As he was leaving for work, Stephen Mumbo closed the door to his apartment. It was still dark outside, but he had to be at work early enough to finish a report and prepare for a meeting. In one hand he carried the lunchbox his wife, Roselyne, packed for him every night. In the other, he held his car keys.
A quiet, shy bespectacled man with a balding head and a nerdy aura, he was always polite to a fault. He was also a workaholic, rarely seen anywhere else but at his office desk. But this morning, as he left the apartment, got to the parking lot, and into his maroon Mitsubishi Lancer, registration plate KAS 843M, something else was on his mind.
He was tired, but that fatigue would have to wait. He had barely seen Roselyne and their infant daughter in the preceding two months as he had been busy undoing one of the biggest corporate messes in Kenyan history. It was his brief, but for most of the previous decade and a half, such assignments had been his life.
To anyone watching, nothing was outwardly unusual about Mumbo that cold Friday morning.
From his apartment building, the 9-storey Pangani Palace Apartments off Muthaiga roundabout, he joined the early morning rush hour traffic. Although Nairobi wakes up early to beat the city’s infamous traffic jams, it took him less than 30 minutes to reach his office in Westlands. The sun rose on the horizon and with it, the city. It would be the last time he would take that route.
As he took a gentle left turn off Waiyaki Way to the paved driveway of the twin Delta Towers, the headquarters of his employer, Stephen Mumbo was already a man on edge. But his permanent calm demeanor, which had only failed him on rare occasions, hid the turmoil beneath.
Mumbo waved at the guards as they let him through the barrier. He drove to his parking slot, reverse-parked into it, and walked to the lift. Once in, he pressed the 12 button and waited. When the doors opened, he got off and walked to his office.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15 a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Mumbo removed his suit jacket and draped it over his seat. On any other day, he would only wear it again if he had a meeting or if it got cold. He sat at his desk, which was a neatly arranged table with no personal items. It was where he spent days and nights working on assignments, and where, this fateful morning, he would sit one last time. On his mind was a report he had been toiling on for the previous two weeks that was due that morning. But there were many other things troubling him.
Mumbo used his access card to enter the office a few seconds before 6:15a.m. Even that early on a Friday morning, he was not the first person at the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Kenya office. At least four of his colleagues were already at their desks, typing up reports, trying to meet deadlines and preparing for meetings.
Six weeks before that morning, UBA Bank had placed ARM Cement, a listed manufacturing company, under PwC’s management over massive debt. The company had been suspended from the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) as its shareholders reeled in disclosures of hidden debts and other forms of corporate malfeasance. While for outsiders it was a story of yet another typical Kenyan company, for Stephen Mumbo it was a direct challenge.
As the Assistant Manager of Executory and Forensic Investigations, the complexities of understanding the company’s true position, and then figuring out ways to solve the mess, fell directly on his desk – and he was just the man for the job. He was not only reliable, he was also driven. In a profession that demands brilliance, he could be considered a proper nerd. Besides, he had worked for PwC for nearly a decade and a half and had proven his skills countless times. If there was a complexity you couldn’t untangle, on just about any project, Stephen Mumbo was the man to ask.
He’d spent 18-hour work days working on the ARM proposal, which was not unusual for him or anyone who worked at PwC. What was specifically different was that Mumbo was a perfectionist par excellence. Grammar was important to him; a comma out of place would unnerve him, and more than once he had chosen to file reports late rather than table them with errors. He approached his work, as one colleague put it, like the civil engineer he had been trained to be. One centimetre off, and the whole structure risks collapse. That perfectionism meant he spent hours and days labouring on not just getting the right proposals on paper, but also on making sure that the language in the reports was clear and concise. It made him irreplaceable, but at the same time, it meant that he could not be promoted.
Sometime between 7:30am and 7:40am, Mumbo asked a colleague whether there was any free meeting room on the 17th floor. There wasn’t, she told him. Despite having this information, he still went upstairs, hoping that the administrator there could find him one. He needed it for a meeting, which was scheduled for 9am, but he also had other things on his mind.
The only thing that might have caught anyone’s attention was that he wasn’t wearing his spectacles, which was rare. His eyes were red, but for a man in his profession, that was considered just another day at the office. It was also not unusual for him to go upstairs hours before a meeting. Since he had left his jacket draped on his chair, everyone assumed he was coming back.
On the 17th floor, Mumbo tried several rooms. He found someone talking on her phone in one of them. She asked him if he had booked the room. He said no, and closed the door. That woman was probably the last person to see him alive.
When he got to Kilimanjaro 2 meeting room, he found it empty. He closed the door behind him. He was physically alone, but no one will ever truly know what kind of torment he was going through. He walked across the room’s polished floors, passing the black and yellow chairs, probably tapping his fingers on the grey top mahogany table. Then he placed his Lenovo laptop on the table, walked to the window, and climbed outside. From there, he could see the Westlands rush hour traffic below him. He could see Waiyaki Way, and even the stretch he had turned into two hours earlier to get into his office, as well as the Westlands matatu stage on the other side of the road. There was the luxury car dealership at the end of the complex, and the parking lot between it and his building. But maybe he didn’t notice any of this as he steadied himself on the ledge.
Then he jumped.
To anyone watching from outside, the fall lasted the blink of an eye. One second Stephen Mumbo was standing on the ledge of the window, and the next he was on the balcony of the 2nd floor, fifteen floors down. It must have looked macabre, the sight of a man falling to his death against the backdrop of Delta Towers’ imposing façade. To the employees at SBM Bank, on whose second-floor window ledge Mumbo died, it sounded like a sudden thud.
Many things drove his choice of the 17th floor, including the fact that it was mostly empty at that time of day, and that from that high up, he was unlikely to survive the fall. Later images from witnesses in the buildings across show four first responders around his lifeless body dressed in a light blue shirt and black suit pants. There wasn’t much anyone could do at that point, and he was pronounced dead immediately after he was taken to the hospital.
Inside PwC Kenya, the immediate members of his team were told to go home or wait if they needed to see a counsellor. Someone retrieved Mumbo’s Lenovo laptop from the meeting room, and from it the report he had spent his last two months alive working on. Everyone else was ordered back to their assignments, even while Mumbo’s body still lay on a ledge below.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall. There are no cameras in the corridors outside the boardroom, only on the staircases. That blind spot would make it hard for investigators to determine if anyone had joined him in the room.
Others focused on the suicide angle; many wondered why a 41-year-old man with a well-paying job would choose to end his life. Some suggested domestic issues had driven Mumbo to his death; one strangely detailed tweet suggested infidelity. But the public speculation ignored the probability that only Stephen Mumbo knew what Stephen Mumbo was going through. In the absence of a suicide note in any form – none has been found – piecing back the last few years of his life is probably the only way to understand why he killed himself.
As the news of Stephen Mumbo’s fall broke in the capital city, people speculated on whether he had jumped or he had been pushed. On Twitter, people wondered whether there had been foul play; some connected the dots from Mumbo’s sensitive work as a forensic investigator to his fall.
By the time he died, Stephen Mumbo was one of only three employees who had been at PwC Kenya for more than 13 years. He’d only had one job outside PwC (as a design engineer between March 2003 and April 2004) before joining the accounting firm. The only other company he had worked for was a small Malawian smallholder farmer’s company where he had done a brief consultancy in 2016. PwC was, by all accounts, more home to him than his apartment was. The job fit his personality as it required a meticulous, borderline obsessive mind.
Mumbo was, by many accounts, a good boss and an effective team leader who avoided office politics. In a profession where kindness is rare, he was overly compassionate and helpful. Sometimes, according to several people who worked with him over the years, he would volunteer to help on a project and eventually take a leadership role. But he was the kind of colleague who took on team projects and then credited everyone else. According to at least one insider, the kind of work Stephen Mumbo was handling on ARM Cement was probably work that should have been handled by a team of six.
Mumbo’s perfectionism and thoroughness also made him irreplaceable. Most of the people who eventually became his bosses owed some of their success to him. He trained them, as he did many other people, but they passed him in rank because he was not assertive. In a meeting room, he would point out flaws in plans in a heartbeat, but recoil when asked how to change them. Instead, he would draft his thoughts and offer them to someone else to present.
But he enjoyed the work itself. The constant mental challenge must have been a thrill at the beginning of his career, but it slowly chipped away at his mental health.
By October 2018, he couldn’t take it anymore. “They [PwC] plied him with so much work, and he wasn’t the type to say no, so he did it anyway. He was always very well groomed, but always tired,” said a relative.
By the time Pricewaterhouse Coopers bought part of Delta Towers in late 2012 for Sh4.4 billion in a joint deal with the University of Nairobi, it was already one of the biggest auditing firms in the world. The company was founded in 1998 through a merger between Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse, and rebranded to PwC in September 2010. By then, it was present in 158 countries and 743 locations, battling it out with three other audit firms, Deloitte, EY, and KPMG. PwC had over 236,000 people in its ranks, among them a quiet Kenyan nerd called Stephen Mumbo.
The PwC Tower, one of the two towers that make up Delta Towers, became PwC’s new home from early 2013. It was a remarkable investment by a company partially owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. PwC Kenya settled for Wing B of the 20-storey twin towers, occupying half and renting out the other half. Upper Hill, its former home, was losing its lustre as new buildings came up without the infrastructure to support them. Now, in the newest building on the corner of Waiyaki Way and Ring Road Westlands, its employees were spoilt for choice on where to live. Location was important because many of them would work long hours, driving to and from work while the city slept.
As an employer, PwC Kenya consistently ranks as one of the best places to work in Nairobi. Entry-level graduate trainees earn an average monthly salary of Sh120,000, and its partners, according to Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), are some high-net-worth individuals with gross annual incomes of between Sh350 million and Sh1 billion.
For the ARM job, PwC charged Sh65.6 million for the first three months, in addition to Sh7.9 million for preparatory work. While the PwC partners appointed to do the job were Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, the actual legwork went to a quiet nerd on the 12th floor called Stephen Mumbo. Thoithi and Weru would earn Sh43,000 per hour, while associate directors would earn Sh37,800, senior managers Sh30,000, and project managers Sh25,000 per hour. As a manager, Mumbo’s pay most likely fell in the two lower ranks. But to earn his keep, he would have to spend hours on end poring through reports, preparing his own recommendations, and presenting them to his bosses and the client.
By the time Mumbo got to his desk at 6:15am on Friday, 12th October, he had had less than three hours of sleep. He had gone home at 1am the previous night. He fell asleep fast, but he was clearly distressed, according to several close family members. He kept tossing and turning and woke up before daylight to get back on the grind.
Multiple conversations with past and current employees of PwC Kenya paint the picture of a firm with little space for work-life balance. Long hours and mind-breaking work are the norm, and most employees, like Stephen Mumbo, tend to live close to Delta Towers to ease the commute to work. The employee turnover rate is understandably high, as the work environment becomes more unbearable as one ages and begins seeking a better work-life balance.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.” Lunch breaks, several employees said, are not exactly an option: “Nobody goes for a long leisurely lunch at PwC. Many people eat at their desks.” The average work day, said several employees, is 14 hours. If you are on a project, it’s not unusual to work 18-hour days.
Under Kenyan law, normal working hours are between 45 hours and 52 hours a week for day employees and 60 hours for night employees. The law also provides for at least one rest day a week. At 14-18 hours a day, Stephen Mumbo and his colleagues were clocking between 84 hours to 126 hours a week, twice the legal limit. While the law also provides for overtime, the overriding element is that it be properly compensated, and not result in overworking, which impairs sleep patterns and increases the risk of stress, depression, and lower immunity. Overwork has been associated with heart problems, and among low-income workers, with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. People who overwork tend to lead unhealthy lifestyles, having less time to exercise, eat. They also tend to smoke or drink more.
Describing his experience at PwC, one employee said, “Deadlines have to be met and bonuses have to be earned. Your health is your problem. If you can’t handle the pressure, quit.” Another termed PwC’s work culture as “ruthless”, adding that even “having a baby is frowned upon.”
Stephen Mumbo seemed to have navigated many of the physical challenges of overworking for almost a decade and a half. He was in good health, didn’t smoke, and barely drank alcohol. But the mental strain was showing.
All the interviewees for this story did not want to be named for fear of retribution for breaking company policy. In more than one case, there were also descriptions of the kind of retribution they might face, down to being put on track to be fired. More often than not, the interviewees still within PwC Tower outlined their basic exit plans and described Mumbo’s death as the latest in a series of wake-up calls.
For those who choose to stay, like Stephen Mumbo, the back-breaking work eventually leads to burnout. There was at least one other breakdown at the office in 2017, and several employees whispered about people self-harming or using drugs to cope with the pressure. For Stephen Mumbo, years of such pressure had finally taken their toll.
Mumbo’s distress on that last night was not the only time he had shown signs of work-related stress and depression. In the years before his death, he had had at least three visible episodes of burnout and mental distress at work. In 2015, he had a breakdown in the office and walked out on his boss. He was away from the office for a month. Meanwhile, work was still piling up; Shah Karuturi, the Kenyan subsidiary of the world’s biggest producer of cut roses, was placed under administration sometime during his break. This project was on his desk when he got back.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another boardroom and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
The third instance was perhaps the most significant in piecing together Stephen Mumbo’s last years alive. It happened years before he finally took his life, and linked back to the pillars in his adult life.
Then, in mid-2017, a colleague recalls, Mumbo fell asleep in the middle of a presentation with a client. “He was totally burned out, but his bosses simply told him to go to another board room and sleep for 45 minutes and then get back to work,” remembered the colleague. Such was life for him, going from one burnout to the next.
Run to the finish
Mumbo’s village in Kisumu, Nyamasaria, is a hot, dry, humid area. The land is infertile because its black cotton soil sucks the life out of any cash crop. Only weeds, euphorbia, and coarse grass are stubborn enough to grow on the land.
It was in this unforgiving terrain that Stephen Henry Mumbo was born to Arthur Waore Mumbo, an administrator at KEMRI, and Abigael Waore, a teacher at Nyamasaria Primary School in 1977. Mumbo was the last-born in a family of five.
Arthur Waore died in 1992, the year before Stephen joined St. Paul’s Amukura. The young teen moved to Alupe, Busia, to live under the care of his uncle, Mzee Obura, a doctor who still works for KEMRI. All accounts of Stephen Mumbo then match the man he would become: quiet, studious, and driven. According to his cousin, Fred Obura, Mumbo was more than just a brother. They were best friends and even went to the same high school.
In the 1990s, St. Paul’s Amukura, founded by Catholic priest Father Louis Okidoi in 1962, was an academic giant in what is now Busia County. The school motto, Cursum Consumavi, is Latin for “Run to the Finish.” When Stephen Mumbo was a student there, between 1993 and 1996, he lived in Nehru dormitory, named after the charismatic Indian leader.
In his teens, Stephen Mumbo walked awkwardly and avoided conversation. Several fellow alumni of St. Paul’s describe Mumbo’s shyness with fascination. Mumbo was, one says, the guy who wanted the key to the library when everyone else was chasing girls and dates. Odeo Sirari, a KTN news editor, was in Form One when Mumbo was in his final year. “As a new student, it was easy for me to notice Mumbo because he looked so serious, a total book worm,” recalls Sirari.
Another schoolmate, Caleb Etyang, who was a year ahead of Mumbo, says Mumbo would never be found on the school Isuzu bus, christened Kisisiata 3, which served the school between 1990 and 1999, and was driven by a gentle old man the boys fondly called Boyo. “He wasn’t a guy to go for sports or drama outings, he was much more at home in the school and in the library.” In his first two years at the school, he was the class prefect. In his last two years, he was the library prefect.
Mumbo topped the class of 1996 at the school, his only disappointment being that he hadn’t beaten the record of Adiema Aura, a renowned educationist who attended the school in the 80s. He’d only failed to overthrow Aura because he didn’t do well in Kiswahili; he scored an A-minus in the subject.
From St. Paul’s, he made his way to JKUAT, where he would spend the next few years training to become a civil engineer. Engineering offered the challenges a nerd like him yearned for, with its tenets of approaching problems and challenges with a tenacity that combined knowledge, skills and experience. After graduating, he did an accounting course and then took a brief engineering gig. Then he joined PwC Kenya, where he would spend the rest of his life, save for two unpaid sabbaticals.
Throughout this life, Mumbo relied mostly on his mother, Abigael, for emotional support. He had his siblings as well, as well as his adopted ones who were in fact, his cousins. But it was Abigael who represented the most profound influence on her shy young son’s life before and after school.
Then, on 3rd June 2008, Abigael Waore died.
Multiple accounts point to a marked change in Mumbo’s life, work, and demeanor after his mum died. He simply couldn’t work anymore; he took a one-year unpaid sabbatical before going back to work. At some point, either then or after, Mumbo also mounted a massive portrait of his mother in his bedroom. Her face was the last thing he saw before he slept and the first thing he saw when he woke up.
Colleagues say that whenever he was not shy, he would talk about his mum a lot. After she died, he mostly talked about his wife Roselyne. They had been married for seven years but had spent a considerable time apart as Roselyne focused on a project in Kisumu and Mumbo toiled at PwC Tower. On days when they were together, his lunch box was the source of envy, as colleagues listened to him go on and on about his wife’s cooking. On any day, even when out of the country on assignment, he would speak to her on the phone for at least an hour.
In the three months before his tragic fall, he also talked about his daughter. The couple had tried to have a baby for several years before finally settling on adoption to grow their family. The toddler was a new addition, and a happy one at that. Mumbo often talked about his daughter, but also said how he didn’t get enough time to be with her.
Mumbo’s suicide was not the first time a PwC employee had died after jumping from a floor in a PwC office. In April 2016, a 23-year-old employee of the PwC headquarters in London had jumped to his death from PwC’s ten-storey office building. His decision was attributed to a secret gambling habit, which he had begged his parents not to inform PwC about. He died on a walkway outside the office.
In another case, in May 2012, a 46-year old man jumped off the eighth floor of the PwC building in Largo, the third largest city in Pinellas County, Florida. In 2015, a director at PwC in the UAE, Jumana, was found dead in an apparent suicide pact with her sister, Soraya Saiti, at the base of a building under construction in Amman, Jordan. Then in August 2017, a PwC director named Werner Haupfleisch died by suicide in his home in Royldene, South Africa.
While none of these deaths were directly linked to PwC’s organisational culture, there have been other related deaths. In 2011, for example, Angela Pan, an auditor at the Shanghai PwC office, died ten days after first showing flu-like symptoms. Although her death was attributed to viral encephalitis, social media users of Sina Weibo speculated that she had been “worked to death”, Sometime before her death, Pan sent an update on Sina Weibo that said, “I can accept overtime. I can also accept out-of-town business trips. But on learning a young worker died from fatigue at KP (KPMG), I feel something has broken my bottom line to endure.” She had only worked for the company for six months, after graduating from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.” Atsango says that similar to how factories provide safety gear, stressful work environments should find ways to help employees cope, and ease burnout. Many of these are included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which also safeguards employees from “mental strain”.
Faith Atsango, a psychologist, says that work-related stress should be classified as a safety hazard. “People in high pressure jobs are prone to have mental breakdowns,” she adds, “and such incidents should be treated as physical health and safety issues at work.”
Despite these safeguards, high unemployment and weak enforcement of labour laws mean that work-related stress is not properly addressed. Mental health is still largely a taboo topic, despite an increasing number of deaths directly connected to it.
Part of the stigma attached to mental health is gender-related; statistics show that more than 70 per cent of the suicide-related deaths in 2017 were of males. Two days after Mumbo’s death, another man jumped into a borehole in Matisi Estate, Kitale. Five months before that, another man had jumped off the 8th floor of the 15-storey NSSF building in Mombasa.
There are numerous reasons for the gender disparity, most of them revolving around the social silence on depression and other mental health issues among men. Even worse, the stresses of living and working in a fast-paced urban centre pile up. The stresses include underemployment, overwork, length of the commute to work, and stagnant pay levels in a struggling economy.
A 1982 study on the subject showed that while the population in Nairobi grew by 7.5 per cent between 1975 and 1979, the rate of suicides grew by 300 per cent. The study also found a pattern in the months with the highest suicide rates; suicides tend to occur in the months of January to March, April to June, and October to December. There have been other studies focusing on at-risk groups, such as university students, but there is barely any substantive research on work-related stress and depression.
Then there’s the law. Instead of the law taking a pragmatic approach to the reasons why people take their own lives, it treats suicide as a crime. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour punishable by two years’ imprisonment or fines, or both. This means that if Stephen Mumbo had survived his fall, which was unlikely, he would have promptly been arrested and thrown before a judge. That legal perspective and the social stigma also mean that suicide goes largely unacknowledged as the social issue it is.
Despite the legal and social hurdles, there have been some attempts to provide psychological wellness for several at-risk groups. In October, the same month Stephen Mumbo died, the National Police Service created a new department to assess the psychological wellness of officers. There had been at least five reported suicides of police officers in the preceding months. A few months later, the education ministry raised the alarm on an increasing number of death by suicide among university students.
In corporate workplaces such as PwC Kenya, the inclusion of psychological wellness has been at best abstract. PwC Global has made several public commitments to facilitate mental health awareness within its ranks. PwC UK, for example, has a “Green Light to Talk Day” and hired Beth Taylor as its new mental health leader in January 2016. PwC Malaysia has a “FitPwC” programme that combines physical and mental wellbeing. PwC Kenya does not have any such programme, and several employees described recent events, such as a meeting where management sought ideas on how to improve the work environment, as window-dressing.
As a consulting firm, PwC has published several reports on workplace stress. In 2017, PwC UK published a report on tackling workplace stress with technology. Three years before that, PwC Australia published a report titled “Creating a mentally healthy workplace.” The irony of such reports, according to a former long-term employee of PwC, is that they were most likely prepared by people who were themselves working in a mentally unhealthy environment.
A few hours after Mumbo’s death, Peter Ngahu, PwC’s regional and country senior partner, held a press conference where he said, “It’s difficult to keep track of what each and every person is doing.” He refused to answer the question about whether Mumbo had been alone in the meeting room before he fell to his death. His response was: “He may have had a meeting, but he’s not here to answer the question.”
After that, Ngahu and Mumbo’s bosses, Muniu Thoithi and George Weru, declined any more media interviews into the death. Both Ngahu and Thoithi didn’t pick calls or answer text messages about the company’s work culture and measures they would institute to help employees deal with work-related stress. Reached for comment, George Weru declined, saying “No, no, no, I would not wish to say anything about this issue. The boss, Ngahu, issued a press statement and held a press conference on the matter last Friday.”
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
The ARM project, his last, continued unabated, as did the entire firm. Eleven days after he stepped off the ledge of the 17th floor meeting room, ARM’s creditors approved an extension of PwC’s mandate to September 2019. It will be going on to this next phase without one of its ablest minds. In a meeting on October 22nd, the creditors also gave PwC permission to implement several options to revive the company. These, most likely sourced from Mumbo’s work, include getting a strategic investor and selling off some of the company’s key assets. It is unclear whether he had been the one who discovered that for years, ARM Cement had been treating a loan to its Tanzanian subsidiary as a performing loan while Maweni had been defaulting for years.
At PwC Tower, life continued almost as if nothing significant had happened there on October 12th. If Mumbo’s death had been “a big blow” to PwC Kenya, as Ngahu termed it in his press release, then it didn’t show. There was counselling for a few of the staff members in Mumbo’s team, but then everyone went back to work even before his body was removed from the scene.
Even before the shock of his sudden death waned, Mumbo’s friends and family organised meetings and fundraisers. At Tumaini Meeting Chambers behind Kencom House, they planned a farewell to a man who had seemed like he had it all. Many of his colleagues could not make it to the meetings because they were working. Instead, they sent cash donations and condolences.
On Friday, 26th October 2018, exactly two weeks after Mumbo had ended his life, they left in a convoy from Montezuma Funeral Home and drove to Mumbo’s home in Nyamasaria. The next day, at 9 am, they sat as the priest prayed, and then watched in grief as the casket bearing Mumbo’s body was slowly lowered into the grave. It was heartbreaking, a tragedy by any measure. A man who, after living off his brilliance, had ended up back in the unforgiving soil where he had first seen the world. For Roselyne and their daughter, it was the beginning of a life without Mumbo, who was at the time the sole breadwinner in the household.
On the 2nd floor ledge at Delta Towers, where Mumbo breathed his last, the dent his body left is still prominent, a stark reminder of his tragic end. In the parking lot, his Mitsubishi Lancer sat untouched for months, parked in the same spot where he left it.
Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.
South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.
History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.
A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.
Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.
In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:
However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.
It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.
Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin
By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.
The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.
At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.
This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.
Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.
Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.
Stoking the flames
African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.
South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:
Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.
After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.
Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.
On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.
Whither the Pan-African dream?
In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:
I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.
It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.
African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.
The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.
Glimmers of hope
All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:
Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.
Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.
Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.
Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”
The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.
Gambling Against the Kenyan State
7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.
In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.
It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.
After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.
Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.
Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.
Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.
Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.
Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.
Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.
While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.
Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.
Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.
What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’
For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.
Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.
This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)
Donald Trump: America’s ‘African Dictatorship’ Moment
8 min read. For decades, the grandiosity and excesses of Africa’s strongmen have been the subject of global ridicule and scorn. Now, under Donald Trump, Americans are finally getting a taste of what an African dictatorship looks and feels like.
Am I the only one who felt a growing sense of ugly familiarity while watching the 4th of July proceedings in Washington DC? It took me a few days to fully comprehend the oddity of the spectacle. It was atavistically American: a questionable real estate mogul; fighter jets roaring overhead; fireworks blowing off with abandon as vague tenants of “bravery” were touted. One only needed to add in grandiose Lynard Skynyrd music, a screw-on plastic bottle of Bud Light (for safety) and the tossing of an American flag football to make it the most US-driven spectacle ever put on display.
Apart from an eye-rolling display of questionable Americana, the whole display struck a deeper and more sinister chord. Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before: military equipment being trucked in from all over the country to be displayed as props; invites extended mainly to party loyalists; outlandish claims of nationalistic strength in the face of unknown “threats”; and an ever-ballooning budget taken seemingly from the most needy of social programmes.
Further, the entirety of the charade was put on by a leader of questionable (at best) morals, one who openly blasts the press as anti-democratic and who is known to engage in dubious electoral practices.
Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media, with well-established media houses with sterling reputations formed through covering the 20th century’s most brutal occurrences suddenly at a loss that anything so gauche could take shape in the form of an American leader.
When it comes down to it though, doesn’t it all reside at the doorstep of personality type?
From where I sit, it most certainly does. All of these strongmen (and they are all male) – whether they’re in power, in post-political ennui or dead – have done the exact same thing. It is different strokes painted with the same brush. Their canvas, on this occasion, is that of spectacle, of projecting something that is better, stronger (dare I say less impotent?) than themselves. It is a public display of strength, ill-needed by those who don’t secretly know that they’re inwardly weak.
Many readers within East Africa may have looked at their TV screens and thought to themselves: “It’s finally America’s turn to see this ridiculousness.” They wouldn’t be wrong. In the United States right now, the term “unprecedented” is bandied about with ferocity amongst the media…
To start with, those who have systematically oppressed and plundered a country often rub it in to commemorate their “achievements”. For example, there is still a nationally celebrated Moi Day annually in Kenya, despite the former president’s record of extrajudicial measures, devaluing of the Kenyan shilling and rampant institutional corruption. Yoweri Museveni has been “democratically” elected five times, and makes sure to always inspect military guards dressed in full pomp at major Ugandan national days and events. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame had an outright military parade during his latest inauguration in 2017. It is true, such days are often celebrated with a display of token military presence; at the inaugural “Trump Day” this past American Independence Day, an exception to the rule was not found.
A key tenet of such military-driven presidential events, at least within those run by would-be strongmen, is the heavy under-current of politicisation made more stark as the figurehead acts exceptionally stoic and well-behaved for the event. At the rally on the Fourth of July, chants of “lock her up” broke out among the crowd, and reports of minor clashes made the news. Therein, as they say, lies the key difference, the breaking point from a day of democratic celebration of national history into something more sinister. It is when the very essence of patriotism swings to identify with a single individual that the political climate can become potentially even more dangerous than it already is.
Within hours of the spectacle that put him at the centre, Trump made heavy-handed allegations of communism against his political “enemies”; within days he was saying that certain Congresswomen (all of colour) should go back to their countries of origin if they didn’t “love” the US enough. The standard, it seems, is political allegiance.
Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants, while directed at all four Congresswomen, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan), were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US, where she eventually found a permanent home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This, when seen through the lens of escalating nationalism, jingoistic tendencies towards refugees (including the abysmal treatment of migrants on the United States’ southern border with Mexico in a series of “detention facilities”), and thrown as chum to stirring crowds at politically-driven rallies, is a dangerous recipe.
The message being espoused and defended at the present by both the Trump administration and right-wing politicians loyal to it has taken root at the very celebration of American democracy itself. It is, in fact, association by patriotism. It is becoming a deeper-seated sense of national identity and the mere act of seeing such policies associated with the nation’s independence is, to put it mildly, a dangerous precedent. It is a continuation of a trend of both ramping up and normalising such attacks on what is deemed “un-American” by those currently in power. This designation, once considered “beyond the norm” within United States’ politics, has rapidly shifted towards becoming the routine.
While the rally was taking place, Trump harangued the crowd with a 45-minute all-American masturbatory salute to military hardware. He read off assorted names of different combinations of letters and numbers, each signifying a different tool of top-grade, American-made weapon of death and destruction. Fighter jets, tanks, humvees, all were given their due with a salute through the rain-soaked vista of the National Mall of Washington DC. They were each named nearly laboriously, in exquisite reverence for their ability to unleash death on vague “enemies of the state” (typically seen in the guise of unspecified foreigners in Hollywood action blockbusters).
In a more current context, this is still a practice around the region. Military honour guards are inspected in ceremony by the head of state. In fairness, despite the US press’s fervent response, America has an awkward relationship with the fetishisation of the military on every official and unofficial national occasion. Fighter jets zoom over the heads of Americans. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, we have seen the rampant rise of forced acts of patriotism, many of which later turned out to be directly sponsored by the Pentagon to the tune of millions of US dollars (furnished by the US taxpayer). This continued to deepen the divide among the American public along the lines of military interventionism and military prioritisation. It is an underlying sentiment of “tanks are now alongside White House officials, and who are you to disagree with their patriotism?” The association, as it were, is the issue.
It is a slippery slope when the military is viewed as an extension of the leadership, rather than one that protects the national interest. All too often within strongman-type of leadership structures, the military (and their goals) become an arm of the central governmental figure, with such events as seen on the Fourth of July being a means to “stroke the ego” of the leadership.
An adept dictator always knows where their bread is buttered: the more that one inflates the importance of the military and raises its stature, the more likely the military is going be loyal to you. In a sense, the Fourth of July parade was a natural extension of Trump’s extensive rallies in support of “the troops”, “the cops” and “the brave people guarding our border from the invasion from the South”. Daniel arap Moi is a good example of this behaviour; in the post-1982 coup period, he closed ranks, gave the military more emphasis, and rewarded loyalty.
Within weeks of the Fourth of July event, Donald Trump’s supporters were chanting “send her back” at presidential rallies. These chants…were particularly poignant in the context of Ms. Omar, who was born in Somalia before fleeing to the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya, and finally resettling as a refugee in the US…
In turn, this behaviour can drive the chosen narrative of the state – that the military is way too powerful to be challenged. The story is told, played out on screen, marched in front of the masses, splashed across newspaper front pages. It helps to reinforce an idea, one of division, that of being on an opposing side from the government if you dare disagree.
Make no mistake, however ridiculous the Fourth of July show was, it was most definitely intended to be a show of strength. How could one feasibly dare to challenge the seat of power when the very entirety of military might is on public display, with guns pointed squarely into the crowd from the very basis of the Lincoln Memorial? This is not unlike the grandiose trains of government vehicles that accompany Museveni as he zips around Kampala or Uhuru Kenyatta as he delays traffic whilst travelling out to play golf on the outskirts of Nairobi. (The number of cars isn’t the point; it’s that they would crush you if you were to stand in their path.) Think what you want of Kagame’s policies and the issues surrounding democratic practices in Rwanda; only a fool would doubt his closeness to the top military brass. What Trump is engaging in now is the classic appearance of alliances – the same outer projection that any opposition’ would be met with those same large caliber guns that faced outward to the crowd. Only the obtuse would see that positioning as merely coincidental.
It isn’t a coincidence that those in the Trump administration’s camp were given prime seats at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Those “in the know” are given strength by a sort of transitive property of influence. The man on the stage is in charge of those with the guns, and he approves of you enough to let you into the inner sanctum.
It is further not a coincidence that the “vicious, mean, hateful, disgusting democrats” weren’t even invited within shouting distance of the “in club”. They haven’t shown enough Trumpian loyalty to be positioned near the military hardware. Instead members of the Democratic Party were told to “sort themselves” and largely stayed away from the proceedings of the event at the National Mall in Washington DC that rainy evening.
The end consequences of these deepening of divisions could be seen during the event and in the immediate hours afterwards. Squabbles broke out, flag-burning protesters were angrily confronted, reports of arrests were made.
From the White House (or possibly from a late night flight down to a golf course) Trump began to launch public attacks against those who would have stood against his event, his party and his party’s party. The tirade began in public, with attacks that were based on race, classism and politics. The “haters” and “losers” were blamed, and the appearance of strength steadily deepened the already existing party line divisions.
It was in the hours after that that the evidence was most apparent that Trump had used the Fourth of July “Salute to America” as a means for further political grandstanding. The traditional 4th of July political “ceasefire” was sounded with the firing off of verbal and political shots. It was in the insults that the intended circling of the wagons became further crystallised. It was classic Trump and classic strongman – to put on the best of appearances only to sink several notches lower as soon as the cameras officially turned off.
Let’s finish with the gold standard of ridiculous self-congratulatory events – Idi Amin. Am I saying that the crimes of Idi Amin are equal to those of Trump? Obviously not, but am I comparing their gauche public tendencies and sub-par intellects? Absolutely. Amin was famous for his parades during times of extreme national duress. He continued on, medals ablaze with the military’s full might on display. Add to this his self-congratulatory nature, his vindictive political favouritism and his toxic displays of might. (Amin, it has been noted, was jealous of the then Central African Republic president, Jean-Bedel Bakassa, who visited him adorned with medals more extravagant than his own.)
As for Trump, he is not one to shy away from self-aggrandisement and self-promotion. His very own Boeing 737 is famously decked with solid gold interiors. His ego can even be described as all-consuming; it eats whatever stands in its path. It is a self-sustaining entity, a black hole from which there can be no escape. The same could be said about Amin – power went to his head, and quickly. Once it did, enemies were dispatched and invented to be dispatched.
Trump’s paranoia could be viewed as becoming extreme. There is an endless need for loyalty and deference to Trump, especially amongst his most loyal followers; the Fourth of July parade was simply the latest manifestation of it. With such parades, limits and moderation don’t typically follow suit.
There will be more events, bigger showmanship and more association with himself as the idyllic vision of America. He is filling out his strongman shows nicely now, and starting to walk around in them. He now needs feats of false strength in order to back himself up.
The key difference between Trump and Amin, of course, is that the US military is a global monolith, one that can destroy the world with the push of a red button by an orange finger.
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