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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump

10 min read.

The current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals in Trump’s America are futile argues MKAWASI MCHARO. The recent concluded mid-term elections, she posits, have shown that the Cinderella story in America’s politics will occur with the shifting racial demography and Generation Z who more than any previous generation have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity.

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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump
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When I was growing up in Kenya, I was taught that my ancestral land was the only place I was allowed to call “home”, whether I lived there or not. Anywhere else that I lived was a house. It was near sacrilegious to call a house in the city “home”.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I decided to resolve that post-colonial cultural disorder for myself. While living with my aunt and going to college at the same time, I consciously decided to defy the elders, the ancestors, and the feared keepers of cultural dogma. I started calling my aunt’s place “home”.

I had no knowing at that time how much that decision would help me find belonging in lands far away. Kenya is home, the land that has refused to surrender my first belonging, and where I continue to sow seeds of unwanted civic agitation. America is home, the stolen lands that have soaked in the sweat of my brow and sprouted the sprigs of my second belonging.

The road to voting

A few days ago, I joined the long early voting queues at the American mid-term elections and voted for the candidates I felt would best serve the interests of my State. A couple of days later, I checked in at a polling precinct where I was assigned to serve as an election judge. There, I spent sixteen hours with fellow officials helping run the voting process and ensuring the integrity of the vote.

On my way home, I reflected upon my service in this role. This was the third election I had served at the polls, and like always, I left with a sense that I had partaken in the serving of sacrament in a temple – to the rich and the poor, the old and the new initiates, the cautious cynics and faithful believers in democracy. I had come a long way too from the village that raised me.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades. We bring with us an already educated mind, most of us having finished high school or a first degree in an African country. We are the F1 student visa careers that got caught up in the change of immigration policies soon after 9/11, because most of the hijackers had also come in as students. Renewing one’s visa was no longer that easy, and working odd jobs was heavily restricted. Many felt stranded, unable to leave or to continue with their education.

This change in policy inadvertently led to many African immigrants staying much longer than they had hoped because they were determined to return home with some measure of success. History records the stories of American immigrants in the 1800s – men who left their families with promises to return. They went west in search of gold and lands and riches told in tall tales, and when they lost it all in life’s gambles, they chose not to return home. The shame of failure was too great to bear.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades.

African immigrants have also done what all immigrants who have come to the United States have done for centuries past – survive through shame, tears and tatters and eventually thrive. For many of them, seeking American citizenship was not an ambition they came in with; it became so with time, out of unforeseen necessity. They too have become builders of this land. They are the latest patch on the American quilt.

The African caravan

A smart government knows that immigration policies that allow for a fluid traversing of documented populations is the safest and most beneficial way to build a 21st century nation. It means you know where people are. The U.S. government can track my goings and comings, my toil and my taxes, because I leave a citizen’s footprint wherever I go.

The millions of undocumented and out-of-status immigrants in the U.S. simply present a conundrum that has to be addressed at some point, not by clamping down and purging, but by offering legal freedom of movement. You would be surprised at how many immigrants living in the shadows would leave the country if they had the legal means to do so. It would allow for a citizenry as physically fluid as what technology has wrought upon the world. They would also invest more as transnational citizens, a trend seen from Diasporas that have become Americanised.

It is confounding why the American power structure keeps going through this repeated cycle of fear of new immigrants when it is clear that immigrants have made America the industrial superpower it became. This fear and suppression has been happening with each new wave since the 1880s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Then came the National Origins Formula that restricted the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe as they were deemed unskilled and influenced by Russia. The legislation also gave preference to immigrants from ethnic Caucasian countries.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that African immigration to the U.S. shot up dramatically. The Refugee Act of 1980 opened the doors to a huge influx of Africans into the U.S., so much so that by 2018, Ilhan Omar, a 37-year-old Somali woman who had migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1995, was elected to the United States Congress. The large population of Somalis in Minnesota no doubt gave wind to her sails. It is worth noting that Ms. Omar lived part of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya, having fled from war-torn Somalia with her family. She would probably love to go back and make a difference in Somalia.

A Liberian refugee was also elected as mayor in the deep Trump country of Montana in 2016. He too had come in as a refugee.

However, the African home countries that have held our dreams of return have betrayed some of us as life there has become more difficult to knit into desired destiny. The suitcases that were never unpacked upon arrival in the U.S., awaiting triumphant return, were finally emptied of their content after lengthy years of study and surrender to American belonging. The continental African diaspora continues to develop the countries of their foreign abode, including in Europe where more are also taking up public office.

While many Africans in America will never feel truly American, they continue to thrive and grow in numbers. In an article published this year, the American reporter Molly Fosco identified the Nigerian diaspora in America as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. A Migration Policy Institute report also states: “Most members of the Kenya diaspora in the United States were well educated and more likely than the U.S. general public to have completed a university degree [and] to be in the labor force: 80% versus 64%.”

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

American-born second generation continental Africans identify with their countries of cultural origin only when they grow up to discover the value of claiming a cultural identity. However, this identity is only seasonal. Among Kenyan-American youth, for example, you will only see this identity on display during festivities organised around Kenyan public holidays, such as Madaraka Day or Jamhuri Day. It is the kind of seasonal pride displayed by Irish youth on St. Patrick’s Day. But both are bound by the common identity of being American. And it is in America where the Kenyan-American, the Irish-American, the Chinese-American, the Hispanic-American will run for office and shape the future of the United States. If this diverse ethnic make-up of America is a foregone conclusion, then the current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals are futile.

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

White fury, brown fruit

There is rising fury of white nationalism in America that is based on a fear of extinction. Immigrants are accused of needing healthcare, food, housing and education at the expense of American taxpayers who themselves have few opportunities.

This unfounded argument has been used on every new wave of immigrants. The white race at the top of America’s social pyramid is more afraid that their kind will be “browned out”. But the face of America is slowly changing, as is the face of the world. Robert Wuthnow, author of The Left Behind, reminds us that 90% of rural America is white, a population that brought Trump to power. It is also the population from whence this wave of white nationalism has steadily risen. But this 90% white rural America base is slowly eroding, especially with the ever-increasing Hispanic population.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe. The raging storms of white supremacy seen in Charlottesville and in the rise of the lone white male terrorist are all a waste of good energy that would be better used figuring out how to make amends for past injustices that have contributed greatly to a world of resentment between the privileged and the hoi polloi. It is not lost on the world that in the past several centuries our world has been shaped by a dominating race that enslaved, colonised and plundered other nations.

America’s current president recently came out openly as a nationalist. It is unclear how this helps America’s future. America’s diverse races cannot be exterminated. A continental African who arrived here in 1998 and voted as an American citizen in the recently concluded U.S. mid-term elections has the rights and responsibilities to ensure a just and equitable American society as much as the descendants of the Pilgrims who arrived from Europe in the 1600s escaping religious persecution, the grandchildren of those who escaped war, poverty and famine from 19th century Czarist Russia and Ireland, the progenies of Chinese labourers who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; the children of Jews who escaped the Holocaust in the 20th century, and many others who formed the United States of various peoples, all seeking a home away from home.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe.

There is some sorrow and irony in the burden of racial superiority. This became clear to me upon reflecting on an encounter I had when I had just started my graduate studies in New York. A white male student struck up a conversation with me at the college library and told me all about his woes as a student immigrant from Poland. He had come on an F1 student visa but had fallen out of status. I knew little about immigration woes then. Like most of my African student peers, I had no interest in staying in America beyond graduation. My mind and soul were still tethered to my country of birth. Of course, American life would later on slap me silly and awaken me to the need for new belonging. It wasn’t until I ventured out beyond my college cocoon that I began to encounter other immigrants with legal status issues.

The Polish student’s story went in one ear out the other. He might as well have been telling me about cheese. He was the first “illegal” immigrant I’d ever met, and for a while, the people I thought of anytime I heard about “illegal” immigrants were white people from Europe stuck in limbo in America. There are many white immigrants grossly alienated because they choose the comfort of blending in with their race at the top of the pyramid even when they do not have the legal papers they need to survive and thrive in America. But they don’t get called names, they don’t get go-back-to-your-country spat in their face with disdain, and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb and get punched at Trump rallies.

Dismantling America’s caste system

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

It gets worse when the name on your résumé is strange and definitely not white. Once, after receiving a letter of regret for a job I had applied for, I submitted the very same résumé with the whitest name I could think of, and I got a call for a phone interview immediately. My accent, however, didn’t do me any good. It is no different from Rwanda’s past when citizens were required to have their ethnicity on the national ID. After the genocide, they got rid of this tribal identifier, and it helped build a new nation.

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

In the United States, those with access to race and ethnic data easily use it to remap legislative districts in a way that is favourable to the person or party wielding the power of manipulation. Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot. This was never more evident than in the recent mid-term elections that led to the recount of votes in at least three races.

The manipulation in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial race had been done systematically and over time by the person who had the means to manipulate voter registration – Brian Kemp. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, he got the upper hand and paved the way for himself to win the governor’s seat, and this affected the integrity of the vote. Calls for Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, to challenge the election in court have been reminiscent of Kenya’s bitter election in 2017. It is likely that Kemp will preside over a bitter people, half of whom will not recognise him as a legitimate governor. Political rancor that looks an awful lot like third-world politics has become the norm in America since 2016.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot.

If there’s a dim light in the sinking story of American politics, it is that American society still highly values the Cinderella story. If a person deemed least likely to succeed dares to conquer all odds, chances are that a wave of support from all races is going to cheer this person on until he or she reaches the mountain top. In the mid-term elections, the Obama phenomenon has been repeated in the wave of minority candidates – women and Muslims who had been bartenders, refugees, and socialists are now headed to Capitol Hill.

Even more evidence of the browning of America and the hope of the future is the Generation Z phenomenon. In a New York Post article, Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, describes this generation as diverse and only 55% white, making them quite likely the tail-end of white majority America. “And they have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity of any previous generation,” wrote Professor Brauer.

Brauer sees this generation as likely voting for Trump if they had a chance, simply because they find him authentic and disruptive of the status quo. However, I disagree with this opinion. Generation Z is an equally politically diverse group, which was evident from the protests of the high school students whose power recently shook America following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. They marched to the capital, took to the media and linked arms with racially diverse students across America whose voices were heard for the first time. It was a show of solidarity that challenged the impenetrable conservative wall of power that shields gun lobbyists. If this is the future of America, then the future is bright.

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Ms Hall is a freelance writer based in the USA

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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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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“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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