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Always Behind: Kenya’s Languishing Creative Industry

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Recent case studies have revealed that the creative industry can be a significant earner to an economy. However, as ALEX ROBERTS argues, Kenya’s languishing creative industry can be attributed to lack of support from the Government.

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ALWAYS BEHIND: Kenya’s Languishing Creative Industry
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What was South Korea in the late 1970s? Say around 1979, during the first year of Daniel arap Moi’s presidency? It was a military state, run by a soon-to-be-assassinated autocratic leader, General Park Chung-hee, and still eight years away from becoming a presidential republic. It was a state in flux: the killing of Gen Chung-hee left a power vacuum, with political factions vying for superiority amongst the ruins of his toppled dictatorship. By any stretch of the word, South Korea entering the 1980s, and for much of that decade, could be described as a nation in turmoil, politically, economically and developmentally. It was a state at risk of falling back into chaos and becoming a cautionary tale.

Kenya, on the other hand, had new leadership. At the beginning of the 1980s, it was viewed by the international community as a shining example of a post-independence African state that looked set to be an economic powerhouse of the future. At that time, Nigeria was still under a military junta and South Africa was regressing into the bloodiest period of anti-apartheid action.

Yet, by the tail end of the decade, Seoul was hosting the 1988 Olympics, and less than four decades on, in 2016, South Korea had the 11th highest GDP on earth, behind Canada and ahead of Australia. According to the United Nations, in the same year Kenya was ranked 75th, just behind Uzbekistan and ahead of Guatemala.

What happened? A major factor is South Korea’s investment in the creative economy versus the Kenyan government’s approach of letting the entire sector be deprioritised and left to flounder alone.

In the case of South Korea’s film industry, one major shift occurred in 1994. At the time Hollywood films controlled most of the market while locally produced films controlled less than one-fifth. The government took a decision to invest in and emphasise locally-made films. Since then, the South Korean film industry, when coupled with K-Pop, has seen the rise of the “Korean wave”, a globally influential and massively profitable enterprise. It remains the modern model of the need for government support for the local creative industries.

With regards to K-pop (the Korean brand of bubble gum-style pop songs), the Government of South Korea played a direct hand in sustaining the momentum of this global musical force. A Ministry of Culture was formed in 1998, including a specified department exclusively overseeing the development of the nation’s music, with millions of dollars pouring in. Where the difference is further highlighted was the government’s targeting of music as a potential cash cow for the languishing economy. Much of Asia had been sucked into a whirlwind of economic turmoil in the late 90s, and the government needed alternatives for employment, taxable revenue and global influence. The government also ensured protection through effective policies and engaging with music industry members. Fast-forward two decades, and K-Pop is a US$ 5 billion industry.

In the case of South Korea’s film industry, one major shift occurred in 1994. At the time Hollywood films controlled most of the market while locally produced films controlled less than one-fifth. The government took a decision to invest in and emphasise locally-made films. Since then, the South Korean film industry, when coupled with K-Pop, has seen the rise of the “Korean wave”, a globally influential and massively profitable enterprise.

The creative economy has been defined as the ultimate economic resource within a nation. It’s the umbrella under which art, architecture, film, television, music, poetry, sculpture and writing exist. Kenya’s creative sector is a vibrant one, brimming with talent and possibility, especially when looked at through the opportunities it affords to the youth of the country.

Such opportunities are not exclusive to the Kenyan economy as the world is becoming modernised, and the creative sector is often an accompanying industry to modernity. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has stated that the economic potential of the global creative sector was worth more than US$ 2.2 trillion in 2015. The creative industry has undeniably massive impact upon a nation’s potential GDP and can offer a built-in solution to lingering questions of “development”. A 2013 report from UNESCO outlines that the cultural sector is a vital aspect of the sustainable development of a nation, as the creative sector is not only one of the fastest growing sectors in the world, but also can be highly transformative in terms of income generation, job creation and a nation’s earnings through export. A 2010 policy statement released by the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) further reflects this, stating that culture is the fourth pillar of sustainable development for any nation.

So with all of this potential, why does the creative sector in Kenya languish? Why has Kenya not taken the leap into the void of the sector, that same leap that has produced billions for other nations, including within Africa?

The state of Kenya’s creative industry

An all too common complaint among artists within Kenya is that the creative industry is simply not a “serious” entity to be pursued as a path to a successful and lucrative career. This “lack of seriousness” has resulted in one of the worst policy frameworks for the arts in the developing world. Concerts go unattended, books are not bought (if they can be published at all), grants are not delivered, artistic facilities remain unfinished and draconian regulations are imposed on the content that can be produced. Radio stations play music from abroad and theatres show foreign films. As Nairobi-based singer-songwriter, Tetu Shani says of the current situation, “The day that Kenyan artists start living like politicians is the day you’ll see a shift in public perception and consumption.”

This issue is exemplified by the lack of policy and effective implementation of regulations surrounding the creative industry. When examining the music industry, the crux of the issue comes down to copyright. Most casual fans of Kenyan music are familiar with the story of the band Elani, which had a smash album and multiple hits in 2013 and 2014 after the release of their record Barua ya Dunia. The airplay was steady and the singles very successful. In 2016, Elani criticised the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK), stating that the organisation had only paid them royalties totaling Sh31,000. MCSK has been embroiled in constant legal and legislative turmoils, and had its capacity to collect, track and distribute royalties to Kenyan artists revoked due to a court order in 2018. MCSK has since been replaced by the Music Publishers Association of Kenya (MPAKE) in the role, yet the headlines and legal issues remain.

The ones who seem to get lost in the shuffle are the artists. The example of Elani is at the core of the problems that face the creative industries in Kenya; while there might be growth of the sector on paper, the artists or creators themselves don’t see the benefits materialising within their wallets. At an even more micro level, take the example of the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya (NEMA) enforcing noise pollution regulations against DJs in Kenya; security forces routinely go into clubs, arrest DJs for exceeding “noise restrictions”, even as they spin on the decks, and haul them off to jail. Such enforcements were not communicated effectively to the members of the music industry.

Again, the issues surrounding the enforcement of regulations continue when examining the burgeoning film industry in Kenya. Some estimates contend that over 90 per cent of films in Kenya are pirated, with the heavy-handed punishments outlined by legislation being rarely enforced.

On top of this, the head of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, has made free expression through film and television markedly more difficult. Beyond his public criticisms of “gay lions” and cutting the release timeframe of Rafiki, the highest profile Kenyan film since 2011’s Nairobi Half-Life, down to less than a week (just enough time to qualify for the Academy Awards), Dr. Mutua has enacted steep license fees that have reduced the industry’s ability to operate independently, including the hoop-like requirement of filmmakers needing multiple licenses to film in multiple counties. It has become common for Kenya-based films and content to be filmed in South Africa. Indeed, Mutua’s attempts to enforce his dictates on theatre as well as the film industry have led content creators to further eschew any connection with the government.

On top of this, the head of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, has made free expression through film and television markedly more difficult. Beyond his public criticisms of “gay lions” and cutting the release timeframe of Rafiki, the highest profile Kenyan film since 2011’s Nairobi Half-Life, down to less than a week…Dr. Mutua has enacted steep license fees that have reduced the industry’s ability to operate independently, including the hoop-like requirement of filmmakers needing multiple licenses to film in multiple counties.

Kenya had a booming fashion industry in the 1980s, which contributed 30 per cent to the manufacturing sector. Since the 1980s, the continual influx of mitumba (second-hand clothes) has cut this employment severely. The change was brought about by the government cutting regulations and import tariffs in the late 1980s, cutting down on the cotton and garment sectors. This led to an increase in the jua kali nature of the sector, with members of the garment industry having to find their own work after the majority of the cotton production mills shut down. In turn, this contributed to much of the textile industry being a separate entity from that of the clothing production industry – an issue exacerbated by the lack of a unified industry body to advocate for the fashion sector.

This last point regarding the fashion industry of Kenya is truly a key issue that swirls around the creative sector in Kenya. Much of the industry remains fragmented, splintered and run by independent individuals and micro-organisations operating unofficially outside of government taxation or influence. The lack of a structured unified body is reflected in other creative industries, which lessens the sector’s ability to engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue with the government. These issues of associational divide were echoed by HIVOS in 2016, which stated that “the current state of associations in East Africa is that they are fragmented, disunited and lack a consistent agenda on how to engage the government and different industries to ensure the standards of the industry consistently improve”.

So what does all of this amount to? There is one commonality: the utter lack of possible taxable revenue as a result of obtuse and inadequate policy. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the entertainment industries are growing across the board; revenues are up, as is Internet access and the number of viewers within the Kenyan market. However, Kenya is trailing far behind other nations that have capitalised on the bolstering of income from the creative sector.

Kenya vs other major African markets

The stagnant creative sector in Kenyan becomes apparent when examining the state of other African creative sectors. When looking through the lens of the two other leading sub-Saharan African markets (Nigeria and South Africa) the differences and gaps becomes stark.

Both South Africa and Nigeria have music industry infrastructure that focuses on the regulations of the industy. This includes promoting local artists while protecting their ability to garner revenue from their work and punishing those who take advantage. Within Nigeria, artists are promoted, DJs play the latest local tracks and help to encourage grassroots growth of new musical artists.

The most glaring example of a creative economy’s potential is the constant streaming of Nollywood movies on Kenyan televisions. How exactly did the Nigerian film industry become so massive in recent decades, dominating the African market and influencing global media beyond the continent? It is a remarkable story of growth, with Nollywood’s early roots tracing back to the colonial era of the early 20th century.

The independence of Nigeria from British rule in 1960 resulted in further expansion of the film industry. The key moment came in 1972, when the Indigenization Decree was issued by Yakubu Gowon, the Head of the Federal Military Government. The original intent of the decree was to reduce foreign influence and pour wealth back into the hands of Nigerian citizens. The international business community publicly complained, threatened to pull out, and in some cases reduced their investment. The Indigenization Decree led to hundreds of theatres having ownership transferred from foreign hands to Nigerian ownership.

In the years that followed, widespread graft was discovered in multiple industries (much due to foreigners paying for corporate “fronts” while secretly maintaining control). Gowon was deposed while abroad in 1975 and the film industry continued to grow. New theatre owners started to show more and more local productions, with the result being Nollywood experiencing a further expansion across the next decade as Nigerian citizens were suddenly directly involved in not only the control of the theatres, but also in what Nigerian audiences were more likely to buy a ticket to see, buy a VHS of, and later buy a DVD or stream: local content. Out of the ashes of colonialism, a bloody civil war and a military junta rule, Nollywood grew organically, hand over fist, year after year.

By the mid-1980s, Nigeria was producing massively profitable blockbusters and revenues grew to over US$11 billion (Sh1.1 trillion) by 2013. The industry also employs an eye-popping one million people, estimated to be second only to agriculture in terms of number of employees within Nigeria.

In the 21st century, the Government of Nigeria has taken further notice, mostly through the recognition of the massive benefits to the nation that the local film industry provides. Currently the government is working in conjunction with the National Television Authority of Nigeria to expand the industry, offering grants, expanding infrastructure and constructing a production facility. Perhaps most notable was the 2010 signing by former President Goodluck Jonathan of a US$200 millionCreative and Entertainment Industry Intervention Fund” in order to encourage the growth of Nollywood and other creative industries. Put another way, Kenya’s GDP is approximately one-fifth that of Nigeria’s, but there has been no US$40 million fund signed by the government towards the nation’s creative sector.

By the mid-1980s, Nigeria was producing massively profitable blockbusters and revenues grew to over US$11 billion (Sh1.1 trillion) by 2013. The industry also employs an eye-popping one million people, estimated to be second only to agriculture in terms of number of employees within Nigeria.

This is the point where naysayers to the potential of the creative economy will argue that corruption is endemic in Kenya, and therefore, reaching the heights of Nollywood is inherently impossible. This is a fallacy: Transparency International in 2017 ranked Kenya 143 out of 180 in terms of corruption and Nigeria came in at 148. Despite obvious governmental and corruption shortcomings in Nigeria, when it comes to the film industry, one thing has certainly been recognised: that money talks.

South Africa took a different route towards becoming a creative sector powerhouse on an international scale. This is best exemplified when examining the music industry of the country. Once again, the roots of the explosion of South African musical influence can be traced back to a government development programme – the Bantu Radio initiative, which, it must be stated, was put into place in 1960 by the apartheid government in what can best be described as a campaign to further segregate the country. The aim of the programme was to promote tribal music in the hopes that it would reinforce pre-colonial cultural barriers between different communities. It also had the not-so-subtle goal of establishing what black South Africans enjoyed in order to aid the apartheid government in further profiting off of them. The regime believed that the radio stations would play exclusively folk music, but the result was somewhat different. Bantu Radio began broadcasting more than a dozen different genres of music, among them Afro-jazz, kwela and isicathamiya. These genres exploded in popularity, bringing fame, recognition and influence to many South African music industry figures.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation was soon brought in to monitor and regulate the music being produced to ensure that the messages of the music didn’t criticise the apartheid regime or its policies of systemic racism. Further regulatory bodies were established to control the music being played. They did so effectively on the Bantu Radio network, but had also inadvertently “let the cat out of the bag”. There had been a long history of rebellious action through music in South Africa, but now there was an audience of millions who had several genres in mind on what to pursue. Popular artists who were censored on the radio took their messages directly to their audiences. There was an exodus of musicians who left South Africa in order to make music against the apartheid regime without censorship or reprisal. In 1982, the Botswana Festival of Culture and Resistance was held with much of the attendance made up of South African exiled musicians. At the conference, it was decided that the primary weapon of the struggle against apartheid would be culture.

Accidentally, through an attempt to further exploit and divide, the regime had laid the groundwork for both widely popular musical genres with a captive local audience. By 1994, when the last remnants of apartheid were finally thrown aside, the music industry grew massively and continues to be a dominant presence into the 21st century.

Anti-apartheid films, rising from South African independent cinema experiencing a boom in the early-80s – the same period when there was a proliferation of video cassette recorders – allowed the viewing of “subversive” productions. Some of these same anti-apartheid films (banned by the regime), such as 1984’s Place for Weeping, gained international traction and helped to establish South Africa’s film industries as influential outside of the borders of the apartheid regime.

What the creative industry has done for other nations

A UNESCO convention in 2005 stated that there is still a need for governmental frameworks that focus on “emphasizing the need to incorporate culture as a strategic element in national and international development policies, as well as in international development cooperation”. By this standard, the example of South Korea once again stands out. Just how did South Korea springboard its culture into a massive entertainment and creative sector in such a short period of time? The answer is fairly straightforward: the progress of South Korea’s entertainment sectors centres around heavy governmental support, funding and infrastructural management. The government designed and implemented a multi-stage plan towards increasing the profile, impact and economic viability of its entertainment industries.

With the example set, it becomes all the more glaring that the Government of Kenya has turned its back on its own creative industry. The Korean problem of foreign influence is a Kenyan one; foreign acts are flown in and given top billing, foreign media houses dominate the telling of Kenyan stories, and the latest Marvel films always find themselves on movie-house posters. Ask yourself, when is the last time you saw a Kenyan-made film on an IMAX screen playing to a packed audience? The lines are there, but who are there to see?

The state of regulation and progress within the creative sector in Kenya reflects an acute failure of the state to implement the very policies it has outlined. One needs to look no further than the Kenyan Constitution of 2010 and the Vision 2030 Development Goals to find evidence of this.

With the example set, it becomes all the more glaring that the Government of Kenya has turned its back on its own creative industry. The Korean problem of foreign influence is a Kenyan one; foreign acts are flown in and given top billing, foreign media houses dominate the telling of Kenyan stories, and the latest Marvel films always find themselves on movie-house posters.

In Kenya, a nation that jailed poets and playwrights only two decades ago, the promotion of the creative arts is evolving too slowly. While the Constitution included the mandatory promotion of the arts and cultural sectors, it has taken close to a decade to pass legislation regarding these industries. The government itself has acknowledged these disconnects: the National Music Policy of 2015 states that the Government of Kenya has not adequately enacted policy relating to the creative sector, which in turn has promoted a disconnect in communication and stymied the potential for growth within the industry.

Addressing the state of the creative industries in Kenya, UNESCO contends that there is no facilitative policy framework regarding the creative sector. Or, more bluntly: talk is cheap. The Government of Kenya is definitely aware of the potential impact of growing these specialised industries; it just avoids enacting any meaningful regulation surrounding them. Take the film industry for example. While the talk has been big, there has been no sign of the promised public investment.

The creative sector has long been associated been with the employment of youth. The United Nations has released a series of reports contending that a key path towards combating youth unemployment is through the promotion of the creative industries. Unfortunately, it seems that the Government of Kenya is yet to take heed of creative-driven solutions. The country is currently mired with massive youth unemployment, with rates of over 20 per cent, dwarfing the levels of unemployed young people elsewhere in the East African region. It is clear that from an economic standpoint, the policies of industrialisation have long since proven themselves to be insufficient in terms of impacting the youth of Kenya in any sort of meaningful way.

One reason why the government is reluctant to promote the arts is because of its delicate sensibilities: it fears supporting creative minds that may turn out to be critical of it. This is evident across the archaic policies of the KFCB, the exodus of locally produced textiles for fashion, the lack of funding for the National Theatre, the government stake in Safaricom, which is currently facing a backlash for the low rates of compensation given to musicians streamed on its ring-back tunes application, Skiza.

On the basis of the examples given, the lessons to be learned from South Africa can only be to lean harder into criticism of the government. While this seems to be an oft-visited theme throughout the creative sectors in Kenya, the apartheid era of South Africa’s music industry remains a solid reminder: that there’s no point backing off if the government refuses to change.

This rings doubly true in cases such as that of Ezekiel Mutua, who seems hell-bent on smothering the Kenyan film, theatre and television industries to death through self-claimed piety. His crusade against homosexuality and what he describes as “immorality” must be viewed as a neocolonial one; its aim is to kill off grassroots Kenyan enterprising creative expression. The efforts against him should focus on his willful draining of the Kenyan economy’s untold economic and cultural potential.

The best long-term solution in Kenya’s case is a sort of middle-ground between the policies of localised emphasis of the 1970s and the government of South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Ideally, the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts would be divided towards being specialized; the government would either put in or find real public and private funding for the arts and then actually implement and regulate the policies, such as the National Music Policy of 2015, which outlines a mandated quota for Kenyan-made content to make up 60 per cent of the music aired by the media within the country. They would enforce the regulations but let artists do their own thing as a private enterprise, as they know the ins and outs of the industry. When grievances arise, representatives from the creative sector would have a meaningful seat at the table to dialogue with the government. Unfortunately, none of these solutions are being sought.

This rings doubly true in cases such as that of Ezekiel Mutua, who seems hell-bent on smothering the Kenyan film, theatre and television industries to death through self-claimed piety. His crusade against homosexuality and what he describes as “immorality” must be viewed as a neocolonial one; its aim is to kill off grassroots Kenyan enterprising creative expression. The efforts against him should focus on his willful draining of the Kenyan economy’s untold economic and cultural potential.

The issue remains that while Kenya’s creative industry is at par with nearly any other in the region, the continent or the developing world in terms of potential, it is being systemically held back from reaching the heights of its peers. Both South Africa and Nigeria’s situations can be viewed as the regimes having stumbled into a goldmine of creative industry potential during brutal regimes, but in both cases there was at least an initial search for the vein (racist though South Africa’s was). In the case of South Korea, there was almost a resolute desperation to never return from whence they came. They were willing to try outside-the-box solutions to get there and to put their money where their mouth was. All three situations in 1979 stood on a precipice, and all three could have easily changed course into further crackdown or lack of interest and being left devoid of a cultural sector. Kenya’s creative sector situation is dire. This constraining of creativity must be viewed in the light that it is impeding Kenya’s progress in the opening decades of the new millennium.

The artistic industries in Kenya are currently at a crossroads. Though ideas, products and creativity coming from the country are only growing in terms of influence and quality, without support, all potential is destined to languish in obscurity. Seventeen years since the transition out of the Moi regime, there has been no golden age of the arts, no explosion of international influence and possibility. The talent is there; the infrastructure of community radio, self-starter production houses and subversive literary talent is pervasive in Kenya. However, the government is simply too afraid or too obtuse to put anything behind these efforts.

What will the economy of Kenya 40 years on into the future look like? As things stand, without the government at least trying something different, South Africa, Nigeria and South Korea will continue to lap Kenya, toasting to their home-grown billions of dollars and expanded economic influence. Will Kenya’s government officials continue to pretend to scratch their heads in search of “new solutions” when the answer is literally painting the picture before them?

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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