiplied at the national level. The money that was thrown at the electorate in little Kibra will seem like cash for an afternoon picnic as the chief contestants in 2022 open their war chests to woo an even hungrier electorate, ready to settle scores and be manipulated. The shadow line-ups that we saw falling respectively behind the protagonists will be reshaped many times over before 2022.

The by-election was also about the “big boys” (Raila and Ruto) settling scores and about cementing the burial rites of the already dead NASA (National Super Alliance), the fledgling and motley coalition that brought together Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula, and Musalia Mudavadi. In addition, it was about the extension of the supremacy battles being fought between the Jubilee Party wing of President Uhuru Kenyatta and its rival that is being led by his deputy – in essence, the trooping of colours between #Kieleweke group and the #Tanga Tanga brigade.

Could this by-election also have signalled the death knell of the Jubilee Party as currently constituted?

The Ken Okoth factor

The by-election was a function of several variables, including what can be referred to as the Ken Okoth factor. Okoth, who died from colon cancer at the age of 41, was the Kibra MP when he succumbed to the killer disease on July 26, 2019.

Okoth was elected in 2013 in the newly created Kibra constituency, which was hived off from the larger Langata constituency to Raila’s chagrin. (This is a public secret.) Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand. He was suave, well-spoken and a terribly likeable man.

When he became the MP, he charted an even more independent path: he decided he was not going to be anybody’s protégé. So he cultivated his political friendships across party divisions. As a man who understood the power of education (he was the recipient of a sound education from Starehe Boys’ Centre, where he was educated on a full bursary), he invested heavily in education in Kibra. A good secondary education, like he used to say, had saved him from the clutches of poverty.

Okoth built eight secondary schools in Kibra and expanded many of the primary schools to have a secondary school wing. He rightly argued that since many Kibra parents could not afford to take their children to boarding schools, he would lighten their burden by constructing local secondary schools. He also gave out lots of bursaries to parents who struggled with fees. Any pupil who got 350 points or more in his or her KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam got full bursary to transition to high school.

Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand.

Juliet Atellah, a Kibra resident from Gatwekera village in Sarang’ombe and a double maths and statistics major from the University of Nairobi can attest to this. “When Okoth become MP, he told us education was the key to success. He implored us to work hard in school as he also worked hard to ensure Kibra youth interested in education benefitted from a bursary.” It is something that Okoth continually preached till his death.

Okoth, also, through his Jubilee Party networks, tapped into the National Youth Service (NYS) resources to create some employment opportunities for the youth of Kibra. This cross-cutting political parties’ engagement would land him into trouble with ODM mandarins who accused and suspected him of cavorting with the enemy. “By opting to work with Jubilee Party functionaries, Okoth looked at the bigger picture: what mattered most, according to him, was how best to improve the quality of lives of Kibrans. If the help would come from his presumed ‘political antagonists’ so be it,” said a friend of the late MP.

He relegated the work of managing the bursaries through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) to his brother Imran. Little wonder then that his brother clinched the ODM ticket, but not without loud grievances. According to my sources within the ODM party, Peter Orero (popularly known as mwalimu), the Principal of Dagoretti High School, and also the former principal of Upper Hill High School, had won the ticket, but to stem the fallout that was going to befall the party as it faced its greatest onslaught from Ruto, a man who was staking his all to capture the seat, Raila opted to hand the ticket to the former CDF manager.

Disgruntled followers

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s. The people of Kibra know their politics well. This is courtesy of Raila Odinga, who for a long time championed the political struggle for equity and social justice in the country. As their MP, Raila encouraged Kibra voters to fight for their rights and to demand no less than his rightful representation.

But the burden of the “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru Kenyatta had reared its ugly head and it was evident that Raila struggled when campaigning in his former constituency. “With the handshake, Raila commercialised the struggle,” said a politician who has known him since the multiparty struggles of the 90s. “The handshake had confused his base, angering many and disillusioning a great deal of people who had stood with him all the way. Until, the death of Okoth, Raila had not stepped in Kibra to explain the handshake. Instead, when he shook Uhuru’s hand, he headed to Kondele in Kisumu to appease his other equally fanatical base, 300 kilometres away.”

The politician said that Kibra people have yet to enjoy the handshake’s dividends. “Many of the youths who were shot at by police when defending Raila were from Kibra, yet the handshake projects have all been taken to Kisumu. Although the Kibra electorate is still fanatically loyal to Raila, they were also passing a subtle message to him – it about time you re-evaluated your politics with us.”

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s.

Hence, it was not lost to keen observers that for the first time since Raila began campaigning in Kibra in 1992, he had been forced to solicit for votes beyond Kamukunji in Sarang’ombe ward. “For the first time,” said a resident of Sarang’ombe, “Raila had been forced to campaign in Bukhungu in Makina, Laini Saba, and Joseph Kange’the in Woodley.” As the area MP, Raila would campaign only in Kamukunji grounds and with that he would seal his victory and close that chapter. The rest of the voters would fall in place.

Sarang’ombe ward has the largest number of voters, largely comprising Luos and Luhyas. The Luos are concentrated in Kisumu Ndogo village, while the Luhyas are to be found in Soweto and Bombolulu villages. There are about 6,000 registered Luhya voters in both the villages, while there could be about 20,000 Luos in Kisumu Ndogo. The other large concentrations of Luhyas are located in Lindi and Makina. Hence the reason why Raila went to campaign in Makina. He also campaigned in Woodley on Joseph Kange’the Road, because it has a large population of Kikuyu voters.

New alliances and 2022 politics

If campaigning on “virgin” territory was not too much of a stretch, Raila had to enlist the support of seven governors: Alfred Mutua of Machakos, Ann Mumbi Kamotho (previously known as Ann Waiguru) of Kirinyaga, Charity Ngilu of Kitui, Kivutha Kibwana of Makueni, James Ongwae of Kisii, John Nyagarama of Nyamira and Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega. “Ruto with his loads of money was piling pressure on Raila and he wasn’t going to take any chances,” explained one of Raila’s associates.

So, on October 30, 2019, nominated MP Maina Kamanda, Kigumo MP, Ruth Mwaniki and David Murathe (President Uhuru Kenyatta’s hatchet man) met with Raila to ostensibly pledge the Kikuyu electorate’s and President Uhuru’s support for the ODM candidate Bernard Otieno Okoth aka Imran. At the meeting, Mwaniki hinted that McDonald Mariga Wanyama, the Jubilee Party candidate, had been forced on the party leadership and President Uhuru: “I don’t know why some leaders [referring to Deputy President William Ruto] in Jubilee dragged Mariga into the race.”

In the spirit of the handshake, Kamanda said he would rally the Kikuyu voter to throw his lot with Imran: “When you see me here, know that President Uhuru Kenyatta is here.”

On the previous day, the former Starehe MP had told the Kikuyus in Kibra, “On November 7, please come out in large numbers to vote for Imran. Imran’s victory will be a big win for the unity of this country.” He was referring to the now mercurial political handshake that President Uhuru and Raila cemented on March 9, 2018. The handshake between the two bitterest rivals gave birth to the Building the Bridges Initiative (BBI). The acronym has been baptised many things, the latest one being Beba Baba Ikulu. Take Raila to State House.

On that same day (October 30), Raila had separately met with Kikuyu and Kisii opinion shapers from Kibra at his office in Upper Hill, before descending to Kibra again in the evening, three days after he had held a rally there on October 27, a Sunday. This same day, as Raila met with the respective community leaders, he confided in a mutual friend who he had lunch with at Nairobi Club that Ruto was breathing down his neck, and giving him a run for his money in his erstwhile constituency that he had represented for a quarter of a century.

During the time that Raila stood in Kibra, the Luhya community had also stood with him. They voted for him to the last man, “but when Okoth died, the Luhya nationalists in Kibra and elsewhere thought ‘it was their time to eat’”, a Luhya politician who stood as a senator in western Kenya said. “The Luhya felt the time was ripe to get paid for standing with Raila all these years since 1992.” The politician reminded me that even when Michael Wamalwa died in August, 2004, the Luhyas remained strong supporters of Raila.

Feeding on this Luhya nationalism, Ruto and his band of Luhya MPs from western Kenya landed in Kibra, and hoped to hype this reigning scepticism to maximum effect. So when Bernard Shinali, the MP for Ikolomani, was caught by the hawk-eyed ODM foot soldiers dishing out money to potential voters in Kisumu Ndogo three days before voting day, he, like the former Kakamega Senator, Bonny Khalwale, wanted to prove to their boss Ruto that they were ready to deliver the Kibra Luhya vote to him. The other Luhya MP from western who would be deployed to Kibra was Benjamin Washiali of Mumias and Didmus Barasa MP of Kimilili.

In all probability the Kibra by-election offered Kenyans a trailer of how the 2022 presidential elections will be and how they will will be fought. Will that election be a contest between Raila and Ruto? If the parading of the troops from both sides is anything to go by, the sneak preview of the troops’ formation promises many shifting alliances.

Wavinya Ndeti, the former MP for Kathiani and a governor candidate for Machakos County in 2017 on a Wiper Democratic Movement (WPM) ticket – but nonetheless aligned to Raila – allegedly moaned loudly, after seeing Mutua in Kibra. Had Raila dumped her by inviting the Machakos governor into his “bedroom?” Kalonzo Musyoka, one of the four NASA co-principals is mum, but when he said he would be supporting the Ford Kenya candidate Ramadhan Butichi, he invited opprobrium from ODM mandarins. My friends in ODM hinted to me that Kivutha is the man to checkmate Kalonzo. What about Musalia Mudavadi, the other NASA co-principal principal? Is Oparanya being propped up to replace him?

The fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta has not made any comment on the by-election, and has not appeared anywhere near Kibra to campaign for the Jubilee Party candidate speaks volumes about whether indeed Mariga was a Jubilee Party candidate, I told a close associate of the deputy president that Ruto and Mariga had camped at State House for two days to get the president’s audience. It was only on the second day that Ruto showcased Mariga to the president, who fitted Mariga’s football head with a Jubilee cap. “That is all true,” agreed the associate, “but the president is a grown up, how do you force anything onto a grown up?”

What is clear, however, is that as 2022 fast approaches, the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s “political bedroom”. Now, as pundits, political analysts, and the media try to explain what this political drama will mean for the future of Kenya’s politics, the central question that Kenyans need to ask is what role they will play in shaping a prosperous future.

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Kibra: The Face of Kenyan Politics to Come?

4 min read. What does the Kibra by-election portend for the future of Kenya’s politics? Renowned photographer CARL ODERA captures the sights.

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“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”― Søren Kierkegaard

Located about 6.6 kilometres from Nairobi city centre, Kibra is a sprawling informal settlement with an estimated population of about 200,000 people. Majority of Kibra residents live in extreme poverty. Unemployment rates are high, persons living with HIV/AIDS are many, and cases of assault and rape common. Clean water is scarce. Diseases caused by this lack of water are common. The majority living in the informal settlement lack access to basic services including electricity, running water, and medical care.

But this photo essay is not about the peddled quintessential cliché narrative depiction of Kibra as Africa’s biggest slum’ – itself a false assertion. Rather, Kibra has historically been Nairobi’s most vibrant political constituency; its residents often at the forefront of agitation for expansion of political space in Kenya; and, the most enthusiastic demonstrators at political meetings where the opposition is pitched against an apparently recalcitrant ruling elite. The Kibra by-election is also the political backyard of Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and the most enduring fixture in opposition leadership since the early 1990s. Currently, in an alliance with the President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kibra by-election was occasioned by the death on the 26th of July 2019 of Ken Okoth, 41, the area’s dynamic, popular and highly effective MP.

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The demise of Ken Okoth left the seat open for a contest directly between Raila Odinga, whose family has dominated the area for decades and the Deputy President William S. Ruto who is determined to entrench himself as the only viable successor to Kenyatta who is currently serving his last constitutionally mandated term. As such the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s ‘political bedroom’.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra's DC Grounds on Sunday.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra’s DC Grounds on Sunday.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

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The by-election to fill the position left vacant following the death of the area MP, Okoth, attracted 24 candidates, ODM candidate Imran Okoth, Jubilee’s McDonald Mariga and Eliud Owalo of Amani National Congress, were the dominant players.

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

 Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM's candidate for Kibra by-election.

Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM’s candidate for Kibra by-election.

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Days to the parliamentary by-election there were reports of fracas between warring factions. Rowdy residents, for instance, kicked former Kakamega senator Boni Khawale out of Kibra upon his arrival in Laini Saba ward, claiming it was ODM’s bedroom.

Destruction of property was also reported.

Milly Achieng, a tailor-resident of Kibra told the Elephant that supporters of an opposing candidate recently went and attacked one of her friends and fellow party member and demolished her house. She was forced to flee Kibra with her children.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

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The Kibra by-election received wide support from leaders across the political divide. Governors Charity Ngilu, Alfred Mutua, Kivutha Kibwana and Anne Waiguru joined Raila Odinga and the ODM party in drumming up support for its candidate, Imran Okoth. The leaders announced that this by-election was the beginning of a new political movement that would drum up support for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and ultimately forge an alliance for the 2022 General Election.

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

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On November 7, 2019, the polling stations across the constituency were opened by 6 am to a smooth start of voting throughout the day amidst a reportedly low voter turnout. The voting stations were closed immediately after the voting exercise was concluded and voter tallying began thereafter. Residents stood in groups waiting for the results.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra's Laini Saba.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra’s Laini Saba.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party's candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party’s candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

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As counting of votes for Kibra by-election continued on the night of November the 7, Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga conceded defeat to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party aspirant Imran Okoth.

In a Twitter post, Mariga called Okoth and congratulated him for his victory and promised to work together after the elections.

According to the results announced by the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) on Friday, November 8, Imran Okoth garnered 24,636 votes beating Mariga by over half the total number of counted votes standing at 11,230 votes. ANC’s Eliud Owalo was a distant third, managing to garner a paltry 5,275 votes out of the 41,984 votes cast.

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

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Though the Kibra by-election has been deemed a win for Raila Odinga and the handshake and a loss for Ruto and the “tanga tanga” movement, these political battles have yet to translate into tangible benefits for the ordinary mwananchi whom they purport to fight for.

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Written by Joe Kobuthi

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