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Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: The Man Kenya Can Never Forget

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

SportPesa: It’s Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya’s Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

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SportPesa: It's Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya's Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse
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Today, The Guardian publishes an investigation we have carried out with them into Kenya’s biggest betting company, SportPesa. With its name emblazoned on the shirts of Premier League club Everton FC and a Formula One racing team, SportPesa is Kenya’s most powerful gambling firm – operating in a sector that sucks $2bn from Kenyans every year.

Its shareholders include Bulgarian businessmen, one of whom, Guerassim Nikolov, has a background in casinos and about whom historic concerns were raised in the Bulgarian media, which he vehemently denies. Its corporate structure is opaque. Our reporter, Lionel Faull, worked with Bivol, the Bulgarian investigative website, and The Guardian, to examine the inner workings of SportPesa. That piece is here.

Lionel also dug into the effect the gambling epidemic is having on Kenya’s youth. Here he reports on how one student activist became a victim of gambling addiction but who is now spearheading a campaign to bring about meaningful regulation. The activist also wants to see there is proper treatment for the hundreds of thousands of young addicted Kenyans who need help after having been lured into betting away money they can ill afford to lose.

As part of their lucrative five-year deal with SportPesa, Everton played a pre-season match in Kenya this month

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

A year later I prepared to travel to Nairobi to research a story about SportPesa. We at Finance Uncovered were interested in its stunning success. Founded and run by politically connected Bulgarian businessmen in Nairobi in 2014, it is now the biggest of Kenya’s mushrooming sports betting companies. And as we report with the Guardian today, so successful has it been exploiting the gambling craze in Kenya it has opened a European headquarters in the UK.

While investigating, I was struck by the almost total lack of any comprehensive data about the wider industry in Kenya and its millions of punters.

Sure, multiple news articles celebrated the rags-to-riches tales of jackpot winners, some of whom just as suddenly revert to rags. Others narrated horrifying individual anecdotes of gambling addiction, depression and suicide.

The gambling regulatory authority’s online presence amounted to a single sub-page of the interior ministry’s website and there was seemingly no organisation offering tailored counselling to problem gamblers.

It was as if a vast, silent vacuum had settled in the gaps between the sports betting billboards which peered down on Nairobi’s scurrying pedestrians.
Finally, someone referred me to a gambling awareness website which was run on a volunteer basis by Nelson Bwire, a 24-year old economics student at Kenyatta University.

“A way of life”

I took the highway north out of the city to Bwire’s campus, past the football stadium that had recently welcomed English side Hull City FC for a SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match against Kenya’s top club team, Gor Mahia.

As we strolled along the university’s shrub-lined walkways, Bwire told me how he became addicted to sports betting.

It was 2013 and he was fresh out of high school, hanging out with mates and killing time on PlayStation.

One of them boasted how he had won money on a football match and showed Bwire how he could send cash via the ubiquitous mobile money platform M-Pesa to a website called JustBet, the only online sports betting platform in Kenya at the time.

“On my very first bet I put in KShs200 (£1.50) and won KShs4,800 (£35),” Bwire recalls. “I bet on four teams to win. I’ll never forget them. It was Swansea, Stoke, Arsenal and West Brom.”

The win was both a blessing and a curse: “It got me thinking this could be a way of life. It was a good experience, it seemed like fun. You could watch your team playing, and actually earn money doing it.”

“You want to become rich, doing nothing. You want shortcuts in life, and that’s your shortcut.

“As I continued betting, everything increased. The amount of bets, the amount of money, the amount of time. With friends, on my phone, with the room-mates I was living with. Most of us used to bet.

“After about a year and a half, I began to realise that none of us had money because the money we had, it goes to betting.”

Bwire estimated that over the 18-month period he was an avid gambler, he spent around KShs100,000 (£750) on football bets. To put this spending in context, his annual course tuition fee in 2015 was between KShs100,000-120,000 (£750-£900).

“The money I was betting with came from previous wins, pocket money from my parents, and other side jobs I was doing,” he explained.

“Loan sharks”

By late 2015, Bwire recalled that many sports betting companies had burst onto the scene, including SportPesa, and were advertising “vigorously” across Kenya. They were also active in and around the university, handing out flyers on campus and in the neighbouring estates where students live.

“I started to read stories in the media about people committing suicide, people gambling their fees, their rent money. And you also see the kind of life that gambling is sucking out of you. You are waking up and all you are planning is to bet. Whatever winnings you have in your betting account, you don’t even consider taking it out. You use it to bet again. It reached the point that I just called it quits.”

He also noticed how gambling was taking over other students’ lives. “You would go into the computer labs to do some research, or finish an assignment, and you would see screen after screen where students were just browsing sports betting sites,” he said.

“Students were borrowing money from loan sharks at predatory interest rates to fund their habit, and handing over their laptops or their national identity cards as collateral.”

Problem gambling

In 2016 Bwire initiated a campus-wide survey to gauge the extent of gambling among his fellow students.

It found that half of male students and one-third of females surveyed bet more than once a week; and that nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of problem gambling behaviour. [see sidebar].

He later wrote a proposal to the university about how to tackle problem gambling on campus and launched a gambling awareness campaign working closely with student counsellors.

Nelson Bwire (second right) with fellow gambling addiction awareness activists and student counsellors, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya (July 2018).

“Gambling is not something that I would want to see banned. No, I don’t take that hard line. But I think people should be aware of the risks and take responsible decisions,” Bwire said.

Soon to be an economics graduate, Bwire mused: “Right now Africa is growing, yes. But gambling problems will suppress African growth. The capital flight of gambling winnings that are going from Kenya to other places, that money should be in people’s hands. It should be in entrepreneurs’ hands. It should be in students’ hands.”

Shifting ground

Exactly a year after speaking to Bwire, I took the same road out of Nairobi, past the same stadium preparing to host another SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match, this time featuring Everton FC.

A hundred and fifty kilometres beyond the capital, deep in the countryside, SportPesa’s blue-and-white branding is plastered all over humble general shops in small roadside villages.

While SportPesa is the biggest player in Kenya, there are several others such as Betin, Premier Bet, 1X Bet and the UK-based Betway, which sponsors West Ham United in the English Premier League.

Huge billboards for betting companies greet you as you drive into bigger towns.

The inside sports pages of the newspaper I bought are filled with betting adverts, giving the day’s odds on matches from minor leagues in faraway countries.

But, after half a decade making billions in a largely unregulated environment, the ground is shifting underneath the betting industry’s feet.

A Gaming Bill has been introduced to Parliament that would overhaul a regulatory framework that was originally drafted in 1966.

Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister with a bulldog reputation, has given betting companies a month to settle their tax bills.

Citing a statistic that half a million Kenyan youth have been blacklisted for borrowing money they cannot repay, debt which Matiang’i attributed mostly to the betting craze, he declared: “This is a sector we must regulate.”

Last week, Matiang’i made good his threat when the betting regulator suspended 27 betting firms’ operating licences – including SportPesa – for alleged non-payment of taxes.

Safaricom, the mobile phone company which processes most of the mobile money transactions used to bet, was ordered to withhold their services to the blacklisted companies, and punters were given 48 hours to withdraw their money from their betting e-wallets.

The directives are thought to affect the majority of Kenya’s 12-million betting account holders, interrupting the flow of an estimated $2bn annually from their pockets to the industry.

SportPesa and others have protested vehemently, publishing their most recent tax compliance certificates in the press. SportPesa also pointed to a court order it obtained allowing it to continue operating pending finalisation of a dispute over payment of a percentage of punters’ winnings in tax.

Responding to suggestions about the rise of problem gambling in Kenya, the company told The Guardian it was a socially responsible business that placed a priority on local sports and community work.

In the midst of this febrile atmosphere, I give Bwire a call to find out how he’s doing and what he thinks of the clampdown.

Bwire has now left Kenyatta University, his graduation ceremony is later this month.

He continues to run his gambling awareness campaign on a part-time voluntary basis, but since we last spoke, his ambitions have grown: he is now preparing for it to go national.

He has registered a company, the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, and held a series of meetings with the betting regulator, urging them to introduce a countrywide gambling awareness campaign programme.

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

He is also partnering with a UK software company, Betban, to offer betting website blocking technology to universities; and approached one of Kenya’s largest nationwide network of counselling centres to introduce gambling addiction counselling.

But he is sceptical of the regulator’s motives for the crackdown: “If they were doing this in good faith, you might see some gambling addiction centres, some clinics, even just a little awareness created … they are just doing that for the tax.”

Bwire is echoing other commentators who see the directives as a thinly-disguised tax shakedown targeting the industry on behalf of the Kenyan revenue authorities and treasury who are under pressure to close a widening fiscal gap.

At a traditional wedding last weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta referred to the crackdown explicitly. He said: “The firms should stop threats that they will move to court. The government must get its share [of tax] to fund activities that are beneficial to this country.”

This may not impress SportPesa’s owners, one of whom – as we report with the Guardian today – has been a major financier and fundraiser for Kenyatta’s Jubilee party.

“Those in the betting companies are our friends,” Kenyatta reportedly said, “But we have to agree that the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments.”

But Bwire believes taxation is not going to dampen the public appetite for gambling, because “addicted gamblers will still gamble”.

He challenges the government to take a holistic approach, including addiction awareness and counselling.

“In this game of betting, they can’t only be a referee. People get injured in this game, and so there needs to be awareness about that, and doctors available too.”

Last year a new government body was set up, the Sports, Arts and Social Development Fund, to oversee the allocation of taxes specifically raised from betting.

Gambling taxes have reportedly already swelled the fund to around Shs15bn (more than £100m). By law, this money must be allocated to national sports teams, cultural facilities and the government’s universal healthcare pledges, as well as to unspecified “government strategic interventions”.

The fund took months to become operational due to political wrangling over who would control it.

In a country that many have argued is a kleptocracy, it remains to be seen whether any additional tax the government squeezes from the betting companies will fund gambling addiction awareness or rehabilitation – or instead disappears down the Nairobi drain.

Student gambling

In 2016, a few years after Kenya’s largely unregulated mobile phone-enabled sports betting craze took off, Bwire and his fellow students produced the first dedicated survey of betting among the youth.

They polled 373 students at Kenyatta University, roughly 0.5% of the university student population (78,000).

Although the sample size was relatively small, in the absence of comprehensive data about Kenya’s betting craze, it represents an important contribution to the public’s understanding of its prevalence.

Some key findings were:

* Nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of being at risk of problem gambling behaviour:
– 50% said they needed to gamble with increasing amounts of money;
– 30% said they were preoccupied with betting;
– 20% said they gambled the day after a loss in order to recoup it;
– 20% reported making repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop, or cut back, on gambling; and
– 3% said they had committed an illegal act to finance gambling.

* Most respondents said they started gambling aged 18-19.

* 68% of male respondents and 47% females said they gambled weekly, or more than once a week

* 7% of male respondents & 2% of females reported gambling daily

* Two-thirds of respondents spend up to KShs1,000 (£7.50) per month, one-quarter said they spend up to KShs5,000 (£40); and 5% of respondents said they spent more than KShs5,000 on gambling per month.

* 72% of all respondents saw gambling/betting as a way to make money; 40% said they saw it as a source of fun.

* 70% of respondents had gambled in the preceding year.

Read the report here.

These statistics broadly mirrored the headline findings of an often-quoted 2017 survey by GeoPoll on the leisure and spending habits of sub-Saharan African youth, which found that 76% of Kenyan respondents – the highest in the continent — had tried gambling.

Kenyans also spent the most money, about $50 (£40) monthly, mostly on football bets. The majority placed a bet once a week.

 

This is article was first published by Finance Uncovered.

* Edited by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya  

Proponents of wildlife conservancies in Northern Kenya argue that they provide a win-win situation for both conservation and pastoralist communities. However, the current push to establish more conservancies in the region may backfire and lead to more conflict.

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya
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Kenya’s Vision 2030, which identified Isiolo as a strategic location in the hydrocarbon economy of the region, combined with the 2010 Constitution, which led to the devolution of power and resources, have thrust Isiolo County, a once sleepy and neglected former garrison town, into the El Dorado of Kenya’s future development.

However, Isiolo’s potential, if not judiciously managed, could turn the county into the future axis of natural resource-based conflict, especially in the large-scale irregularly acquired land by private corporations and individuals under the guise of community wildlife conservation. The consequences of what happens in Isiolo will likely spill over into other parts of Northern Kenya and Northern Rift Valley.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya”, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country. The reasoning was that the former would benefit from the trickle-down effect of the government’s investment in the latter. Isiolo was considered a low potential area, and thus received limited government investment. The community’s livelihood was based around livestock, which successive post-independence administrations considered economically unviable and antiquated compared to agriculture. This meant that the region received limited state support.

Parallel to limited investment, the post-colonial state continued with the colonial government’s policy of mediating its relations with Isiolo and the broader North Eastern region through the lens of security. If the British colonial administration used Northern Kenya and Isiolo as a buffer zone against Italians who were attempting to colonise Ethiopia and the French who were colonising Djibouti, the post-colonial state viewed Isiolo as a place where demands for secession, banditry and cattle rustling were rampant. This has made Isiolo one of the few counties with the most military schools and military barracks in the country. The military is also one of the largest landowners in Isiolo.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country.

Vision 2030, Kenya’s development plan for making Kenya a middle-income country (MIC) by 2030, is perhaps the closest the state came to rectifying the problems created by Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. Vision 2030’s economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum and sustaining the same until 2030. If the core of Sessional Paper No 10 is centralised planning, thus creating a center and a periphery, Vision 2030 calls for decentralisation, thus blurring the distinction between peripheries and the centre. In fact, it aims to turn previously marginalised areas like Isiolo into centres of development.

Some of the major Vision 2030 projects of the economic pillar are either based in Isiolo or pass through the county. These projects include 6,500 acres of land at Kipsing Gap, which is about 20 kilometres west of Isiolo town and sandwiched between Katim and OlDonyoDegishi Hill, where a multi-billion shilling resort city will be based. Parts of the LAPSSET pipeline passes through the county, and the town is also where the Isiolo International Airport has been built. These projects are at different stages of being implemented.

When they finally take off, these projects will undoubtedly spur positive economic growth and improve peoples’ lives. Attention generated by these projects has also attracted “entrepreneurs” of all stripes with land as their primary key resource. Excision of huge chunks of land pose an existential threat to the pastoralist communities’ primary source of livelihood, which is already buffeted by multiple challenges, including climate change, agro-pastoralist conflict, and the ever-decreasing water and pasture because of demographic pressures.

One of the big players in land excision debates are the private wildlife conservancies. The entity behind wildlife conservancies is the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), which manages 39 conservancies that cover an area of 42,000 square kilometers across the country, mostly in Northern and coastal Kenya.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”. This was evident during the Laikipia conflict in 2017 that pitted the mostly Samburu and Pokot herders against mostly white, private ranchers (popularly known as Kenyan Cowboys or KCs).

During the conflict, the government and in turn the media described the pastoralists as “barbarians at the gate of civilization”, who only understand the language of brute force. As a result, the killing of livestock – the pastoralists’ livelihood – by the security agencies elicited less sympathy than the killing of wildlife killed by the pastoralists, sometimes in self defence.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”.

Since tourism earns Kenya huge amounts of foreign exchange, it tends to be privileged over human life and pastoralists’ livelihoods.  For instance, during the 2017 clash involving pastoralists and wildlife conservancies in Laikipia, over 300 cattle were killed by the security agencies, and this act did not generate any condemnation.

Collective destruction of the pastoralist economy has historical precedent: The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found that the Kenyan army killed and confiscated livestock belonging to civilians in Northern Kenya. The shooting, especially of camels, was a particular strategy employed by the army as it was believed that camels were used by the Shifta to transport guns and other supplies. The Commission also revealed that it was common for soldiers and government officers to invade villages and confiscate cattle, sheep, camels and goats. The owners of such livestock were never told what happened to their livestock, nor were they ever compensated for their losses.

But the discovery of natural resources has suddenly changed the state’s engagement calculus with Northern Kenya, with the government making a beeline for the region, as demonstrated in the expansion of some of the often-neglected infrastructure. There is a sense that being among the least populated region, and being strategically close to the key borders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, the North has plenty of “free” land to be exploited.

But this courtship is anchored on a deterministic and reductionist single narrative: the free market. There is a belief that if the markets are opened in the region, all its problems will go away.

This narrative is problematic.  First, it assumes that the moment the region is linked to other parts of Kenya, it will automatically “develop”. Second, the creation of Northern Kenya in the image of the rest of Kenya at the very minimum denies the people the agency to determine what development means to them. Third, we need to be circumspect regarding the pervasive business language that assumes that the problem with public services is inefficiency and that technology is the answer. This techno fallacy and big data syndrome dehistoricises and decontextualises problems, and is ultimately bound to fail. Fourth, the market, while it can be efficient in allocating economic goods and services, is terrible as the arbiter of social services. Unleashing market forces onto the region will destroy the collective social fabric that has held these people together even in bad times.

Often unaccounted for in this framing is the pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya, which have been trading amongst themselves and with their counterparts across all the borders without government support. The mutually reinforcing twin issues of insecurity and a fragile ecosystem have engendered the communities’ remarkably innovative resilience instincts.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm – underwritten by well-heeled intergenerational wildlife conservation untouchable “royals” and marketed by a well-choreographed sleek PR machine – pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex. Kuki Gallmann, whose life is immortalised in the movie I Dreamed of Africa is cast as a noble White Saviour, keeping the wildlife and pastoralists safe.

Northern Rangeland Trust and the Lewa model

Isiolo has three national game reserves: the Shaba Game Reserve (256 square kilometres), Buffalo Springs (131 square kilometres) and BisanAdi (150 square kilometres). All of these areas block or restrict human habitation and grazing. On top of the game reserves, there are a number of conservancies in Isiolo: Biliqo-Bulesa, which covers 3784.82 square kilometres and was established in 2007, Nakuprat-Gotu, which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 719.92 square kilometres, Leparua which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 328.35 square kilometres, and Nasuulu which was established in 2011 and covers 346.01 square kilometres. These are significant chunks of land being administered by a corporation.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm, pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex.

According to NRT, conservancies are community-led wildlife conservation initiatives that provide a win-win situation for wildlife conservation and for pastoralists. The lack of transparency and adequate information regarding the manner in which these conservancies are established and managed adds to the anxiety of pastoralist communities. Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

Lewa conservancy, which covers 62,000 acres and is a home to a wide variety of wildlife, including rare and endangered black rhinos, zebras and Sitatungas, as well as the “Big Five” wildlife animals.  Lewa’s value addition is held up as an aspirational model for other private wildlife conservancies.

However, the use of Lewa as a model for the future of Isiolo misses the dynamics inside Isiolo and for that matter elsewhere in the North. Laikipia County, where Lewa is located, doesn’t have nearly as many pastoralists as Isiolo does, which made the excision of such a huge tract of land possible. Additionally, the pastoral communities in Isiolo are diverse. Also not discussed when holding Lewa as a model is the failure of efforts at replicating Lewa inside Laikipia. For instance, establishment of a conservancy in OldoNyiro led to the community losing their land, forcing them to graze their livestock by the roadside because all the land has been fenced off.

Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

At the heart of the establishment of the conservancies is the argument of return on investment: having “community” wildlife conservancies will allow pastoralists to have a stable income. But there is no conservancy that can guarantee the pastoralist the same kind of return that they can get from their livestock.

NRT has ambitions of establishing conservancies not just in Isiolo but across the Northern region. They already have some conservancies in Samburu County and plans are at an advanced stage to establish more conservancies in Marsabit County.

Devolution of power and resources to the county was designed as an antidote to centralised decision-making in Nairobi, which resulted in unbalanced and unequal economic development. What the framers of the constitution did not envisage, however, was the quality of representation that will shepherd devolution at the county level. The disparity between counties with good leaders and those with poor leaders is well documented.

But Isiolo’s land grab did not happen in a vacuum; it has been facilitated by poor leadership. The establishment of wildlife conservancies in Isiolo is a shot across the bow for other counties, such as Marsabit County. If they are not stopped, we could be walking into land-related conflicts with our eyes wide open.

The large-scale land grab in Isiolo by NRT will adversely impact the pastoralists’ livelihood, and generate new conflicts in an area blighted by incessant conflict. This will erode the potential Isiolo would have gained from devolution, Vision 2030 and its proximity to Ethiopia, which has the potential to increase cross-border trade.

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Building Bridges or Walls? BBI Charades Masquerading as ‘Public Consultations’

AKOKO AKECH examines whether the “handshake” between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, which resulted in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), is truly a people-driven participatory process or merely a tool for the Kenyan political elite to consolidate their power.

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Building Bridges or Walls? BBI Charades Masquerading as ‘Public Consultations’
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It finally docked on our shores, the shores of the Nam Lolwe, on the 6th of June 2019. Unlike the old steamer, MV Alestes, it blew no loud horn to announce its arrival at the port of Kisumu to tell all within the vicinity to steer clear of the waterway and berth. Rather, it glided smoothly into Kisumu City at the end of a financial year, when government departments hurry to close the books. It creeped up on the residents of the city, stealthily like a crocodile. The 35th of the expected 47 Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) “public consultation” meetings was upon us.

“I got a call from the County Commissioners about a month ago. Something like this cannot be done through an open invitation. The whole of Kisumu would have been here,” said a young man with a chuckle, his face beaming with mischief, the smirk of someone proud of his high connections and who had been let into a well-kept siri-kali. We were queuing for tea and snacks at the Acacia hotel, Kisumu’s high-end hotel where the BBI commissioners were holding a “consultation” meeting on how to build a new Kenya.

I, too, would have missed the meeting, had I not seen in good time a WhatsApp message from a friend who’s a Kisumu government insider. The message had been sent in the wee hours of the morning that Thursday. In keeping with the rising personality cults of Kenya’s county governors, and their penchant for frivolous publicity, the e-invitation card I got bore Professor Anyang’ Nyongo’s picture, smiling, donning a white shirt and a red necktie, and holding a jacket flung over his left shoulder, held tenderly by his index finger. Warwakou duto! (All are welcome!), said the e-card.

As we sat down for tea and snacks, a clergyman wearing a white flowing robe and a red scalp cap (signifying his high position in the one of the many African-instituted Christian churches in Western Kenya) said, “I wouldn’t have known who sent me the money. I got am M-Pesa transfer of 2,028 shillings from a Samuel Otieno but I couldn’t tell who that is until the lady spoke.”

That lady he was referring to was an amiable and handsome woman dressed in a white, loose-fitting linen suit who had spoken towards the end of the meeting, shortly before the closing prayer – the ubiquitous Christian prayer that has become mandatory at public events, which always reminds one that many Kenyans, especially state and public officers, are yet to come to terms with the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, even with the shortest of its articles, Article 8, that states that “there shall be no State religion”. She told the officially invited participants that “if you check your phones, M-pesa imeingia [the Sh2000 transport refund] plus Sh28 ya kuitoa. Usikuje kama ulikua na Fuliza, the money has been chewed.”

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship. But there is nothing transparent or charming about its process of public consultations. Unlike the recent commissions, whose meetings and deliberations were widely publicised, the BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

BBI has neither a known physical address nor a web page. Nor an expressly parliament-sanctioned legal existence and a budget line. It has an email address only. It works mostly as a sad reminder that despite its enormous constitutional powers, the Kenyan Parliament is yet to exercise effective control over the Office of the President, especially over the conduct of the provincial administration in midwifing political transitions such as the BBI and its latest women-only “popular movement” wing, Team Embrace.

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship…The BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event – with all its attendant display of anxieties over the security of the VIP and crowd control – and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel, but with neither the benefits of a skilled moderator nor an appropriate teaching methodology of getting the best out of the competing and conflicting views of the representative of the various groups present at the meeting.

It was an eerily odd public event. Like a typical District or Provincial Commissioner-organised event, it drew in government officials and civil servants, including the starched khaki, big silver button, crimson red epaulets, and stick-wielding types, such as high-ranking police officers and provincial administrators, who patrolled the corridors of the hotel. While the presence of baton-wielding Administration Police officers at an open-field public event, in jungle-green camouflage uniforms, standing strategically in front of a crowd of spectators, and policing the imaginary wall between the seated and sheltered elite and the sweating crowd conveyed a sense of security and control, the conspicuous presence of the AP officers armed with the G-3 rifles or AK-47 rifles sent a chill down one’s spine. It evoked anxiety and fear rather than security and safety, which were amplified by the antics of an order-obsessed deputy county commander who wore a chocolate brown suit and stood like a sentry at the entrance of the second door to the conference room, alternately keeping an eye on the goings-on along the corridor and in the conference room.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event…and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel…

Unlike a typical NGO forum, there were has no hand-written sign up sheets; the organisers simply ticked off the names of the participants on a printed list of invited participants, each sheet bearing the names of only the invited participants from each of the sub-counties of Kisumu County. Luckily, the uninvited (those not vetted by the Provincial Administration) could also walk into the meeting and listen to the proceeding, without signing up.

But like a typical NGO or government event, the meeting was adorned with big banners, which, despite promising dialogue or debate, served more to mark the boundary between the powerful commissioners’ high table and the jam-packed seminar room than to remind the commissioners of their vision and mission. Pleasantly, a female Kenyan sign language interpreter was hard at work, diligently translating the proceedings of the meeting.

The commissioners took turns to frame the problem, to ask questions, and to offer solutions and ways-forward, slicing up their audience into several categories: geographical, generational, gender, political, minority, and disability, soliciting from each participant, a solution for the evils bedeviling Kenya but barely giving the participants a chance to compose their thoughts or debate many contentious views vying for attention.

Nearly all the participants – except the governor, a Member of Parliament (Oduma Awour) and a former Member of Parliament (Prof Ayiecho Olweny) – were given less than three minutes to talk about items on the 9-item agenda, which prompted Father Samuel of the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission to say, “If the we want BBI to succeed, we need to allow people to freely express themselves, not shut down.” But the Commission did not heed to his plea. “We know what has happened, we need the solution. This is not the right forum for venting,” Prof. Oloo Adams responded curtly.

Except for Dr Florence Omosa’s very brief experiment with the Socratic approach, which questioned, teased out the inconsistencies and tested the appropriateness of a solutions offered by the participants, most of the commissioners found a ready-made formula for the classification of problems bedeviling Kenya by categorising them into neat labels: gender, age, geography, and social exclusion (including disability). Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion. Diversity, when in the hands of the securocrats and the commissioners, was reduced to a convenient tool of bureaucracy, generating more controversies than debate.

In a welcome break with the previous briskly sessions, Dr Omosa intoned politely and firmly, “Why do we fight during elections? We don’t trust each other, what should we do so that life goes on? What must happen so that we don’t have so many baby Pendos? Give me specific recommendations.”

Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion.

Not satisfied with the quick, not-well-thought-out responses, Dr Omosa observed, “I know, it’s not meant to be a dialogue, but I must ask you, how can the elders be the solution [to divisive elections], yet they champion exclusive ethnic leadership?” She was responding to a participant’s suggestion that a greater role for community elders in the management of elections is the solution to the tensions Kenyans experience in general elections. “Disband the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission],” opined another participant.

Instead of a facilitating dialogue and debate, the meeting became a forum for contentious hard line views: “Kenya should go for a parliamentary system of government,” said one participant. “The constitution of Kenya has turned Kenya into a killing field,” asserted another. “Bring back the death sentence; let the murderers be locked without bail.” “Arrest and lock up the corrupt without bail,” Prof. Ayiecho Olweny, a former Member of Parliament, pleaded passionately. “We want “Luo kit gi Timbegi” brought back to in our curriculum,” said one participant. “Send the children back home to learn Dholuo,” said another. Ms Grace Jowi Jobita from Muhoroni, paraphrasing the Bible, stated, “If it is your eye that’s causing you a problem, my first recommendation is, let them be castrated, second, let them be castrated, and third, let them be castrated.”

There was also a call to “review the social ethics and education curriculum” in order to address the dearth of ethics among Kenyan youth and the rising cases of violence against women, including rampant cases of rape and defilement. “Amend the Chief’s Act. Our society is yearning for the past order, and is uncomfortable with the recent changes,” said retired Paramount Chief Paul Odero.

Mr Mathews Owili, the Kisumu County’s deputy governor, concurred with Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o that Kenya needs a parliamentary system of government, but also asked, “If the Prime Minister can be compelled by law to form a government that reflects the face of Kenya, can the Prime Minister be compelled to treat all Kenyans as equals?”

Struck by the repeated demands for more laws that would ensure diversity in public appointments, especially at the top levels of Kenya’s state power, Senator Amos Wako, the former long-serving Attorney General, pointed out, “The law already provides for that…the constitution makes reference to the face of Kenya in more than 22 Articles. What I want is, how can we ensure that the law, the constitution is respected by whomever?”

“The problem may not be Chapter Six [on leadership and integrity], but the law to enable, enforce the chapter. Perhaps the law enacted to enable this chapter does not reflect the letter and the spirit of the constitution of Kenya, 2010,” added Senator Wako.

However, BBI commissioners stuck to their nine-point agenda, briskly running through each item on their tick-off list, even when the more discerning participants, such as Senator Amos Wako, sensed that the problem might not be more laws, as some were suggesting, but a more complicated political process i.e. the lack of good laws and constitutionalism.

Anxious that this meeting might not yield much, Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative, like past initiatives such as the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The TJRC report is silent on or whitewashes some critical aspects of Kenya’s evil past. For example, Volume 11 of the TJRC report airbrushes the 1969 Kisumu massacre out of Kenya’s register of post-independence political massacres. The BBI too looks like yet another lost opportunity to revisit Kenya’s evil past and exorcise the ghosts that haunt Kenya’s post-independence politics.

Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative…yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The BBI’s is a lost cause because it embodies the worst carry-overs from the undemocratic provincial administration’s coercive and manipulative tendencies while pretending to promote progressive and inclusive practices. The BBI seems yet another lost opportunity because the elite have set its course, and are championing narrow, selfish and convenient political causes that hardly go deep enough into the roots of the knotty questions of justice many Kenyans yearn for, and which were not given a fair hearing at the Kisumu forum.

Boniface Akach, a Kondele-based front-line human rights activist, who only learnt of the BBI meeting accidentally while attending a “solidarity” meeting at the same hotel, wrote the following on his Facebook account: “The on-going public participation exercise by BBI is a mockery, a waste of public resources and a rubber-stamping exercise. How can such a public exercise be taken to the Acacia Hotel, a five-star rated hotel, despite other more conducive and accessible spaces being available? The invite-only event is so restricted, with NIS and Police all over. The mobilisation across sub-counties is so well designed apart from Kisumu Central (wajuaji). Mobilisation was strictly done by the Kisumu County Commissioner. But we are not surprised, we all know that the aim the referendum is meant to settle scores as it creates opportunity for recycled, rejected political friends.”

Perhaps, as Akach points out, the perfunctory public consultation meetings, like the one held in Kisumu County, are merely an alibi for a pre-determined political course and cause. In Kisumu, there was a clear divide between the demands made by the ODM elite, on the one hand, and popular demands by the people of Kisumu County, on the other.

According to Kisumu County Governor Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o and the ODM branch leaders, what’s at stake is a referendum to turn Kenya into a proper parliamentary system of government. However, to others, it’s the unfinished business of political violence and justice for the victims of political violence.

“We want inclusivity in compensation. We lost lives in 2007 and again in 2017. Some people were compensated, but not people from this region. We need inclusive compensation for people like baby Pendo,” said Victor Nyasaya. A representative of the National IDP network also expressed a similar concern. “The 2007 IDPs in Kisumu were paid only three thousand shillings, unlike those from Nakuru who were paid ten thousand shillings,” he lamented.

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum. It was a charade. Melania Jackie, representing the youth, lamented, “We were are not involved in the process of formulating public policies. Not the Universal Health Care, not the Huduma Number, we were only given deadlines. No civic education. We don’t have a youth on the BBI high table, even a token of representation.

“Na tuna ambiwa hii sio baraza,” Mitchelle Otieno lamented on Facebook, adding that “the BBI team ought to have held the meeting in Kondele and not Acacia hotel. We lost lives in Kondele, Nyalenda, Manyatta, and not Acacia.”

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum.

Orengo Ben Wamaya, who represented Bunge la Mwananchi at the meeting, thundered, “Public participation is never done in a five-star hotel.”

If the TJRC report offers the residents of Kisumu an official amnesia for the 1969 massacre in exchange for the recognition of the years of economic marginalisation which followed it, then what will the BBI report yield? Will it offer restorative justice or compensations for lost life, limb and property to the recent victims of political violence? Who will foot the bill? The perpetrators and the principal beneficiaries of political violence now occupying high offices or the Kenyan taxpayers yet again? Will it be sufficient and equitable? Will there be yet another opportunity for a trade-off between some measures of restorative justice and political support for a new political coalition, like the Uhuruto 2013 bargain? Will it offer retributive justice? Will it recommend memorialisation of the victims of past political evils or yet again endorse a tacit collective amnesia and unofficial amnesty for the perpetrators and principal beneficiaries of the past political evils?

Who decides?

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