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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: The Man Kenya Can Never Forget

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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget, writes DAUTI KAHURA and BETHUEL ODUO, who’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time in Kenya’s political history.

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JARAMOGI OGINGA ODINGA: The man Kenya can never forget
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If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget. Jaramogi and Tom Mboya were both were nationalists of great distinction from the Luo community who as seasoned politicians posed a threat to the founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s autocratic national designs. Tom Mboya died young, by an assassin’s bullet, on July 5, 1969. Jaramogi died an old man, a mzee, at the age of 82 years on January 20, 1994, after having been tormented by both Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes effectively from 1969 after his fall out with Kenyatta and through the 80s and 90s during iron-fisted Moi’s reign. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga death anniversary on January 20th, twenty-five years since his passing, was marked quietly in a manner that diminishes his immense contribution to the Kenyan national project.

If Thomas Joseph (TJ) Mboya was the young man that Kenya wanted to forget, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is the grand old man who Kenya can never forget

No history book on Kenya would be complete without his mention. Jaramogi was the vice president of the nationalist party Kanu when Kenya African Union (Kau) merged with Kenya Independent Movement to form Kanu on May 14, 1960. He was later to become the country’s first Vice President, after Kanu won the 1963 general elections under Kenyatta. When his friend Pio Gama Pinto was killed in 1965, Jaramogi knew he was a targeted man because of his ideological position. Pinto, then was a nominated MP and an avowed communist who was Jaramogi’s confidante. Jaramogi would form the socialist party, Kenya People’s Union in 1966, banned in 1969 leading to his detention under house arrest by his former ally Jomo Kenyatta.

I first set my eyes on Jaramogi on November 16, 1991. Bethuel Oduo my collaborator on this writing project and my senior, had met Jaramogi much earlier, but this day in November, remains fresh in our memories. It was the first licensed political rally organized by the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford), the fledging opposition movement led by Jaramogi as the interim chair. Oduo and I attended the meeting held at the symbolic Kamukunji Grounds, a historic public space that hosted a number of significant nationalistic political rallies during Kenya’s pre-independent agitation struggles for freedom in the late 50s and early 60s.

This was my first time I was attending a political rally as an impressionable young man in my twenties. I had never seen such a mass of people in such diversity, gathered in one place for a common cause. The atmosphere was electrifying. I could feel the palpitations, as throngs of humanity waited anxiously for the address by the opposition leaders. 1991 was the year that Kenya restored political pluralism after being a de facto one party state since 1969. The old Kenya Lancaster negotiated constitution, previously criminalized a meeting of more than 10 people through Public Order Act 56, which was repealed, just like Section 2A, that proclaimed Kenya to be one party state.

I gathered that many people, young and old, had come specifically to see the legend Jaramogi, a man who had borne so much in the tumultuous and vicious climate of politics in Kenya. “I last saw and heard Jaramogi in 1969,” a man next to me said, “I wonder what he looks like today, but he’s going to talk to us today…what a great feeling.”

A group of emerging opposition politicians, christened the “Young Turks”, among them James Orengo, Paul Muite, Prof Anyang Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Gitobu Imanyara banded together with veteran politicians Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro among others in what was threatening to be an unprecedented opposition coalition set to end Moi’s dictatorial 14 year rule. The force behind this movement was the enigmatic Oginga Odinga and the man of the moment.

Jaramogi was about to address his first meeting after 22 years of state imposed political isolation. Jaramogi spoke in a shrill voice. The microphone held by Prof Ouma Muga, one of the masters of ceremony for the event. The other master of ceremony was Kimani Wanyoike. Jaramogi seemed to voice my thoughts.

“I have never seen so many people gather in my lifetime,” said Jaramogi “This is the first time most of you are attending a political meeting out of your choice.” It felt like he was talking directly to me and he had my full attention as he launched into a 45 minute address.

“Why is Kenneth Matiba not with us today? Why is George Anyona, Edward Oyugi, (Augustine) Njeru Kathangu, Rumba Kinuthia, Koigi wa Wamwere, Ngotho Kariuki and many other freedom fighters not with us?”

“Why are our sons and daughters still in exile? Why are brilliant people who can teach in our universities wasting their lives overseas? Why was Robert Ouko murdered? Was he murdered for speaking about corruption? Was he murdered for speaking his mind in the cabinet? Why was (Alexander) Muge murdered? Was it because he exercised his freedom to preach the word of God to condemn sin and corruption?” He had captured the mood in the country in distress and the masses of people were beyond ecstatic.

Of the six ford movement founder members, Jaramogi Oginga, Philip Gachoka, Ahmed Bahmariz, Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro and George Nthenge, only Nthenge is alive today. George Nthenge who became Kamukunji constituency MP in the first multiparty elections in 1992 recalls the moment. “Jaramogi was an old man and he knew that if he brought nine other elders together, the government would not risk international condemnation by arresting us. This is how Masinde Muliro and Martin Shikuku were sent to recruit me. Ahmed Bahmariz was also recruited, but we could not get three other elders to bring the total to nine.” Today Nthenge still runs his curio shop at the City Market, a shop he has maintained for well over four decades.

Jaramogi was not only the doyen of opposition politics in Kenya. He was a noted Pan Africanist and his credentials remain unquestionable. In January 1992 during an interview with the Nairobi Law Monthly magazine, Jaramogi spoke of his relationships with people like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison in 1990. “Kwame lived before his time. He had seen Africa through and through. And he lived as if Africa was one country. He was very diligent, hardworking and a person that one could admire. He was instrumental in dedicating me to struggle for Kenya. He told me: ‘you fight in your own country for Kenyatta, Kenyatta is in London, but he is a nationalist of the first order’”.

Although exiled in Guinea in 1966, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s former President was very close to Jaramogi to the extent that he still found time to pen a foreword to his book Not Yet Uhuru, Kenya best political treatise to date.

On Nyerere, Jaramogi had this to say: “I know Nyerere as a very intelligent person and great nationalist. He refused a big salary and lived on the minimum that he could…Nyerere actually considered public opinion important.”Jaramogi himself would later talk of how he could not justify earning a salary, (making reference his role as VP in the independence cabinet) while his duties had been distributed to other cabinet ministers, in a bid to punish and tame him. So he quit government.

Jaramogi considered many global leaders and Pan Africanists as close friends. The list included Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Milton Obote, President of Uganda, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Ahmed Ben Bella former Prime Minister of Algeria and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

In the Nairobi Law monthly interview, Jaramogi also spoke on the icy relationship that had existed between him and Tom Mboya before his violent death. “Mboya was for the West and had a liking for America. On my part, I had been to the Soviet Union, China and Japan and generally the East to find out what went on there. People took this to mean I was the ‘good boy’ of the East and Mboya of the West.” The politics of the Cold War, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union had ramifications on Kenyan politics.

Jaramogi was detained at Hola detention camp, a remote town on river Tana, Tana River county between 1970-1972. Former chief justice Willy Mutunga who spent a stint in Hola after the abortive (August 1st) 82 coup, remembers occupying the same cell as Jaramogi. “Jaramogi was a selfless nationalist, who was never interested in self-aggrandizement and Pan Africanist, who truly loved his country and continent,” observed the former chief justice.

After his release from detention in Hola, Jaramogi remained under house arrest in Kisumu until Kenyatta’s death in 1978. President Moi on assuming the power attempted to rehabilitate Jaramogi by appointing him the chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board in 1979. It was a way of telling him to revive the cotton farming, which had collapsed after his disagreement with Kenyatta. Jaramogi said as much in the Nairobi Law Monthly interview: “The cotton industry had really gone down and Moi needed somebody to bring it up. I did my best and people actually saw that the cotton industry was coming up.”

But as fate would have it, in April 1981, Jaramogi’s tongue ‘slipped’ during a fundraiser in Mombasa when he sensationally claimed Kenyatta had been a land grabber and that is why they had differed with him. Subsequently, Moi relieved Jaramogi of his position. It is rumoured that the inner circle of Moi’s cabinet that included the powerful attorney general Charles Njonjo engineered the sacking. A retired politician from that era who requested anonymity recalls Njonjo allegedly telling Moi. “’If indeed it’s true you are following the footsteps of Kenyatta, is Odinga saying therefore, you are also a land grabber?” When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia.”

In 1981, the then MP for Bondo, Jonas Ochieng Ougo suddenly tendered his resignation, occasioning a by-election. The truth of the matter was that he was hoping to pave way for Jaramogi, to be elected as the next MP. The Siaya Kanu sub-branch on orders from Moi effectively barred Jaramogi from contesting and that is how William Odongo Omamo aka Kaliech found his way back as the MP for Bondo. Ougo had been Jaramogi’s student at Maseno who would later teach Raila Odinga at Maranda School before moving on to become the head teacher at Friends school Kamusinga, in Kaimosi, Bungoma county.

When Moi took over from Kenyatta, after his demise on August 22, 1978, he broadly proclaimed ‘Mimi nitafuata nyayo za Mzee, (I will follow in the footsteps of Mzee Kenyatta) and in a sense he had to save political face. That sacking essentially meant that Jaramogi was back into “political Siberia

The idea to form another party came to Jaramogi after his attempts to re-enter parliament had hit a brick wall. The following year in 1982, teaming up with George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusii land, Jaramogi and Anyona walked to Sheria House and asked the registrar of political parties to register their party, the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). John Khaminwa had written Kasa’s constitution. This would mark the genesis of Khaminwa’s reputation as the lawyer for detained Kenyans; become a marked man by Moi’s regime. Indeed after the August 1982 abortive coup de ’tat, he was detained alongside politicians and university dons, considered rebels by Moi. Jaramogi’s son Raila would also begin his long spell of detention for his role in the coup but also as many believed for the sins of his father who Moi could not detain.

Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.

With the return to plural politics in December 1992, Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo constituency in Siaya, while his son Raila was elected the MP for Langata constituency in Nairobi. For the first time, a father and son were both elected MPs. A year later, Jaramogi was dead and his first-born son Oburu Odinga replaced him. The two Odinga brothers were duly elected MPs of the August House.

Always a paranoid man, Moi could not fathom another party rivaling KANU. It was the fear of Kasa that drove Moi to ask Parliament to pass one afternoon a bill that later become law stating that changed Kenya from a defacto to a dejure one party state.

When the Luo people migrated from Uganda and Sudan and landed on the other side of Lake Victoria in the 15th century, they were led by one Ramogi Ajwang, who is believed to be the patriarch of the Kenyan branch of the Luo. That is how Oginga Odinga acquired the name ‘Ja-Ramogi’. ‘Ja’ is a prefix which means ‘he who belongs to.’

In his life time, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga came to assume a persona that was larger than life and sometimes stranger than fiction. Mzee Odungi Randa, Jaramogi’s former handyman told us in Kisumu.

“Jaramogi was labelled many things by his detractors,” “Communist, dissident, rebel, tribalist, trouble shooter, rogue element, yet he remained firm and resilient and focused on his nationalist ambitions.”Although wealthy by all standards, he never flaunted it and throughout his life, he embodied the philosophy of egalitarianism, said Randa.

By the mid 1940s Jaramogi had formed Bondo Thrift and Trading Corporation. As the company grew, he toyed with several names to rename the expanding corporation. In 1947, he settled for Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation (LUTATCO). Jaramogi said he named the company Luo Thrift, because he wanted the Luo people to feel the company was part of them, hence proud of it.

“Kenya People Union was formed after Jaramogi felt those who risked their lives for Kenya to attain independence had been short changed and sidelined by the very same people they had fought colonialists together,” observed Randa. “It was the case of the Mau Mau freedom fighters versus the home guards that was repeating itself.”

In Nairobi, we went looking for Jaramogi’s one time neighbour at his Jerusalem estate houses in Eastlands. Thomas Onyango Daniel, now his late 40s, grew up in the same block that his family shared with Jaramogi. He remembers a quiet old man with an aura of wisdom. “It was not easy to see him leave or come to the flat,” recalls Onyango. “He remained an elusive figure to my mind until 1990, when the clamour for multiparty started in earnest. All of a sudden, Jaramogi’s house became a beehive of important people coming to see him”. Despite his elusive character, Onyango remembers Jaramogi as a kind man. “When he was around, he would invite us children to the house to drink brown uji (porridge).

Jaramogi had two houses near Jerusalem shopping centre: one on the ground floor and the other up the stairs. “When around, he spent most of the times in the upstairs one, that is where he would meet and entertain his guests,” said Onyango. “I remember him always dressed in a khaki shorts and his signature trademark, the akala (rubber sandals made out of motor vehicle tyre) shoes. All the time he was there, there was a constant stream of people flocking to see him.” To date, the matatu stage near his houses is referred to as Kwa Jaramogi.

Thomas Odoyo 65, from Agoro Nyakach recalled the year 1966 when there was a heated campaign rally in Pap Onditi, as two contestants went for each other’s neck.“Yusto Nyamolo Okal was running against Jaramogi’s candidate Ondiek Chilo. At the rally, fracas ensued between Okal’s supporters and Jaramogi’s youth wing led by Ndolo Ayah.” Odoyo described Ayah as Jaramogi’s ardent supporter. He could not stand Tom Mboya whom he had fundamental personal differences with.”

Interestingly, Ayah had been a student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda in the early 60s. Together with him was Pamela Odede, the daughter of Walter Odede, the late freedom fighter and member of the Legislative Council (Legco). Ayah and Pamela were an item in college. On the invitation of the Makerere Students Guild, Tom Mboya, went to give a talk at the university campus. Pamela, who attended the inaugural lecture, was smitten with the young flamboyant politician from Kenya. TJ persuaded her to abandon her studies at Makerere, to become one of the pioneers of the 1961 airlift which TJ had organized. In her group, were Wangari Muta Mathai, Ojwang K’Ombudo, Muthoni Muthiga, Beth Mugo and Nicholas Mugo. Nicholas married Beth and Tom married Pamela and Ayah never forgave TJ.

It is at the Pap-Onditi rally that Jaramogi’s mystical powers came to light. “When the two opposing crowds became really hostile Jaramogi pointed at Nyamolo Okal with his left hand and told him in Dholuo, “Nyamolo Okal in ema iketho bucha kamae, wanane ka nine od bura?” (Nyamolo Okal, you are the one who is messing up my rally, we shall see whether you will see Parliament). After the confrontation, the rally aborted and people dispersed cursing the ‘spoilers.’ Nyamolo became a marked man in Jaramogi’s political terrain. Nyamolo was the first Kenyan to head Kakamega High School after graduating from Makerere.

“For being anti-Jaramogi Okal acquired Equatorial Printing Press located in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. The business was the first African owned commercial printing facility. He was rewarded by being single sourced to supply books and stationery to the then Kenya School Equipment Scheme,” said Odoyo. And true to Jaramogi’s word Nyamolo never saw the gates of Parliament. “He unsuccessfully contested the Nyakach constituency seat in 1966, 1969 and 1974. After the assassination of Mboya, things started going south for Nyamolo Okal. His business empire collapsed and he eventually died a poor desolate soul.” According to Odoyo, Jaramogi’s curse ‘his left hand’ had come to pass.

“Yes it is true that Jaramogi’s left hand was shorter than the right one, but really, did it have extra-ordinary powers to condemn people to political oblivion?” posed Mark Otieno. Otieno narrated a story about Jaramogi and his political son James Orengo. “One day in the mid-1980s, Jaramogi was in a good mood, so Ajimmy (as he referred to Orengo) asked Jaramogi whether it was true his left hand had magical powers and if he pointed at anyone with that hand, he would remain cursed. Jaramogi laughed sarcastically and replied ‘Mano ji ema wacho ok an” (It is hearsay and not from me).’”During this period, both Jaramogi and Orengo were constant victims of state humiliation.

“ Orengo took his frustrations to Jaramogi: ‘Ka en adieri, kare Moi machandowani ok isieme gilwetino chieng’moro owere kodwa.’ (If it is true about (Jaramogi’s hand), why then don’t you use it on Moi, who is giving us trouble, so that he can leave us alone?) Jaramogi ended that discussion by stating, ‘Piny nonene nyasaye ema ong’eyo’. The world (in reference to Moi) will deal with him…it is God who knows.)” Otieno said that was vintage Jaramogi: people tendered to build mystery around his personality. “Just like his son Raila, he was considered an enigma of sorts and invisible. Many of his staunch followers believed it was not easy to harm him in any way.”

Orengo was Jaramogi’s legal adviser and Jaramogi treated Orengo like his real son. Jaramogi knew Orengo’s dad, Apollo Orengo Onunga, who was a police inspector. That is why Orengo, being a son of a cop has on numerous times said he does not fear the police, because he grew up in a cop’s homestead. Still, Jaramogi’s dotted on Orengo because of his sharp legal mind.

“At the age of 29, Jaramogi made Orengo an MP for Ugenya constituency,” narrated Otieno nostalgically. “Jaramogi one day during the campaigns came to Ugenya, he didn’t get out of his car, but people gathered around it. He told them: ‘you know I’m not allowed to speak, so I was just passing by, but, by the way, when you see that son of Apollo, please pass my regards.’ The people quickly understood what Jaramogi had told them. Orengo was voted in overwhelmingly. His son Raila, somehow took over that mantle and whenever he endorses you, consider yourself elected.”

Mzee Solomon Owino told us that Jaramogi would deliberately give nicknames to some of his political friends and loyalists. “He coined names like Ondiek‘Chilo’Miguda, Okuto Bala (the former ambassador to Russia), Achieng ‘Nyakech’Oneko. Ondiek is the Luo word for hyena, okuto is salty rock and nyakech is an antelope or a gazelle. He nicknamed Oneko nyakech, because of his tall slender body frame. Jaramogi said some of his supporters in their great support for him were like the vicious hyenas. They would stop at nothing in his defense.”

Among the Young Turks, Jaramogi also had a special nickname for Paul Kibugi Muite: Obiero –the true son of the home. But the literal translation of Obiero in English language is placenta. “Jaramogi was fond of Muite because he would tell him he had the dark complexion of a Luo man,” opined Mzee Owino. Jaramogi surrounded himself with emerging young and versatile oppositionist politicians, who were quickly given the moniker Young Turks by the Kenyan mainstream media. They included, Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Kiraitu Murungi, Mukhisa Kituyi, Paul Kibuge Muite, Prof Ayang’ Nyong’o and Prof Ouma Muga.

Achieng Oneko was a bosom buddy of Jaramogi. It is Achieng Oneko who introduced him to Jomo Kenyatta in 1952 in Kisumu for the first time before he was detained. They had a closed meeting at Maseno Store, a big shop that was part of LUTATCO initiative.

Elated by Kenyatta’s visit to Maseno Jaramogi would later write him a “thank you” note in his book Not Yet Uhuru.

“You can’t imagine the happiness I derive from your one day visit to Maseno on Tuesday. I really enjoyed your company heartily and hope we will have more moments like this in the coming days of our self-government. In this, I am your disciple to the hilt. You were so much at home and felt so very native to the house, as if Maseno had been your home Kikuyuni. I will never forget that memorable day…when you return again to us in August as you have promised to do. I hope to attend many meeting with you and give you as much assistance as will be possible from nationalist and businessman.

I remain, always,

Your disciple in nationalism.”

That meeting could possibly have been the first where the Luo-Kikuyu unity was mooted. In that meeting, Kenyatta told Jaramogi: “We must get to know one another. The Kikuyu must know the Luo thoroughly. The Luo should select 12 influential elders to tour Kikuyu country, to travel as far as Mombasa and that 12 influential Kikuyu elders would travel to Luo country. The conclusion of the two delegations would be inevitable; that we are Africans, one and the same. United, we would be formidable. I have lived with these people (whites) in Great Britain, I know they fear unity.”

Scholar David Odemba from Kaksingri in Mbita believes the silent but often times open rivalry between Tom Mboya and Jaramogicould have been a blessing in disguise. “The divergent ideological approaches helped advance academic achievement among the Lake people. Both the protagonists were competing to send as many students as possible to Europe and America,” pointed out Odemba. “The airlifts to the East and West were the foundation upon which the latter Luo youth found role models whom to date they emulate. Mboya and Jaramogi emphasized the need to acquire higher education as a form of social security. They saw the gift of formal education as the future community’s insurance in its sustainability. They are both credited with the deliberate glorification of academia in Luoland.”

Newspaper vendor Okungu Kerry of Kisumu, remembers Jaramogi fondly: “Jaramogi saved the Nyanza sugarbelt area from being grabbed by outsiders. The areas around Koru, Songhor, Muhoroni, Chemelil and Miwani were once occupied by Indian sugar cane farmers or white settlers. Through legislation on resettlement of landless Africans, Jaramogi ensured victims of floods from Kano plains were given first priority after Kenya’s first El-Nino rains of 1961.My grandfather was settled in Kibigori after their home was destroyed by the same floods.”

Many of his Jaramogi’s followers believe his political persecution led to the ‘Luo’ cash crops being targeted and profiled for destruction. “Either by design or default, cash crops grown in Luo land became political crops. Because of this the Luo farmer suffered greatly. This was a deliberate, quiet and systematic dispossession of their only source of livelihood. Cotton which was the agricultural mainstay of the Luo was the first to be wiped off. All the ginneries closed down and farmers were rendered paupers. Sugar remained the crop the people could rely on. Sisal had earlier succumbed to global technological changes that brought in synthetic fibre,”

Many Luo people believe that according to their ethnic epistemology, only one person can inherit a father’s strong genes and possibly mystical powers. There is a stark difference between the two surviving Jaramogi sons, Oburu Oginga and Raila Odinga. The first born Oburu is a colourless and uninspiring politician. “Oburu has never persuaded anyone that he is his own man,” said an observer of the Jaramogi dynasty.“One wonders whether he could ever survive politically without his younger brother Raila.”Plucked from a civil service job as a provincial planning officer and living in a humble Mosque estate in house in Kisumu, Oburu has remained in Raila’s shadow since 1994, when he replaced Jaramogi as MP for Bondo.

Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.

Like his father Jaramogi, Raila has developed own his international networks making him known beyond Kenya. Twenty five years down the road, many of Jaramogi’s believers said his political fervour and determinism has been kept alight by his son Raila Odinga.

Jaramogi and Raila are political enigmas that very often defy easy classification and political analysis. Each personality comes with his own nickname. Jaramogi was initially named Obadiah Adonijah. In Not Yet Uhuru he says “I never liked the names. I never used them though in those days it was important to be known if you were Christian by your baptismal name”. He instead adopted Ajuma Oginga Odinga but the first name ‘Ajuma’ also fizzled out with time leaving the double ‘O’ intact. Raila is variously known by his nicknames like Agwambo, Tinga and RAO.

Jaramogi’s legacy will continue to be felt for a very long time especially in Nyanza where several iconic institutions have taken up his name. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital and Oginga Odinga Road are just some of the main landmarks that will forever keep his name alive.

Whether the spirit of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi has influenced the current working relationship between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila, their respective sons is a story for another day.

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Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

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


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

 

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The Irrelevance of NGOs

NGOs have been notably absent in the fight against COVID-19, despite claims they exist solely to ensure accountability and transparency by government.

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The Irrelevance of NGOs
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Nothing has exposed neoliberalism as a hoax as intelligently and most strikingly as COVID-19 has done. (Though at the expense of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead.) All over the world, people have come to depend almost exclusively on their national governments not only to stay safe against the deadly pandemic but also for economic survival. Against a painful history of relentless assaults on so-called “big government,” COVID-19 has grown the size of government bureaucracies and budgets in size to what was hardly imaginable only a few months ago.

This change has brought about another debate about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Nowhere is this debate about NGOs more palpable than in my home country of Tanzania, where at the time of writing the East African nation had recorded a total of 480 confirmed coronavirus cases, 18 deaths and 167 recoveries. The situation here seems to be getting out of control as more fatalities continue to be reported, exacerbated by the increasing tendency of hospitals, especially in the country’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, to reject patients suspected of having the coronavirus disease. Several people (see here and here) have reported having their relatives turned away by hospitals, after which some died. The government has been trying hard to underestimate the magnitude of the pandemic, including by underreporting the number of fatalities and doing night burials.

Nearly every action taken by national governments throughout the world in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and thus to save lives and communities, goes directly against the dictates of neoliberal fundamentalism. For a number of decades, advocates of this ideology would propose murderous cuts in public spending on critical sectors like health and education. In addition to the breakneck privatization of public services was the massive growth of NGOs whose missions varied widely; from those advocating for government accountability and democratic institutions to those championing girls’ rights, citizens’ agency, and countless others providing services.

This is no coincidence. The missionaries of neoliberal evangelism have been pushing for the social services provision role of governments to be replaced by NGOs and private individuals, arguing that this will ultimately improve service efficiency for governments. Perhaps there’s no stauncher proponent of that argument in Tanzania than former President Benjamin Mkapa—or at least until recently. It was under Mkapa’s administration that both privatization and NGO growth in the country took root. “Soon after assuming office, in November 1995,” said Mr Mkapa in his speech at the official launch of Tanzania National Business Council (TNBC) on April 9, 2001, quoted in “A Capitalizing City” by Dr. Chambi Chachage, “I realised the need to change the way the national economy is managed. This need was made more acute by the fact that our country was moving from a public sector led economy to a private sector driven market economy.” (Later, Mr. Mkapa would describe the privatization drive unleashed by his administration as the “worst mistake” of his presidency in his memoirs My Life, My Purpose.) In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, however, both NGOs and the private sector have been conspicuously absent on the frontlines where the war against the virus is being waged.

The role of NGOs in Tanzania has been made more interesting both by the Tanzanian government’s handling of the pandemic (which I discuss here), and NGOs’ responses (or lack thereof). So far, the responses of NGOs to the pandemic have been simply bewildering, opaque, and ambiguous. Part of this ambiguity, I think, is due to both the history of NGOs in Tanzania and the issues that they continue to remain deadly silent about. In this latter category is what seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among the NGOs, with very few exceptions, of forgoing what they claim to be their main mission, that is: to cultivate a culture of accountable governance as well as the building of strong democratic institutions in the country. This abandonment is disappointing and surprising at the same time, because during a crisis like the one we are in now, one would have expected that the NGOs, far from pretending as if they no longer exist, would double, or even triple, their efforts to force those in power to act more responsibly and deliver to their constituents.

But from the way things appear on the ground, it is as if the coronavirus disease has forced the NGOs to take some time off their work and give the government, whose handling of the pandemic has made Tanzania the laughing stock of the world, a free reign to act as it wishes. One area of concern is the way the government has entirely left people to fend for themselves amidst the crisis. In fact, instead of helping its people, the government’s asking the people to donate to it! The fact that no NGOs have so far called the government out means that the people have not just been abandoned by their government, but also by the organizations that claim to work on their behalf.

The NGOs have failed to condemn President John Magufuli’s statements and actions that threaten to put the lives of thousands at risk. These statements include the recent one he made during a televised address from his hometown of Chato, in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where the president has been “self-isolating” since the pandemic started. There he urged Tanzanians to consider inhaling steam from a boiling pot of water as a means to cure coronavirus, a suggestion medical doctors have nevertheless advised against. During the rare address, President Magufuli also dismissed the exercise to disinfect public spaces as “nonsense.” Earlier, President Magufuli took to Twitter to declare three days of national prayers “to help defeat coronavirus,” and his government even organized a national prayer to save Tanzania from the pandemic. All this had Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, concerned, according to journalist Geoffrey York who reported via Twitter. In another address, where Mr. Magufuli accused Tanzania’s lab technicians of conspiring with “imperialists” to sabotage the country by increasing the number of positive cases, something which led to the sacking of the national community health laboratory director Dr. Nyambura Moremi, the President said that his government would dispatch a plane to fetch the herbal treatment for the coronavirus touted by the president of Madagascar despite a warning from the WHO that a herbal tonic cannot cure the disease. (One observer of Tanzanian politics described the address as “totally reckless” and even called on people to boycott Magufuli’s subsequent addresses on the coronavirus pandemic lest they go bonkers.) Dangerous and irresponsible as these statements and measures seem, not a single NGO that works in the area of public health—and there is no shortage of them—uttered any public criticism of Magufuli.

Nor are the democratic-championing NGOs concerned by the government’s resolve to centralize the flow of information on coronavirus. No NGO, for example, has come out against the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s (TCRA) directive to members of WhatsApp groups to screenshot “fake information” posted in these groups and report it to authorities. No NGO seems bothered by the Tanzania Police Force’s irresponsible act to storm and interrupt a press conference by the main opposition party CHADEMA intended to give Tanzanians an alternative appraisal of the coronavirus situation from that given by the government. (The party was subsequently able to organize a press conference where its national chairperson Freeman Mbowe outlined twelve issues that he thought were fundamental in the fight against the pandemic.) The same silence on the part of the NGOs was noticeable after a cabinet minister suggested that people should consider using honey when responding to a spike in the price of sugar. (Following a backlash, however, the government later announced a cap on sugar prices.)

While everybody was busy examining their role in combating the coronavirus in the country, some of Tanzania’s “top-notch” NGOs were spotted presenting the government with a 79 million Tanzanian shillings check (about US$34,000) to help fight the virus. The NGOs did that while little or nothing at all was known in the general public of the government’s strategy or even how the money will be used.

I find the move disturbingly ironic, however, given the fact that this money was originally supposed to come directly from the donors to the government coffers but the “development partners” gave them to the NGOs because, as shown above, they are thought to be best placed to deal with social problems. It is also mind-boggling to find the NGOs donating to the government amidst a funding crisis that has hit NGOs across the continent. If the NGOs themselves are convinced that the Tanzanian government can deal with the COVID-19 crisis far better than they can to the extent of giving it money, what does it say of their ideological justification to exist? To their credit, since then a coalition of Tanzania’s NGOs released a position paper and “strategic areas” on COVID-19. In the paper, the NGOs confess to have been caught “unprepared” by the pandemic, something that hampered their ability to respond “promptly.”

A close friend of mine, who works in Tanzania’s NGO sector, thought it was a bad idea for me to go ahead with this piece, saying it was unfair to criticize the NGOs given the fact that I understand the political environment within which the organizations operate and the repression unleashed on them by the state. For a moment I thought this friend of mine was right because it’s true that they work in a tough environment. But then I thought: wasn’t this very attitude on the part of the NGOs to allow themselves to be pushed around by the government responsible for their own miseries, and ultimately, their failure to do what they were founded on?

This led me to revisit 2007, when acclaimed legal and development scholar Professor Issa Shivji published a book, Silences in the NGO Discourse, which served as advice on how Tanzania’s NGOs can remain accountable. He wrote then that if the NGOs are to live up to their missions, which include ensuring democratic reforms in the country, then their entire strategy of engagement with the state would have to change radically. For example, in place of stakeholder conferences, there should be protracted public debates, wrote Shivji. Where previously the NGOs used to dialogue with the state “in five-star hotels,” now there should be demonstrations, protest marches and teach-ins in streets and community centers to expose serious abuses of power and bad policies. “Democratic governance would be an arena where power is contested, not some moral dialogue or crusade for good against evil, as the meaningless term ‘good governance’ implies … You cannot dialogue with power,” the renowned author writes poignantly.

In the wake of the ongoing debate on the role and relevance of NGOs amidst a global pandemic, and the government’s ambiguous response, it appears that more than ten years since Shivji’s book, the country’s NGOs have not been able—or willing—to learn a lesson. Nor, telling from the way they behave amidst the current crisis, is there any indication that they will do so in the near future.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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