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No Longer at Ease: Uthamaki, Uhuru and a Dream Deferred

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In moments when an ethnic community finds itself in a crisis, its spontaneous response is to blame everyone but itself: introspection becomes anathema – it searches for scapegoats and scarecrows to explain away its internal contradictions and confusion. By DAUTI KAHURA

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NO LONGER AT EASE: Uthamaki, Uhuru and a Dream Deferred
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I returned to Kirimukuyu village, in Tumu Tumu sub-location, which is seven kilometres from Karatina town in Mathira constituency, Nyeri County, exactly twelve months after I had first travelled there to see an old lady by the name of Felistus Waguthi.

In the twelve months that had passed, Waguthi, who will be 76 years old this year, had lost her only brother, and in the last three months, she had been marooned in her house after breaking her leg. “I tripped on a slippery slope one morning as I went to the shamba, fracturing my leg bone and twisting my ankle,” she said to me, her left leg heavily bandaged and in a cast lifted up to rest on the bed. She was also hard of hearing, but “everything else considered, I have been okay, you’ve found me alive.”

When I met Waguthi in January 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, political rivals in the controversial 2017 general elections, had not “greeted” each other. The “handshake” between them that took place on 9 March, 2018, gave birth to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which is supposed to unite the country and ease political tensions.

Waguthi is not so convinced that BBI will work. “The fate of the country as currently constituted does not augur well for the future,” surmised the old lady, pointing out that the only thing the “greeting” had succeeded in doing was to forestall the mounting tension that cast a cloud of political uncertainty soon after the controversial 8 August presidential elections of and the repeat elections on 26 October.

“The political trajectory the country is taking is perilous and doubly uncertain because not only have things gone from bad to worse economically, but politically, the country’s leadership is groping around as President Uhuru and his cohorts seem clueless and rudderless as they steer the ship in the yet unsettled stormy waters, apparently from day to day.”

I had gone back to see Waguthi to help me reflect on the leadership of the Jubilee Party, a leadership that after retaking presidential powers in 2017 had left its base – the Kikuyu voter – seemingly confused and discombobulated. At 76 and having lived in a rural area for the better part of her adult life, Waguthi’s contemporary political analysis and sensibilities were sophisticated and on point.

“Uhuru has mortgaged the country to the Chinese…the debt now is in trillions, isn’t it?” mused the old lady, waving her fingers at me. “How much money is that? Those are mindboggling figures, yet all that money has been stolen by his friends and relatives. His government has been the most corrupt to date since I came of age and got to know what politics was all about. It is riddled with thieves and robbers and all he does is curse, threaten and talk big. I’ve never seen a president with no backbone like Uhuru. The current Kenyan leadership is in a crisis and this greeting between Uhuru and Raila, whose agenda is neither known nor understood by Kenyans, is just a gimmick to confuse the people even further,” analysed the old lady. “This is Uhuru’s last term, it is incumbent he vacates power and lets the constitution guide the next elections. Any attempt to tamper with the constitution so that he and Raila can create new centres of powers can only plunge this country into turmoil,” said Waguthi.

“Uhuru has mortgaged the country to the Chinese…the debt now is in trillions, isn’t it?” mused the old lady, waving her fingers at me. “How much money is that? Those are mindboggling figures, yet all that money has been stolen by his friends and relatives. His government has been the most corrupt to date since I came of age and got to know what politics was all about. It is riddled with thieves and robbers and all he does is curse, threaten and talk big…”

Waguthi told me that Uthamaki – the notion that only Kikuyus are entitled to political leadership in the country – had become a mirage, a dream deferred, a paradise lost that had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Kikuyu people. “President Uhuru seems still hell bent in his political schemes to misuse the Kikuyus in abusing state power…That’s why there is this talk of changing the constitution…this will be disastrous, and if this is a harbinger of things to come, woe unto Kenyans. Don’t these African leaders ever learn?” Africa, she said, had been plagued with bad leadership, with leaders never wanting to leave office, which had led to many deaths and wanton destruction. Kenya, she added, was on its way to joining the league of failed state nations.

The old lady said that the move to change the 2010 constitution so that President Uhuru and Raila can presumably upstage Deputy President William Ruto in his bid to succeed Uhuru was devious and would jeopardise the security of Kikuyus in the greater Rift Valley diaspora and elsewhere in Kenya. “There has never been a time when the security of the Kikuyu people in the country has been as precarious and threatened as now…there is seemingly a truce in the country today, no doubt, brought about by the ten-month-old greeting, but one stupid move by the Uhuru leadership could see the Kikuyu peoples’ lives wrought in mortal danger.

“If it were not for the young Kalenjin man [Ruto], Uhuru would not be president, and our people would probably not live comfortably in the Rift Valley. That is a disturbing fact and, however much a section of the Kikuyu people and their political leaders will now pretend that this is not so, they owe it to Ruto,” said Waguthi matter-of-factly. “Many Kikuyus are now remembering to say many things about Ruto…that’s very interesting and those things could as well be true…but be knowing this, if you choose to welcome an ogre into your house, don’t complain afterwards that it is overfeeding and has taken over the whole house.”

“Uhuru was never a man worth being a president,” observed Waguthi. “The presidency was forced on him and six years later, he has made a total mess of it. He has never been in control, much less concerned with the destiny and plight of the people. Now that he has realised that he will be leaving the powerful position, fear and despondency have gripped his presidency – he’s been creating commotions and distractions to appear like he’s on top of things.”

Dusk was setting in and the lady who had been taking care of her was on her way back from Tumu Tumu trading centre where she had gone to recharge Waguthi’s mobile phone. Waguthi summed up her prognosis: “The president led a life of privilege. He has never done anything for himself. He is laid back. Everything has always been done for him, and even in politics that has been the case. That’s how a prince behaves…it isn’t his fault, because that’s how he was socialised. The fault has been the people who entrusted their political fortunes to a man, not because he was fit for the job, but because he came from a big political family, and therefore presumed that political power was his right.” The old lady said Uhuru pales in comparison to Ruto, who is tough, hardworking and does not come off as having been pampered in his early life.

Waguthi had given me some political food for thought, surprising and unpalatable as it may have been, coming especially from an old lady. But her analysis had been echoed by a much- travelled man, who was as educated and professional as they come. Three weeks before going to meet Waguthi, I had spent some time with a former World Bank financial consultant in Ngegu on the outskirts of Kiambu town in Kiambu County.

A teetotaler and staunch Protestant Christian, the soft-spoken 68-year-old Gikandi strikes you as a man of really few words – until he is provoked to give his prevailing political views. “The handshake had calmed down the palpable tension that had been building up in the country soon after the two elections…the county is much less tense now, but that was not a license for Uhuru and Raila to introduce a hideous agenda through the formation of the Building the Bridges Initiative,” posited Gikandi. “Let us be clear about one thing: were it not for William Ruto, Uhuru would not be president of Kenya. Have you forgotten how the two campaigned together in folded white shirts? We’ll not be drawn into distractions. The prevailing talk about political debts or the lack thereof, state corruption, revived past sins are all unhelpful and unnecessary.”

“I have lived long enough to know who has been stealing money from state coffers,” said Gikandi. “Kikuyus have stolen more money from successive governments than anybody cares to know or investigate. That I can tell you for a fact: Money was stolen in Kenyatta (I), during Daniel arap Moi’s tenure, during Mwai Kibaki’s rule and now, more than ever before, in Kenyatta (II).”

Jomo Kenyatta, father to Uhuru, was the founding president who ruled as an imperial president for 15 years, from 1963 to 1978. His Vice President, Moi, took over from 1978 till 2003, when his second term ended and his “project” Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kanu flagbearer who he had primed and propped up to take over from him, was defeated by Kibaki on a National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) party ticket.

“What we want post-2022 is security and stability for all,” said the former World Bank auditor. “President Uhuru must be very careful how he fashions his politics now as we head to 2022. It would be extremely devious of him to not think of the security of our people in the Rift Valley. I do not want to belabour that fact, but you and I know that a political misstep or mishap could easily trigger mayhem in that part of the country. We do not want a repeat of 2008. Some Kikuyus are now remembering Ruto’s past sins. They should have remembered them in 2012, not now.”

“I believe Ruto will get things done,” said Gikandi, “because he is focused, hardworking and he is always on top of things. All the President’s men, past and present, have stolen. I am not persuaded that it is the DP and his men that have allegedly siphoned all the money from the state. We cannot have double standards if we want to curb corruption and, by the way, why has President Uhuru chosen to ‘fight’ corruption now?”

“What we want post-2022 is security and stability for all,” said the former World Bank auditor. “President Uhuru must be very careful how he fashions his politics now as we head to 2022. It would be extremely devious of him to not think of the security of our people in the Rift Valley. I do not want to belabour that fact, but you and I know that a political misstep or mishap could easily trigger mayhem in that part of the country. We do not want a repeat of 2008…”

The financial risk management consultant, who is also a revered church elder of a big Anglican church in Mt Kenya South diocese, said that if BBI lives up to its demand of holding a referendum so that the constitution is changed, he will robustly oppose it. “Uhuru should just honour the constitution and peacefully leave office. More importantly, he should honour the promise to his deputy. We can still remember it very well, made in the lead-up to 2013 general election.”

While in Nyeri County, I also spoke to millennials. Their political views were equally surprising. I met Mureithi from Skuta, a trading town six kilometres from Nyeri town. Mureithi, who is in his mid-30s, runs an electronics shop at Thunguma centre, which is separated from Skuta by two kilometres.

“We do not want to hear anything about President Uhuru,” said an embittered Mureithi. “He has wasted us, he fought so hard to reclaim the presidency only to plunge us further into deep poverty and political uncertainty. I am struggling to stay afloat. In the past one year, Uthamaki rulership has turned into ultimatums and angry outbursts from the president when confronted with issues of Central Kenya development issues. We, the young people of Nyeri County, have made up our minds. We have nothing to do with Uhuru, his projects, or his political schemes.”

In retrospect, Mureithi told me, President Uhuru’s six years at the helm was for self-aggrandisement and enriching his friends and relatives. “Tell me what one thing the Kikuyu youth anywhere can be proud of after his unswerving support for Uthamaki? Nothing. Instead, we have been served with disappointment, disillusionment and dispossession. And these 3Ds have given way to a great sense of betrayal. I made a mistake in voting for him twice last year. I will never do that mistake again,” said Mureithi.

Nigute. This Kikuyu word has in the last year become the political catchword for the disaffected Kikuyus whose views of Uthamaki presidential rule in the run-up to the first presidential elections was clouded by a vista of imagined economic Shangri-La and paradise revisited. Literally, the word means to throw away. Figuratively, it means to be wasted, to be misused, to be of no value after use, to be dumped.

“I threw my vote away,” said Mureithi, “So is the feeling of many Kikuyus. They are stuck in a rut, angry, bamboozled and embittered. They were deceived…the truth is, they have always been cheated, but this particular deceit could not have come at a worse time: Uhuru’s government has plundered the economy and destroyed Kikuyu businesses. The people have no money and they have no one and nowhere to turn to.”

Mureithi told me that BBI will come a cropper, spearheaded as it is by political dynastic powers that believe it is they who must always rule Kenya and nobody else. “It is headed for defeat because we shall fight it. We know what they are up to. Here in Nyeri, the youth have decreed that they will not support the referendum that is being pushed by Building the Bridges Initiative. We shall vigorously oppose it. We are tired of Uthamaki and its appendages.”

“There are some Central Kenya leaders who have been moving around the region telling us it is Ruto who is the source of all corruption and theft in government and that corruption must be fought by all means,” said Mureithi. “Those leaders include our own MP here for Nyeri town constituency, Ngunjiri Wambugu. We’ve already warned Ngunjiri that, like Uhuru, it was a mistake to have voted for him. We should not have abandoned Esther Murugi, [the former MP].” Ngunjiri is looking at his only one term in parliament, Mureithi promised me.

“The greatest theft in government has been orchestrated by President Uhuru’s close friends, who have stashed away billions of shillings,” observed Mureithi. “How is it that now it is Ruto who has stolen all the money and that it is he who is the source of all our economic and political problems? By allegedly trying to antagonise the deputy president, President Uhuru and BBI are stoking future political violence and insecurity for Kikuyus resident outside Central Kenya. I have relatives in Rift Valley. I know how nervous the Kikuyus of that region are with all this careless talk about rethinking Ruto’s Kikuyu support in 2022.”

“Corrupt or not corrupt, I will be supporting William Ruto,” said Mureithi. “What has our own Uhuru done for us? Born in riches, Uhuru has been overindulged throughout his life. That’s why he couldn’t care less whether the Kikuyus eat grass or sleep hungry, as long as he can get them to die for his dangerous political ventures. President Uhuru has been saying this is his legacy term for Kenya. We know what that means: ‘This is my legacy for the Kenyatta Family, not Kenya, the country.’”

I wound up my Nyeri County visit by engaging Lilian Wambui from Gikondi village in Mukurwe-ini. Barely a year ago, Wambui would have killed for President Uhuru Kenyatta. “I was so indoctrinated by the Uthamaki logic and the person of Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta that I’d brazenly taunt my Luo friends to go fishing in Lake Victoria and catch thamaki (fish) because we the Kikuyus had Uthamaki.”

Wambui is a businesswoman: she once rented a quarry in Njiru that borders Mwiki to the north and Ruai to the southeast in Nairobi County, where her employees were all Luo men who broke and carved stones that would be picked in truckloads at the site. Wambui has also engaged in the mitumba business, where she specialised in camera (as-good-as-new) children’s designer clothes. Lately, she has been dealing in wholesale fruits and vegetables. In three and half years, all the three businesses have collapsed. In December last year, she escaped to her rural home to run away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi and to rethink her future.

“Corrupt or not corrupt, I will be supporting William Ruto,” said Mureithi. “What has our own Uhuru done for us? Born in riches, Uhuru has been overindulged throughout his life. That’s why he couldn’t care less whether the Kikuyus eat grass or sleep hungry, as long as he can get them to die for his dangerous political ventures. President Uhuru has been saying this is his legacy term for Kenya. We know what he means: ‘This is my legacy for the Kenyatta Family, not Kenya, the country.’”

“President Uhuru is a total failure: all the money from the government has been stolen while he stood by and watched. Now he is fighting Ruto, pretending to combat corruption. He should give us a break. I never believed he would waste us [Kikuyus] after all the support we lent him. I think we Kikuyus have been bewitched. It is not possible for one family to bestrode an entire community so easily and take advantage of their political foolishness for so long,” she commented.

Wambui told me that she vividly remembers President Uhuru specifically campaigning among the Kikuyus in downtown Nairobi in 2017. “On 9 February, 2017, taking time off from his State House duties, the president joined the Jubilee Party’s Nairobi governorship aspirants to galvanise the people into registering as voters. The then contestants were Peter Kenneth and the ‘Gang of Four’ – Mike Sonko, Denis Waweru, Margaret Wanjiru and Johnstone Sakaja.”

The businesswoman recalled that everyone, including the president, congregated at Wakulima Market on Haile Selassie Avenue, famously known as Marigiti. “It is not for want of a better place to mobilise the Nairobi voter that the Jubilee Party cabal chose the marketplace. Because when the president spoke, it become rather obvious why Marigiti was a good starting point. “Wooooi andu aitu muiga nyinuke….wooooi mutikandekererie…..mutikareke nyinuke,” (Oh my people, are you sending me home….please don’t abandon me…don’t let me go home) urged the President.

“Two months earlier, campaigning in Ruaka and its environs which are in his home county Kiambu, President Uhuru at one stop addressed the people thus: ‘I have information that some people are saying they will not vote on the 8th of August. I appeal to you, particularly the youth, not to let me down. I know what we are defending. What did President Kenyatta mean by I know what we are defending?’” posed Wambui. “The Kenyatta Family legacy. Period. President Uhuru has let down every Kikuyu voter, other than his tenderpreneur friends and relatives, who came out to vote for him. And the Kikuyu youth, abused during the campaigns and ignored after power had been recaptured, have received the short end of the stick. They are now called thieves. Nigute.”

I spent half of 2017 and the better part of 2018 talking and oftentimes animatedly holding court with Uthamaki ardent followers who, just before the August 8 general elections, had immersed themselves in Uthamaki’s noxious rhetoric of political perpetuity. All of them – from market women to matatu drivers, conductors, freelance touts, hawkers, street vendors, street prowlers, petty traders, seasoned businessmen and women, college students, university dons, professionals and state bureaucrats – were seemingly hypnotised by the Uthamaki political conquest: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all the rest shall be added unto you,” one born-again lawyer had reminded me, “but we are still humble about it.” (It was Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, who famously coined the maxim, which would soon become a clarion call for many an African country seeking political independence in the 1960s.)

I spent half of 2017 and the better part of 2018 talking and oftentimes animatedly holding court with Uthamaki ardent followers who, just before the August 8 general elections, had immersed themselves in Uthamaki’s noxious rhetoric of political perpetuity. All of them…were seemingly hypnotised by the Uthamaki political conquest: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all the rest shall be added unto you,” one born-again lawyer had reminded me…”

Yet, nothing has captured for me the hypnotic, trance-like behaviour of an Uthamaki fundamentalist who revels in sporadic moments of lunacy than the story as told to me by my friend Baba Otis.

On 1 June, 2018, Madaraka Day, Baba Otis was drying obamboo (dissected tilapia fish that is smoked and oftentimes dried for storage and which is eaten over a long period). Known by its variant name, obambla, its tasty soup is very delicious and nutritious, especially for children. In the evening, On that day, Baba Otis heard a knock on his door in the estate plot where he lives with other tenants in Nairobi. It was Mama Shiru. “Sasa Baba Otis, aki watoto wangu hawajakula siku tatu, nisaidia tu na piece moja ya samaki niwatengenezee.” (Hi Otis’s father, I swear my children have not eaten for three days. Please just give me one piece of the smoked fish. I will prepare it for my children.)

The evening visit by Mama Shiru was interesting, given that on 29 October, 2017, a Sunday and three days after the repeat presidential elections in which the Jubilee Party largely competed against itself, Mama Shiru, a mother of two, had broken into a frenzied dance of jubilation and had yelled for all to hear: “Uthamaki ni witu….thamaki ni ciao….mekuigwa uguo”. (The rulership is ours (Kikuyus)….fish is theirs (Luos)…they can go hang.)

Baba Otis was there to witness the hippy dance of a woman who, for all intents and purposes, behaved as if she had been possessed by Lucifer himself. She was sporting a wristband and bandana fashioned along the colours of the Kenyan flag that have come to be associated with chauvinistic Kikuyu men and women. That night, Mama Shiru must have slept like a king in the knowledge that her tribesman had once again settled in the hallowed sanctuary of the mighty State House. Uthamaki ni witu…thamaki ni ciao.

Barely seven months later, when Mama Shiru stood outside Baba Otis’s door, she had discarded her wristband and tossed away her bandanna. The uthamaki ni witu, thamaki ni ciao alliterative singsong had long been expunged from her now pursed lips. The bravado that had accompanied the wearing of the Jubilee Party paraphernalia and totems had gone. Crude reality had by then sunk in…perhaps…perhaps not.

One fact was clear though from Mama Shiru’s predicament – you cannot feed your children on a tribal ideology, much less if your tribesman is the country’s president. “But Kikuyus can also be impervious and shameless,” commented Baba Otis.

In moments when an ethnic community finds itself in a crisis, its spontaneous response is to blame everyone but itself: introspection becomes anathema – it searches for scapegoats and scarecrows to explain away its internal contradictions and confusion. “It is the handshake.” “This problem we are in now is one for all of us.” “It is William Ruto who is engaged in all these state thefts”. “Ni mang’auro marea marigiciiria munene.” (It is the scoundrels that encircle (our) leader.) “Muthamaki ndakararagio na ti wa garari,” (The tribal chieftain should not be criticized or contradicted.)

John Njoroge Michuki is on record after Narc came to power in 2003 for proclaiming that Kenyans (read: Kikuyus) had been agitating for constitutional reforms to remove Daniel T. arap Moi: Moi was the problem – not the almighty powerful presidency that the 1960, 1962 and 1963 Lancaster House constitution conferences had bestowed on Kenyans. But hey, as long as that individual was a Kikuyu, it was business as usual. Many Kikuyus conflate Kikuyu nationalism with Kenyan statehood. And they care less for this contradiction.

The grandstanding of kumira kumira (a clarion call that means to get out in large numbers), thuraku (safari ants) and all that toxic talk about Uthamaki and “ni ithui twathanaga guku,” (it is we (Kikuyus) who call the political shots) has melted away barely a year into the Jubilee Party’s second term.

After my interviews and interactions with Uthamaki believers, I could not help but ponder over what could be a priority in their minds as they struggle to contextualise their economic hardships and situate their political path come 2022.

Post-2022, the Kikuyus are thinking very hard about their security and survival in ways that they have never thought before. The presidency has become a burden to them: Like a millstone around their necks, it is weighing them down. But they made their bed and must lie on it. In a real sense, the president has stopped being a factor in their yet undecided political trajectory.

For the very first time, Kikuyus do not have a bankable political leader. Ten months into BBI, not all Kikuyus are persuaded that it augurs well for their political insurance. So far, they do not know what to make of it. Suspicion abounds.

Painfully, the Kikuyus are learning to internalise their political suffering, trapped as they are like a caged bird, its only freedom being to pitter-patter around the cage. Hence, their desire to extricate themselves from the clutches of political serfdom, and hopefully, from the pain of the (late) realisation that they have been duped and dumped.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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