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Always Behind: Kenya’s Languishing Creative Industry

15 min read.

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

Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. With the elections that will determine who will be Kenya’s next president just two years away, the country is slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism.

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost
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This Tuesday the 7th of July 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous and bloody Saba Saba Day (seventh day of the seventh month) upheavals that are still etched in the memory of the many Kenyans old enough to vividly recall those heady days of the struggle for the second liberation. It was a day of infamy, as President Daniel arap Moi, now deceased, unleashed his security apparatus on hapless, innocent Kenyans, killing and maiming many of them for daring to call for a return to multipartyism.

Three days prior, on 4 July 4 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, former Kanu government cabinet ministers who had fallen out with Moi (both now deceased), and Raila Odinga—who had just returned from self-exile in Oslo, Norway—had been arrested on the orders of President Moi. The 4th of July is America’s Independence Day. Kenyan political analysts have always wondered whether it was mere coincidence or a conspiracy between Moi and the American government to have the trio arrested on the very day America would be celebrating its much vaunted independence day. Did the American government have something to do with their arrests? “Why would the Americans, who were friends of the three, allow Moi to detain them on their big day”, Augustine Njeru Kathangu, one of the architects of Saba Saba, has always wondered.

The Saba Saba demonstrations heralded the beginning of week-long urban riots that came to symbolise the determination of Kenyans to maintain their demands for an increased democratic and political space that had been throttled by a dictatorial Moi and a despotic Kanu party. The mounting pressure brought to bear on Moi was such that he was forced to quickly constitute a Kanu Review Committee (referred to as the Committee), which immediately started its work on 25 July 25 1990.

The formation of the Committee by the beleaguered President was, ostensibly, to seek Kenyans’ views on the current state of the country’s politics. But the truth of the matter was that Moi was trying to buy time as he figured out how he was going to acquiesce to plural politics without losing face. Chaired by the then Vice President George Saitoti, the Committee was peppered with Kanu loyalists such as Nicholas Biwott, Peter Oloo Aringo, Shariff Nasir, Elijah Mwangale and Mwai Kibaki, among others.

The Committee visited nine towns during the month of August: Eldoret, Embu, Garissa, Nairobi, Kakamega, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Nyeri. It visited Nairobi twice; on July 25 and on 23 and 24 August1990. Among the more bizarre recommendations that the Committee made was “that Kenya should continue in its tradition of one-party democracy. That all leaders in every sphere of life particularly religious leaders, politicians, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, should cease their confrontational stance and adopt a positive attitude towards issues in order to build a more peaceful and prosperous Kenya”.

With these sorts of recommendations, a contemptuous Moi and dyed-in-the-wool Kanu party mandarins, it was obvious that Kenyans’ agitation for a return to multiparty politics was destined to continue to be bloody and confrontational.

“Moi’s Kanu dictatorship was not ready for changes, but the people had smelt an opportunity and they were willing to push ahead with political reforms”, said Kathangu. A former army man and a devout Catholic who never misses the morning mass wherever it might find him, Kathangu had been planning for the Saba Saba day for two months together with four other people,

“We started planning for the Saba Saba from May”, recalled Kathangu. “I had an office at Musa House on the third floor, on Landhies Road, where we would meet and plan how we were to mobilise for the big day”. Kathangu’s four other compatriots were: Edward Oyugi, a former Kenyatta University don and detainee; Ngotho Kariuki, a tax consultant, university don and ex-detainee; George Anyona, the political firebrand, former MP and ex-detainee; and Kariuki Kathitu, a university don.

Of the five, Kathitu is the least known of those who were associated not only with the planning of that first Saba Saba, but also, more generally, with the second liberation of the 1990s. “Raila joined us much later. Raila is my friend, but I’ve always referred to him as a witness to the Saba Saba movement. He was much more involved with the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy movement formed in 1991, than Saba Saba, which his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and others such as James Orengo, Martin Shikuku and Salim Bamahriz, helped form”.

“Matiba joined us later after he had read the public mood correctly, but also after falling out with Moi publicly”, said Kathangu. “Matiba had had an interesting special relationship with Moi. They had been great friends. When Matiba was the Permanent Secretary for Education, he used to coach Vice President Moi in the evenings, on the proper usage of the English language, mostly on the spoken English. So they knew each other well. Moi had been Matiba’s good student. But when Moi became the president in 1978, his man in Murang’a was Julius Kiano. Matiba’s entry into politics and his routing out of Moi’s man in Mbiri constituency was always going to create a problem between the two.”

Kathangu told me that it was Matiba who recruited Rubia. “Rubia was initially not in the movement for change, but his friend who was an area mate—they both came from the larger Murang’a—invited him along and that’s how Rubia, who had also been facing political frustrations from Moi, joined the opposition. Matiba came looking for us after he was disgraced by Moi. Matiba was a man who once he made up his mind, it was difficult to persuade him otherwise”.

Matiba’s falling out with Moi was triggered by Moi’s open rigging of the Mlolongo (queue voting) elections in 1988 in his Kiharu (former Mbiri) constituency. “Matiba’s queue was the longest for all to see, yet Moi decided it was the shortest so that he could prop up his friend Kiano who Matiba had beaten hands down. Matiba hit the roof, he had captured his entire election process on the video. It was clearly evident Moi was rigging Matiba openly. And that was the beginning of the political problems between Moi and Matiba.”

Boisterous and oftentimes overconfident, Matiba went ahead together with Rubia to declare the return of multiparty politics in Kenya without the agreement of Kathangu and his friends. “He had jumped the gun, that’s not how we had planned to do it, but hey, since Matiba had already let the cat out of the bag, we went along, we didn’t deny them, neither did we deny that that is what we all along been planning to do”, observed Kathangu. “It was one of the first of the mistakes that Matiba would make as we fought for the second liberation”.

Although taken aback by Matiba’s pronouncements, Kathangu and his friends still went ahead to mobilise for Saba Saba day. “Our intentions were to mobilise people to congregate on the sacred grounds of Kamukunji. We’d coordinated and mobilised people from different parts of the country to travel to Kamukunji. People were to come from Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu, Mombasa, Murang’a, Nakuru and the other major towns in the country.”

To start off the day, and as a curtain raiser, the organisers planned football matches at the Kamukunji Grounds in the morning. “The matches were to be supervised by Kathitu and they were to help attract and assemble people at the grounds. At around 1p.m. Anyona and I drove into the grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. When the people saw us—they had been waiting on the wings around Gikomba Market, in Majengo and Shauri Moyo estates—they started moving into the grounds.” The organisers had hired buses to ferry people from upcountry and those buses had arrived in the morning.

“A police officer who later I came to learn was called Cheruiyot—I can’t remember his first name—and who had also camped at Kamukunji Grounds, apparently spotted us entering the ground”, reminisced Kathangu. “Once he saw us and once the people saw us enter the grounds and followed us, Cheruiyot called for extra support and soon combat police came. They beat people mercilessly with their batons and killed many youths with their live bullets”. As the police beat people in Kamukunji Grounds, word got around in parts of the country that mayhem had broken out in Nairobi and consequently, there were riots in Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu and Mombasa”. Kathangu observed that Moi ordered the arrest of more than 3,000 youths for the simple reason that they had supported the political changes being called for by opposition leaders.

Senior Counsel Paul Muite recalls the events of the day vividly: “My friend, the American ambassador to Malawi George Trail, had come to see me in my office at Electricity House in the city centre. He was from the US on his way to Malawi. Trail had been the No. 2 at the US embassy in Nairobi and we had become friends. Mohamed Ibrahim, a lawyer and today a judge of the High Court of Kenya had also passed by to see me on a legal matter. I’d planned after finishing with the two, I head to Karen Country Club to play golf. So I asked them we leave early to beat the lunch hour traffic jam”. He was going play golf with F.T. Nyamu, a Nyeri tycoon who later became the MP for Tetu constituency.

“It is at the club that my wife called me to tell me Matiba and Rubia had been carted away by the police”, said Muite. “In those days if police took you away, you knew you were headed for detention. After I parted with Ibrahim, the police, who had seen me leave my office with him [Moi had always stationed police to watch Muite’s sixth-floor office at the lifts area and on the ground floor], followed him and asked him to tell them where I had gone. Ibrahim didn’t know I’d gone to play golf. When Ibrahim told them he didn’t know my whereabouts, they didn’t believe him”. The police had detention orders with them and as they were talking to Ibrahim, they placed the detention order book on the table and he saw that the first detention sheet was signed and had Paul Muite’s name. The other order was not signed and didn’t have any name. “What the police did was fill the order with Ibrahim’s name and that’s how Ibrahim was detained on the spot by the police”.

Moi also ordered the arrest of Gitobu Imanyara and John Khaminwa, who together with Ibrahim became the most prominent lawyers to be detained Moi during the crackdown on the Saba Saba movement. Gibson Kamau Kuria, who had been detained in 1986, went to hide at the American embassy which then was under Smith Hempstone’s watch. Muite, who had all along ben staying at his house in Karen, escaped the crackdown, all because the police didn’t think he was “hiding” in his own house. “Hempstone piled pressure on Moi to release the lawyers, Imanyara, Khaminwa and Ibrahim and Muite, but Moi was in a dilemma, his government didn’t know where Muite was, so how was he going to also release him?”, said Muite.

It is then that Moi pleaded with Muite to come out of hiding and meet him at State House with an apology for inciting the Saba Saba day riots. “Moi blamed me for the riots and had asked me to write him an apology letter. I didn’t but I still went to meet him”.

The Saba Saba movement gave momentum to the first multiparty political rally held at the hallowed Kamukunji Grounds on 16 November 1991by the opposition leaders of the fledgling and nascent Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), So determined were FORD leaders that they told Moi they were going to hold the meeting “with or without a licence”. Aware of the mounting pressure, internally and externally, Moi grudgingly allowed the meeting to go ahead.

Kenyans were itching for a second liberation, to free themselves from the political stranglehold that had culminated in the sham 1988 mlolongo elections. Buoyed by the winds of change sweeping through eastern Europe—the advent of glasnost (openness and transparency) and perestroika (restructuring), the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Kenyans seized the moment to challenge Moi and his brutal Kanu party, the supposedly baba na mama (father and mother) of all Kenyans as Kanu party stalwarts liked to put it

On the third anniversary of Saba Saba in July 1993, pro-democracy and reformist clergyman Timothy Njoya observed at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi that, “If we can have Moi Day as a national day to thank Moi for the contributions he made to himself, we can also have Saba Saba declared a national day to mark the contribution the martyrs of multiparty movement made to the Kenyan civilisation”. Twenty-seven years after Njoya made that remark, is it time to again reconsider his proposition?

How has Kenya faired 30 years after Moi sent the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) to brutally quell a people’s desire to congregate at the Kamukunji Grounds in the sprawling Eastlands area, home to the Fanonian wretched of the earth?

Going down memory lane to recapture those heady days, I spoke to Gacheke Gachihi, a founder-member of Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and above all, a long-time member of that urban underclass of Huruma which bore the brunt of state brutality. Gacheke is a child of the Saba Saba protests and the reformist political forces that came to define the upheavals of that time. Originally from Molo, he came to the city as a child and was swept up in the political agitation that was taking place in the urban slums.

“Although I was only 12, I was very much aware of what was happening politically”, said Gacheke. “I knew there was something wrong with the country’s politics, because I’d just come from an area that had suffered political violence and was palpable with political fears, tensions and great suspicions”. Now 42, Gacheke observes that his home area of Molo was a theatre of ethnic violence from where many people were internally displaced. “There was a lot of genocidal talk then”.

I asked Gacheke, whether the country had learned anything from the Saba Saba day and what those like him—activists who were initiated into politics by the tumultuous 1990s and the runs-ins with the state’s organs of violence—thought of the anniversary. “The anniversary comes at a time when the country is polarised by the politics of succession of 2022. If Saba Saba was agitating for increased political space in 1990, in 2020 Saba Saba should be reminding us Kenyans of the necessity to vigilantly protect the freedoms that have been gained over the years, fought through blood and great sacrifice”.

Gacheke said that in the 1990s, the youths fought hard to be heard, to exist and to hopefully break the barriers of ethnic consciousness and balkanisation. Now it looks like we’re slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism. “The youth of this country has never been able to act together, to forge a united front and capture political power and help change the trajectory of politics”. The youth caught in the vicious web of disillusionment and dispossession, nevertheless continue to be easy prey for politicians whose only agenda is to perpetuate their hold on power. It is a paradox of politics that today’s champions of political agitation were yesterday’s champions of political of status quo.

Independent researcher and political analyst Jeremiah Owiti was a political science University of Nairobi (UoN) student in 1990. “Politics then were hot and exciting. Kenyans looked forward to political changes that would meaningfully impact their lives. The people were hopeful and optimistic. Not anymore.”, said Owiti. The two biggest political protagonists today—President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and William Ruto who now threaten to tear the country apart—were apolitical when the first Saba Saba protests took place. Uhuru was barely 30 and Ruto barely 24 years old.

Owiti said Uhuru’s friends cut across the ethnic divide, he is a nominal catholic, while Ruto is a fervent revivalist born-again evangelical Christian. “Today, Uhuru, surrounded by Kikuyu sub-nationalists, has become a master [at] evoking tribal emotions and openly calling the Kikuyus to first mobilise on ethnic bases. Similarly, Ruto has become a master of rhetoric and subterfuge, rallying the Kalenjin people to see themselves first as Kalenjin and secondly as Kenyans”.

The behaviour of the two, who were never part of the political reform movement, completely negates the cardinal lessons of Saba Saba, said the analyst. “The very essence of the Saba Saba movement was to fight for political pluralism, not political sub-nationalism as now being espoused by Uhuru and his political-friend-now-turned-nemesis. Their retrogressive brand of politics—whichever way you look at it—is a tragic throw-back to the days of Moi-ism and Kanu-ism. The crux of the matter is that both were tutored by Moi and therefore, they do not know what it is to be a political reformer and what apolitical reforms are all about”.

The analyst said Ruto deems himself a latter-day reformer, anchoring and extolling his reform credentials on the doing, rather than on the talking: “I am a reformer because I act, I don’t talk”, Ruto likes to remind anybody who cares to listen.

Owiti said Saba Saba epitomises the struggle by Kenyans to free themselves from the shackles of the politics of balkanisation, ethnic sub-nationalism and the monolithic politics of us vs them. “Unfortunately even with the promulgation of the new constitution, which was supposed to usher in a new political dispensation, the politics that is being played by both Uhuru and Ruto, champions of ethnic jingoism, does not augur well for the epochal succession politics of 2022”.

The researcher said that, by seeking to congregate at the historical Kamukunji Grounds in 1990, the Kenyan people were saying that the constitution was the supreme law of the land and if it did not allow them to assemble, it needed to be overhauled.

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and the elections that will determine who will be the country’s next president just two years away. The succession politics have already split the ruling Jubilee party into two diametrically opposed camps and made President Uhuru Kenyatta one of the most unpopular presidents Kenya has ever had.

“All the changes we fought for have been reversed”, observed Kathangu. “We’d hoped for an empowered society—economically, politically and socially. We’d also hoped to have a sustainable education system that did not constantly change after every five years. We too had hoped that the land question would be fundamentally addressed. Land is still a big problem in this country and unless and until we solve it, Kenyans will not rest easy”.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power

The seismic Saba Saba event was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance in Kenya. However, thirty years on, many of the people who were at the forefront of the movement have died or have been accommodated by the rapacious state. Nonetheless, the struggle for people-centred democracy continues.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power
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Hands stretch out into the air, flashing the two-finger V-salute as the Toyota pick-up truck, with loudspeakers mounted on its roof, careens over the kerb and back onto the rutted road.

That iconic image of Martin Shikuku, James Orengo, Philip Gachoka and Rumba Kinuthia is etched in the minds of some 20 million Kenyans who were alive on the fateful day that marked the struggle for political pluralism in the country. The November 16, 1991 picture is a re-enactment of what should have happened on July 7, 1990 – the day known by its Kiswahili translation, Saba Saba, in reference to the seventh day of the seventh month.

The men perched atop the car had just changed vehicles after police shot at their truck’s tyre in an attempt to stop them from entering the barricaded Kamukunji grounds on the rim of Nairobi River, which was darkened by sewage and grease, and whose smells fused with clouds of tear gas in the air. It had been 16 months since the first attempt to hold a rally at Kamukunji failed.

On the gray cold morning of Saturday, July 7, 1990, reaching Kamukunji had acquired an urgency symbolising a break in the dam of political repression.

An attempted coup d’état by junior air force officers eight years earlier had floundered and given Daniel arap Moi, only four years into his presidency, the excuse to turn the screws on all opposition.

Dissent had been brewing in Kenya since Moi began consolidating political power by changing the constitution to ban multiparty politics and detaining critics (some of whom fled into exile. But the failed putsch emboldened Moi to take away judges’ security of tenure, and to blatantly rig the 1988 elections, which filled Parliament with his lackeys.

The lone government-owned radio and television service ruled the airwaves, alongside “free” newspapers that would not go to press until State House supplied its front-page photograph of Moi, and whose editors regularly fielded calls from the president. In those days, Kenyans relied on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s Kiswahili Service to learn what was going on in their own country.

Five months prior to the planned Saba Saba meeting, Moi’s foreign minister, Robert Ouko, had been brutally killed. Ouko’s dismembered body was dumped on a hill in his rural constituency. It was widely believed that his murder had been planned by people close to Moi.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience. He had declared debate on multiparty politics stirred by clerics closed even before it began.

Open defiance seemed like the only channel for starting a national conversation.

As its opening gambit, the Moi government declared the Kamukunji meeting illegal, and arrested Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, three of the senior politicians who were organising it, before subsequently detaining them without trial.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience.

Other countries confronted with dictatorship in Africa had often gone the way of the muzzle with military coups d’etat; Kenyans put themselves on the line at the risk of permanently separating body from soul. The men on the pick-up truck were the second-tier leaders, and there was another tier below them, and yet another across the length and breadth of the country.

A movement – dubbed “The Second Liberation” – began to form in spite of restrictive laws on assembly and association, grouping people together in organising cells.

Saba Saba had been prefaced by the mysterious appearance of leaflets secretly printed and dropped around the country, inviting people to the meeting. Relying on a network of football clubs and private sector transport workers (matatu touts) travelling across the nation, people were put on buses to Nairobi for the day of confrontation. It put a match to the tinder that had piled across the country and exploded into four days of confrontations between the police and the public. The wall of fear had cracked.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Saba Saba was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance. It was meant to be the first of eight public rallies – one in each province – to rally the public for plural politics and open government. Frantic attempts would subsequently be made to negotiate down demands for freedom by offering internal reforms in the ruling political party monopoly, KANU, but they were insufficient to stem the tide of change.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Sixteen months after Saba Saba, Moi grudgingly capitulated and agreed to term limits and to repealing constitutional bans on multiparty political organising, only to use this as an instrument for fanning ethnic animosity. Within months of the return of political pluralism, some 19 new political parties had been registered by dint of the efforts of state operatives, who also engineered a split inside the opposition Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party.

A miscarriage of democracy

Moi retained power for two terms despite securing only a minority of the votes in the 1992 and 1997 elections. The spirit of Saba Saba revisited the country in a series of protests on July 7; then August 8; September 9 and October 10, 1997 in attempts to demand free and fair elections.

Moi split the movement by offering compromises to share slots in the electoral management agency with the opposition and repeal laws constraining public assembly. Once again, it seemed that the Saba Saba campaigners had only achieved a Pyrrhic victory.

The euphoric victory of the joint opposition candidate, Mwai Kibaki, in the 2002 election when Moi was retiring imbued the nation with a new sense of optimism and the possibility of citizens reclaiming their power. But this optimism was quickly dashed by regression to some of the old wily ways, including mega corruption scandals.

It took the violent and bloody protests in the aftermath of the 2007 election – a citizens’ revolt against loss of confidence in the judiciary and the electoral body – to produce a new constitution in 2010. The post-2007 election violence recorded over 1,300 deaths, over 5,000 injuries and rapes, as well as massive displacement – which invited the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The digitised movement

Many of the people who were at the forefront of the Saba Saba protests have died or have been accommodated in the rapacious state. As the state grows more dangerous in deploying deadly force in a throwback to the dictatorship of yore, the public appears friendless and with few defenders.

Still, the spirit of citizen power that fuelled Saba Saba still roams the land like a vagabond. The pain, angst and trauma of decades of protest have blunted the desire for public-spirited action, only interrupted intermittently by fresh outrages.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback. Changes to the executive to share its power with county governments continue to be undermined; Parliament appears to have lost power and public trust; and the judiciary is fighting daily for its independence.

Plural politics and expanded public voice have not resolved many of the problems that make life in Kenya a seesaw between hope and despair. Police routinely break up peaceful assemblies and turn them into riots, complete with clouds of tear gas, truncheons raining down on bodies and bullets cutting through crowds.

Yet, some things have changed. Citizens may still not control the organs of the state –and there is great frustration with the government from which they are alienated – but they continue to claim their power through an intersection of greater awareness, increased voice and technology.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback.

Sometimes, these strides can appear insufficient, but citizens have overcome their fear of dictatorship, and continue to evolve new tactics to make their voices heard even in the potentially repressive context.

Between that seismic Saba Saba event and the passage of a new constitution in August 2010, some 17.1 million Kenyan children were born and continue to walk the earth. The children of Saba Saba, progenies of the legacy of struggle, have come of age but they have not always been shielded from the scars of the history that birthed their freedom. They are better educated, more expressive and greatly aided by technology, but they continue to wallow in want, are beset by unemployment and are confronted daily by police brutality.

With 45 million Internet subscriptions, Kenyans are the continent’s second largest social media users, after South Africa. Young Kenyans are most active on WhatsApp and Facebook, but it is the fabled Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) who routinely take down the country’s critics and wage war on perceived moral or ethical wrongs within and across borders.

In April 2020, Deputy President William Ruto blocked US-based Kenyan law scholar Makau Mutua on Twitter over the latter’s criticism of him. Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended his social media accounts – only a year after deactivating multiple accounts when he came up for air from a deluge of criticism that threatened to engulf him online.

Freedom is never given; it is won. The lesson of Saba Saba needs to be preserved through the generations because it reproduces the courage of the independence struggle in which ordinary people stand up to those who bully them.

It remains to be seen whether mobile phones and computer keyboards will be sufficient to hold the dam.

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The Spirit of Saba Saba Lives on in Devolution

Despite various setbacks, devolution has produced tangible results and demonstrated that Kenyans are determined to have a form of governance that is responsive to people’s needs and desires. In many ways, devolution embodies the spirit of Saba Saba.

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Chaos has never stopped Kenyans from building the country they want, and if there was ever a moment that summarised this spirit, it is Saba Saba – the date of a meeting that never took place.

It has been 30 years since opposition leaders Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia announced that they would lead a public rally to press for the return of multiparty democracy. Whatever their political motives, Matiba and Rubia triggered a tsunami and unleashed the thunderbolt that is the Kenyan spirit.

President Daniel arap Moi went to extremes to kill the idea, using every possible public institution to try and disrupt and scuttle the meeting. He ordered the detention of key supporters of the movement on 6 July1990, banned gatherings and issued myriad warnings through the police, his cabinet, the media and every state organ. On July 7th, 1990, the date of the meeting, roads were blocked and baton-wielding police stood as a visible threat all over the city of Nairobi and towns across the country. Blows rained down on people heading out of the slums. Hospitals and clinics scrambled to tend to those injured. There were tear gas-burned eyes and lungs across the city, but especially near the Kamukunji venue that had been ringed by police.

The meeting never happened but the day-long run-ins with power demonstrated what had been born – and has never died.

The political chaos of that moment only emphasises the spirit of Saba Saba – the spirit of Kenyans’ determination to have the country they want. A year later, political pluralism was a reality, and with it began the expansion of the democratic space. Almost immediately afterwards, the push shifted to reforms with multiple milestones.

Twenty years later, in 2010, a new constitution was in place, and with it the promise of a different country.

True reformists vs. impostors

When fully implemented, the 2010 Constitution will permanently disrupt the way Kenya has been governed, and will guarantee a basic quality of life and dignity for every Kenyan. But a lot has to happen before then.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

The shift saw one-time supporters of the oppressive KANU regime take to wearing the proverbial sheepskin, learn the language of reform and insert themselves back into the machinery of government, thus interfering with the design like badly written computer code. Behind the scenes, the abuse of state instruments, primitive accumulation of capital and rabid theft of public resources took up again as it had since independence, thereby slowing down progress.

But while impostors are clogging the pipes of government delivery, an army of Kenyans across the country, including a growing number within the political leadership, are keeping the spirit of Saba Saba alive, and are now quietly working to unblock the system and put things where they should be.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

Devolved governance through the 47 countries is bringing government closer to the people. For some counties, such as Mandera, devolution has brought basic services and infrastructure, such as tarmacked roads, for the first time. Despite a lack of equipment, doctors performed the first ever Caesarean section at Modogashe Sub-county Hospital in Garissa County in 2016, safely delivering a baby boy and saving the life of his 18-year-old mother who had been in labour for two days. That was just days after doctors at Balambala, another ward level hospital in Garissa, conducted a similar procedure.

These stories of first time medical operations in what were once abandoned rural areas have become almost ordinary as counties take control of health services by upgrading and building facilities, recruiting staff, and ensuring that equipment and medicines are available.

The ongoing construction of the 750-bed Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital will change the face of healthcare beyond the county and tick many boxes for health sector needs in the region. This health facility will be the third biggest referral hospital in the country in terms of bed capacity. The first phase of this Sh6 billion investment is scheduled to open later this year.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties. The Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) and the Ministry of Health currently run like a monopoly medical store that the counties are forced to buy from. Governors have tried to negotiate with the central government to have KEMSA restructured and give them a bigger say in management and control so they can plan collectively for the whole county and leverage economies of scale to get the best price and quality for drugs and equipment. To no avail.

In mid-2015, and after much protestation, governors from all 47 counties caved in to pressure and signed onto a Sh38 billion medical equipment leasing deal, despite the concerns they had, including the lack of specialists to operate and maintain the equipment and the fact that no one had assessed local priorities for health in the different counties. Around 100 hospitals were arbitrarily designated to receive a package that included dialysis machines, ultrasound machines, theatre equipment, intensive care unit (ICU) equipment, incinerators, sterilising units and an assortment of cancer treatment machines. The bill for all this was sent to county governments.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties.

With that controversial move still unresolved, mid-2018 saw the central government telling counties they must now pay double for the leased equipment – a collective bill of Sh9 billion each year, according to Isiolo Governor, Dr Mohammed Kuti, who heads the Council of Governors Health Committee. Enquiries were casually brushed off by the Principal Secretary for Health, Peter Tum, who told the media that the central government needs to buy more equipment due to a rise in demand. Meanwhile, a report released this year by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled “The Leasing of Medical Equipment Project in Kenya: Value for Money Assessment” found that some of the equipment lying in county stores was gathering dust while other equipment is yet to be supplied.

The case of Nairobi: A return to dictatorship?

The chaos – authoritarian style – serves as a constant backdrop to the progress and fits the tradition in which Saba Saba came into being.

It is a style that was very much in evidence early this year when the central government moved in to take over the running of Nairobi City County. The usual political shenanigans on display, Nairobians watched in bewilderment as Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko found himself at State House at the televised signing of a document that gave away the keys to Nairobi City County coffers. A new Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) was hurriedly imposed on the county in February without consulting the electorate that put Sonko in the seat of governor. Treasury quickly allocated and disbursed Sh26.4 billion to NMS.

Nairobi has been through some crazy times, with the governor at odds with almost all the executives he himself appointed. Sonko’s governance style included quarrels with the elected members of the county assembly (MCAs), dismissals of staff and allegations of corruption made against Sonko and by Sonko against other county officials.

Despite the political noise, Nairobi city has for the first time in a decade gone through a rainy season without loss of life or property to flooding. Like it or not, credit goes to the Sonko-led clean-up that saw months of drain-clearing last year. Street lights are working, potholes have been filled, fire stations and county clinics have received facelifts. Working with the Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Nairobi City County gave the road network in Eastlands an unprecedented makeover, with the repair of 38 roads totalling almost 80 kilometres.

Accolades aside, Sonko should never have been the Governor of Nairobi, not least because of a criminal past that he himself admits to. But as the political chaos goes in Kenya, behind-the-scenes machinations gave Sonko a clean pass to the position; he was even awarded the national honour of the Elder of the Burning Spear.

Early efforts to impeach and remove him from office on grounds of abuse of office, corruption and violation of the Constitution would have been the right way to go but stalled when MCAs withdrew their motion. However, the forceful takeover staged by the central government is difficult to understand, and predictably, a court declared the takeover illegal in June this year.

Annual audits of county government’s financial accounts by the Auditor General have found many gaps and reports of corruption and abuse of office are common. No sitting official has yet been removed but several impeachment motions are flying in.

Devolution is oiling local economies

Sonko’s counterpart from Kirinyaga County, Ann Waiguru survived an impeachment hearing in June that spoke to concerns about the state of health service delivery in her county, among other issues. What was most interesting in the testimony given against her during hearings before the Senate was the emerging fact that residents now travel to the neighbouring counties of Embu and Meru where specific health services apparently work better.

This is the oil of devolution. Devolution is working and people now have more choice as to where they get their services. Beyond impeachment, the competition between counties will eventually underscore the effectiveness of leadership – and that is pushing governors and county leaders to work harder and faster than ever.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges. When power was first switched on last year, and residents were able to buy milk from a store fridge for the first time, small businesses immediately began to think bigger, eyeing the massive food demands of towns in the vicinity, like Garissa, Malindi and Mombasa.

A 10-kilometre tarmac road changed the face of Maralal and the activities conducted there when it was launched in 2016 along with almost 35 kilometres of street lights in the town centre. Wajir County also got its first tarmac road, properly finished with drainage, foot paths and street lights, in 2018. The 25-kilometre stretch built at a cost of Sh1.2 billion is a local tourism attraction in the county.

Rural roads into the interior of every county are multiplying although not as fast as some would like.

Once more, counties hit the political wall when the chairperson of the Council of Governors, Wycliffe Oparanya approached central government to request the transfer of authority and money for feeder roads directly to counties. Currently, funding goes to the Kenya Urban Roads Authority and Kenya National Highways Authority who are quick to act on big highways but move slowly on roads that affect the lives of millions of rural people. Again, the counties’ request was denied.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges.

Such strictures have caused counties to try a different approach. It started with a few counties in the Lake Victoria region coming together to discuss shared problems and a growing realisation that working together on common interests had considerable advantages. For example, the issue of malaria as a health concern is a greater issue for Lake Basin counties than it is in non-Lake areas and the opportunity to tackle it together made sense.

The Lake Region Economic Bloc was born and is now a formally registered institution created by 14 counties and headed by a Council with the secretariat located in Kisumu. This allows it to leverage economies of scale in contracts and encourages inter-county trade as a collective. It has so far raised has Sh1.3 billion for its proposed banking initiative from contributions by counties. Other initiatives proposed include a ring road around Lake Victoria to encourage trade.

It is a model that has sparked much excitement and six economic blocs now exist. Last year, the six economic blocs met in Kirinyaga to learn from each other where it emerged that one of the blocs, the Frontier Counties Development Council, has already benefited from a Sh120 billion World Bank grant for projects. Compared to the 2020/2021 county share of national revenue of Sh369 billion to be shared between 47 counties, the potential of these blocs to move resources for development is clear.

The Frontier Counties Development Council comprises 11 counties. Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani brings together the six coastal counties. North Rift Economic Bloc has eight county members while Mount Kenya and Aberdares Economic Bloc consists of 10 counties. The newest is the South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc that comprises Makueni, Machakos and Kitui counties. Nairobi, Narok and Kajiado counties are not members of any bloc.

While this bigger devolution picture is emerging, it can never displace the foundations being shaped on the the ground. The development strides in Makueni County have inspired many news headlines. But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

Sitting at an official public meeting in the capital Wote often feels more like a social gathering as Governor Kivutha Kibwana ends meetings by reciting the poetry he writes in Kikamba or by provoking shrieks of raucous laughter from the audience. The sense of community is reinforced when the Senator for Makueni and other local leaders regularly chip in. (Kibwana’s latest poem is about COVID-19.) In 2018, Makueni hosted governors from the other 46 counties for a benchmarking conference on the county’s successful public participation approach.

But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

As he approaches the end of his second term as governor, Kibwana is gunning for the presidency. Other governors expressing the same interest are Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega, Hassan Joho of Mombasa, Amason Kingi of Kilifi and Alfred Mutua of Machakos. That field is likely to expand, and for the first time since independence, Kenyans will be offered a field of candidates with a track record they can measure.

A different presidency will emerge if a former governor takes the helm in this changed environment where new rules are establishing, new players are emerging and citizens are the indisputable referees.

Until that time, like the athletes who have brought this country such fame and honour, Kenyans continue to press forward undaunted by the distance that remains, taking in the political hurdles and chaos as they come and always intent on the goal.

Embodied in the celebration and remembrance of Saba Saba is this spirit of Kenya – patient, determined, resilient and unfazed by chaos.

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