Connect with us

Politics

Game of Thrones: Will William Samoei Ruto Ascend to the Presidency in 2022?

16 min read.

As the battle of 2022 politics reaches its crescendo it seems that the Kenyatta II succession is unfolding in the mould of the Kenyatta I succession. Is history repeating itself? Will William Samoei Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi, ascend to the presidency? By AKOKO AKECH

Published

on

Game of Thrones: Will William Samoei Ruto Ascend to the Presidency in 2022?
Download PDFPrint Article

David Murathe’s cameo appearance in the drama of the Kenyatta II debates seems to have provoked many questions about the Uhuru Kenyatta succession: Is the Kenyatta II succession unfolding in the mould of the Kenyatta I succession? Is history repeating itself? Will William Samoei Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi, ascend to the presidency, either in spite or because of opposition to his ambition by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite? Does Ruto have a historic date with destiny, one that has all the marks of Moi’s tribulations, and complete with a happy ending? And what will Ruto do if the Kenyatta II courtiers were to force a crown of thorns on his head instead?

Intrigued by Murathe’s declaration of a multi-pronged war against William Ruto’s ascension to the presidency, one might be tempted to quickly dust off Joseph Karimi and Philip Ochieng’s 1980s’ potboiler, The Kenyatta Succession, which details the machinations of a cross-section of the Jomo Kenyatta era chauvinistic Gikuyu elite’s opposition to Moi’s ascension to the presidency.

Dusting off Karimi and Ochieng’s The Kenyatta Succession may be a good idea, despite the misgivings of both Bart Joseph Kibati and Professor Micheal Chege about the veracity of the existence of the Ngorokos as a stand-by assassination squad under the command of some of the then Nakuru-based powerful Gikuyu civil servants opposed to Moi becoming the second president of Kenya.

Still, the current presidential succession battle retains some of the complicated dynastic plots of the Kenyatta Succession: the heady State House courtiers’ cocktail of conspiracies, intrigues, jealousy, greed, ambition, betrayal, revenge, back-stabbing, murder, and the spectre of all-consuming political violence. Like Moi, Ruto is viewed by the ethnic chauvinists either as a temporary guest or a gatecrasher in the presidential succession party.

@HistoryKE, a history buff, who runs an online museum of Kenya’s colonial and post-independence history, posted some facts about the 1976 Change-the-Constitution movement’s rally in Nakuru. At this historic rally, some of the most rabid of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) ethnic chauvinists, MPs and cabinet ministers, such as Kihika Kimani, Njoroge Mungai, Njenga Karume and a few of their allies from other ethnic communities, held a historic rally to openly ratchet up their opposition against the then Vice President Moi’s constitutional ascension to power in the event of the death of Jomo Kenyatta, the then sitting president.

Still, the current presidential succession battle retains some of the complicated dynastic plots of the Kenyatta Succession: the heady State House courtiers’ cocktail of conspiracies, intrigues, jealousy, greed, ambition, betrayal, revenge, back-stabbing, murder, and the spectre of all-consuming political violence. Like Moi, Ruto is viewed by the ethnic chauvinists either as a temporary guest or a gatecrasher in the presidential succession party.

The tweets drew varied responses. One Kioko@Done_Dusted retorted, in part, “Give us a break with your Ruto obsessions subtly disguised as history…”, to which @HistoryKE responded, “Sir. Please re-read my article and stop seeing shadows behind every bush,” a response that seems rather evasive about @HistoryKE intentions. The tweet seemed to speak so eloquently to the present political debates, which had been provoked by Murathe’s no-holds-barred attack on Ruto, who was assumed to be the undisputed Jubilee Party’s flag-bearer for the next presidential election, and the successor to Uhuru Kenyatta.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the Kenyatta I and the Kenyatta II successions, especially after Murathe’s cameo appearance. On the surface, it looks like history is repeating itself. William Samoei Ruto, the Deputy President, a Kalenjin, the constitutional heir-apparent, and an ethnic outsider, who is presumably the undisputed presidential candidate of the Jubilee Party, is waiting in the wings, only a heartbeat away from the presidency, to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta (a scion of Jomo Kenyatta, a Mugikuyu), the sitting president.

Yet William Ruto, like Daniel arap Moi in the mid-1970s, now faces “a cabal of powerful” Kenyatta II Gikuyu elite who are also contemplating a constitutional change, among other measures, to stop him from becoming Kenya’s fifth president upon the end of Uhuru Kenyatta’s constitutionally-mandated two terms as the president of Kenya, barring any constitutional amendment.

Will William “the Czar of Sugoi” Ruto, as @JerotichSeii calls him – he of humble peasantry background, chicken-hawking-by-the-railway-crossing origins, and able hatchet man for various Kenyan political dynasties – having waited in the wings for ten years, finally turn the tables on his past masters, and alas, be ensconced in the bosom of Kenya’s state power, the presidency?

Looking at the Kenyatta II succession solely through Karimi and Ochieng’s book could block one’s view of the surprises and new elements in the Kenyatta II succession. The Kenyatta II succession has got the makings of a rollercoaster of a political drama, unfolding as a great Greek tragedy, with Ruto cast as the tragic hero who is tone deaf to the chorus of civil society human rights and democracy pleas.

The Kenyatta II succession might be couched as a democratic contest, complete with a referendum, but it will be anything but democratic; it will be a struggle, styled as constitutional and democratic, but lacking the substance of either. It’s a succession defined more by the character of the protagonist, chance, conspiracies, intrigues of a palace coup and the risk of political violence.

Moi’s lucky break

If Jomo Kenyatta’s second stroke in 1968, as Charles Hornsby tells us, had sent him into the mythical world of Weru wa Mukaaga, as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Duncan Ndegwa, recalls, then perhaps his ailing heart dictated the frequency and pace of the Kenyatta I succession. With hindsight, it seems, the Kenyatta I courtiers, with an ear to Kenyatta’s failing health, were in panic mode, which landed a bullet in Tom Mboya’s heart in 1969, and in J.M. Kariuki’s body in 1975, eliminating the most credible threats to their dream of succeeding Kenyatta. Only Daniel arap Moi, the constitutional heir-apparent, was left standing between them and the presidency by 1976.

But, as Daniel Kalinaki points out, the controversial visit of Dr. Christian Bernard, a leading apartheid era South African cardiologist, threw spanners into the works. His visit sent the elite Gikuyu chauvinists’ song of Change-the-Constitution chorus to a crescendo in 1976. Daniel Kalinaki writes that Dr. Bernard examined Jomo Kenyatta and returned a not-so-clean bill of health. At a dinner held in his honour, he told the Kenyatta I courtiers that “Mzee had two years, tops, to live.”

If Jomo Kenyatta’s second stroke in 1968, as Charles Hornsby tells us, had sent him into the mythical world of Weru wa Mukaaga, as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, Duncan Ndegwa, recalls, then perhaps his ailing heart dictated the frequency and pace of the Kenyatta I succession. With hindsight, it seems, the Kenyatta I courtiers, with an ear to Kenyatta’s failing health, were in panic mode…

Stopping Moi’s ascension to the presidency then became even more urgent. But unlike the charming and charismatic Tom Mboya and J.M. Kariuki, Moi was lucky. Several times lucky. The Kenyatta I era Gikuyu courtiers were divided. Moi’s character flaws, too, worked in his favour. Where charm, flamboyance and charisma brought Mboya and J.M. squarely within the cross hairs of the regime’s assassins, colourlessness kept Moi safe. Moi was variously thought of as stoic, humble, naïve, uneducated, gullible, and overawed by the settlers, Jomo Kenyatta and state power generally. He was just “a passing cloud” while the State House courtiers searched for a worthy successor to the king.

However, they had underestimated Moi, who got the support of some of the most feared and effective members of Kenyatta’s kitchen cabinet, the unelected deep state civilian servant types, who were strategically placed in the security, provincial administration and the Attorney General’s office. His humble character earned him the sympathy of some of the most powerful men in Jomo Kenyatta’s kitchen cabinet, civil service, and cabinet, men such as Charles Njonjo, the Attorney General, Geoffrey Kariithi, the head of the civil service, Charles Nyachae, the Provincial Commissioner of Central Province, and Eluid Mahihu, the Provincial Commissioner of Coast Province, men who, perhaps, thought that they could take advantage of his presidency or easily overthrow him. These men were more than effective counterweights to their rabidly ethnic counterparts in Nakuru, who included James Mungai, Isaiah Mathenge, Arthur Nganga Njuguna Ndoro, George Karanu, and Kim Gatende, the men, who Bart Mugo tells us, had no respect for Moi, and “gave Moi sleepless nights” when he was the vice president. As Charles Hornsby points out, Moi was also lucky that Jomo Kenyatta died in his ally’s fiefdom, Eluid Mahihu’s Mombasa, and not Isaiah Mathenge’s Nakuru.

What’s more, the ailing president, who treasured large landholdings, having exported Central Kenya’s land crises mostly to the Rift Valley, seemed to have seen in Moi a worthy successor, a man who not only facilitated his government’s export of the Central Kenyan land problem to the Rift Valley against a strong regional opposition from his rivals, such as Jean Marie Seroney, but one who could also secure his legacy and landholdings – because Moi also had substantial landholdings.

Duncan Ndegwa says that Jomo Kenyatta, speaking in riddles, asked Kihika Kimani, a leading proponent of the 1976 Change-the-Constitution Movement, to think about a situation in which a dying man wants to pass on his herds of cattle. “Would he hand over his herd to a man who has his own or to a man who has none? This man you fear will, in fact, take care of the herd while minding his own. You want to hand over the stewardship of your land to a man who has no land? He will say, ‘Those lands owned by these people are too large. Let us give them away.’”

Ruto: Not quite Moi

However, Ruto, it seems, is everything but what Moi was at the height of the Kenyatta I succession. Unlike Moi, the legends, true or false, about Ruto’s rise within Kenya’s politics cast him as a megalomaniac, a ruthless, arrogant, condescending, diabolical, acquisitive, vindictive, and hardly ever magnanimous character in victory. Ask Reuben Chesire, the late former MP for Eldoret North, his onetime allies such as Raila Odinga or his namesake, Isaac, the former Governor of Bomet, and the whole lot of Mt Kenya leadership who lost the Jubilee 2017 nominations.

In victory, Ruto gloats. His lieutenants, like Adan Duale, gloat even more. Ruto’s angry disposition and penchant for mocking other leaders, gloating, and chest-thumping, can easily goad his nemesis into a strong coalition against his presidential bid, especially if he loses Uhuru’s support – just the kind of coalition David Murathe proposes.

If Ruto and Uhuru were joined at the hip by the International Criminal Court (ICC) dilemma (which is now water under the bridge), does the Kenyatta family’s recent acquisition spree and its consolidation of its economic hold on Kenya’s financial, media and dairy sectors be the glue that binds the two together? Can the Kenyatta family, which is now in the process of strengthening its political and economic stranglehold on Kenya, truly trust Ruto to be a good custodian of their most recent acquisitions? Does Ruto, a character who has variously been described as a wannabe king, vicious, vindictive, megalomaniac, and hardly magnanimous in victory, fit the bill of a good custodian of such wealth? Can he be trusted in this era of footloose international finance capital to not upset the apple cart? What does the trauma of the Moi presidency portend for his political ambition?

If Ruto and Uhuru were joined at the hip by the International Criminal Court (ICC) dilemma…does the Kenyatta family’s recent acquisition spree and its consolidation of its economic hold on Kenya’s financial, media and dairy sectors be the glue that binds the two together? Can the Kenyatta family, which is now in the process of strengthening its political and economic stranglehold on Kenya, truly trust Ruto to be a good custodian of their most recent acquisitions?

It’s hard to tell what type of deep state support Ruto enjoys. But in the dust-up between the pro-Ruto Tanga Tanga group and the anti-Ruto Kieleweke group, we got a glimpse of what a piqued Ruto might do and where sympathies for his presidency presently lie in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. Unlike Moi, he did not turn the other cheek for the legendary James Mungai or Isaiah Mathenge’s political slap. He hit right back and hard through some of the most rabid Gikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic chauvinists, who are probably a retinue of elected politicians on weekly or monthly retainers, more driven by the convenience of cash rather than conviction.

In the Kenyatta I succession, Charles Njonjo, speaking in a Hobbesian dialect, astutely put an end to the debate by invoking the law on high treason: “It is a criminal offence for any person to encompass, imagine, devise or intend the death or disposition of the president.”

In contrast, the heads that bobbed out in defence of William Ruto, including elected leaders such as Moses Kuria, Kimani Ngunjiri, and Oscar Sudi, spewed out some of the ugliest, most nauseating, and inflammatory political rhetoric. (It is worth noting that not a single hawkers’ association chairperson came out in Ruto’s defence.)

Oscar Sudi, one of many intellectual Lilliputians in Ruto’s orbit, has admitted that Jubilee is a two-ethnic-group racket, with a few non-Kalenjin and non-Gikuyu tokens thrown in to lend the Jubilee elite a veneer of national inclusivity, the mythical face of Kenya. The anti-Uhuru rhetoric on the failure of the Jubilee government to develop Central Kenya energised Ruto’s base, but it also galvanised Central Kenya’s opposition to Ruto’s lieutenants. It saw the return of leaders like Peter Kenneth and Martha Karua into the fray.

Ruto’s patronage network in Central Kenya is thus being tested. It seems to rest with some of the vilest elected ethnic chauvinists of questionable political clout or those who can’t stand their ground. If Ruto’s sympathisers are the rent-weekly or rent-monthly political types, then Uhuru Kenyatta’s selective war on corruption, which Ruto’s legal adviser laments, and the termination of some of the lucrative contracts between companies owned by Ruto and the Government of Kenya, such as the Kenya police housing, could easily downgrade Ruto’s patronage capacity, that is, his ability to rent and resist.

The question remains on how State House courtiers will treat the Rift Valley question. Will they see it as a political problem or a security problem, or both? If push comes to shove, will Ruto, like Moi in the 1990s, drive a Faustian bargain: State power or slaughter and eviction and dispossession of non-Kalenjin farmhands, peasants and small traders, especially the Agikuyu in the Rift Valley? Will he, like Moi, rage, and rage, and extract his fair share of political and economic pound of flesh if he ascends to the presidency against all odds?

Or, in defeat, will he, like Raila Odinga, mourn, forgive, and find friendship at last? Does Ruto represent the sum of all the fears of the political dynasties in Kenya? What does the spoken and the unspoken trauma of the Moi presidency, especially among a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, portend for Ruto’s presidency?

Pedigree and dynastic politics

Kenya’s dynastic politics of self-preservation might have renounced some unsavoury political tricks of the Kenyatta I succession, such as the assassination of political competitors, but it hasn’t renounced the advantages of evil, the dirty and devious tricks, of seizing state power, securing economic interests, and dynastic longevity. The Ngorokos may well be phantoms of Moi’s propaganda machinery, but since the days of James Mungai, presidential elections have greatly been defined by Kenya’s lack of effective democratic control of the security forces and strategic roles of militias.

Certainly, Ruto has a date with history. But his biggest stumbling block to the State House is neither the Gikuyu elite, who have reneged on the promise to coronate him as the fifth president of the Republic of Kenya, nor the sudden vapourisation of the much-touted Jubilee Party’s stellar development record in Central Kenya, which in the heat of the first round of the debates on the Kenyatta II succession, seems to vapourised, like ethanol, into thin air. Rather, Ruto is caught in the strong cross-currents of the political dynasties he’s excelled in manipulating and through which he has amassed a fortune and built a war chest while undermining democracy and human rights.

The biggest hurdle in Ruto’s race to State House, is, to say it pithily, in the words of the late Job Omino, the MP for Kisumu Town: “Dr. Ruto is all degree(s), no pedigree.” Historically, he’s not a biological son of any of the dynasties of Kenya’s politics, and he hasn’t any traction with the struggle for liberal or social democracy.

Ruto has neither the pedigree of Kenya’s dynastic politics nor the credibility and gravitas of those who participated in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, human rights and transitional justice. As David Ndii once pointed out, together with Uhuru Kenyatta, he missed the democratic lessons of the 1990s. He’s caught in the twirling currents of these political forces in a vortex of opposed political forces now shaping his destiny.

Yet he seems to think he can beat the dynasties in their game by faking an ordinary citizen’s credentials or feigning a new-found affection for the common mwananchi, posturing as their leader, and winning either the party ticket or the presidency without a credible, free, fair and democratic system in place. As @JuliuMmasi’s tweets suggest, Ruto has been an astute student and co-builder of the three leading Kenyan political dynasties: the Moi, the Odinga and the Kenyatta. But he now decries these dynasties as the stumbling block to his quest for presidency. If the Moi, Kenyatta and Odinga are dynasties, all defined by similarities and no differences, then charitably, Ruto can only be a stepson, or worse, a son who’s twice removed from the State House patrimony – not an heir-apparent, but an heir-presumptive who represents the sum of the worst fears of all these dynasties.

As a fresh graduate and a member of the venal youth movement, Youth for KANU (YK92), Ruto fought against multiparty political reforms in the 1990s. In 2002, as a minister in Moi’s government, he notably supported Moi’s bid to enthrone Uhuru Kenyatta as the third president of Kenya. In 2007, he reluctantly supported Raila Odinga’s bid for the presidency, bending more towards the pro-Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) regional political pressure in the Rift Valley than towards a confidence in Raila’s leadership. He promptly bolted out of ODM in the wake of the maize import scandal, and in 2010 led the NO-Campaign against the current constitution.

More recently, he’s firmly been in Uhuru Kenyatta’s corner in a joint desire to sabotage the ICC cases of crimes against humanity against them. He has run a mostly male-dominated and alternately Gikuyu or Kalenjin elite-led government, fighting against justice for the victims of the 2007/8 political violence, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) process, free, fair and credible elections, and rolling back Kenya’s nascent democratic gains in several sectors, especially security reforms.

Development as a substitute for democracy

Ruto might be regretting the political life he’s led. He’s been working at cross-purposes, and is not about to stop. With a religious zeal, he’s championed development as a perfect substitute for liberal democracy, thinking that personal prosperity, by hook or by crook, heavy investment in nation-wide patronage networks, and a strong identification with various “development” projects across the country will generate popular support for his candidature.

Yet the Jubilee government, unlike the Chinese or the Rwandan governments, is too undisciplined and corrupt to generate popular legitimacy out of the ability to deliver services. Instead, Jubilee’s development projects have mostly been conduits for kickbacks and procurement rackets, bleeding the public coffer dry, and generating windfalls for a few rather than real economic opportunities for the multitudes of unemployed youth. Some, like the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) have auctioned Kenya’s sovereignty, committed Kenyans to Beijing bondage, and, as the loan repayments kick in, effectively taken away Kenya’s ability to formulate a friendly tax and revenue policy for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

In his quest for the presidency, Ruto now postures as the representative of the ordinary suffering citizens, a self-styled “hustler” who lives precariously, mostly from hand to mouth, occasionally visiting a kiosk or stopping by the roadside for a cob of roasted maize to lend his presidential bid a common citizen’s touch.

Yet the Jubilee government, unlike the Chinese or the Rwandan governments, is too undisciplined and corrupt to generate popular legitimacy out of the ability to deliver services. Instead, Jubilee’s development projects have mostly been conduits for kickbacks and procurement rackets, bleeding the public coffer dry, and generating windfalls for a few rather than real economic opportunities for the multitudes of unemployed youth.

But Ruto has never had a stake in Kenya’s social/liberal democracy or human rights game. He’s never championed the common citizen’s cause or fought against power or income inequalities. Instead, he has an unrelenting and ruthless desire to pursue state power without compassion for the ordinary citizens. He told Rift Valley farmers to grow avocados instead of maize after a cartel bolted with the Kenya Cereals and Produce Board’s national maize kitty, leaving maize farmers in his own stronghold desolate. He’s reportedly built a palace worth Sh1 billion (US$10 million) in Sugoi, where he regularly entertains delegations of mostly self-seeking leaders of various ethnic groups and holds court. Like Daniel arap Moi, he wears evangelical Christianity on his sleeves, ostensibly investing in heaven through fund-raising and various donations to the clergy, perhaps to deodorise an ever-strong whiff of sleaze that swirls around him and his close associates.

Ruto knows in his bones the pain of losing or winning the Kenyan presidential elections. Unlike the ancient Olympics, in which only the Greeks – by blood and character and bound by a code of honour, “to respect just decisions, use no fraud or guile, to secure victory” – competed for a priceless branch of wild olive, Kenya’s competition for state power knows no ethical bounds. It’s not a patriots’ game, either, and the victor’s prize is the bottomless national and transnational material spoils: Eurobonds, capture and monopolistic control of key national markets, and Chinese business kickbacks. Loots, only for keeps, if you can hold onto state power.

If the Kenyatta I succession played out as the politics of a dynasty (because Kenya was then a de facto one-party state) then the Kenyatta II succession might also play out as the politics of dynasty, in spite of Kenya’s lauded democratic reforms, and because, since 2007, the incumbents have successfully subverted the popular democratic will of the people by executing electoral coup d’états.

In 2007, Ruto was in ODM, the team that lost. Subsequently, he joined the team that has won all the disputed presidential elections since 2013. He knows too well that all the winners of the presidential election since 2007 have won, in spite of the popular vote, and not because of it. The winners of these presidential elections have approached the election as a coup d’état: state power to be seized through a conspiracy to subvert popular will, the use of deception, and control and use of strategic levers of state power, especially the security organs, the electoral commission, and the courts.

If the Kenyatta I succession played out as the politics of a dynasty (because Kenya was then a de facto one-party state) then the Kenyatta II succession might also play out as the politics of dynasty, in spite of Kenya’s lauded democratic reforms, and because, since 2007, the incumbents have successfully subverted the popular democratic will of the people by executing electoral coup d’états.

In contrast, the losers of all the presidential elections since 2007 have approached the elections as an exercise in liberal democracy. They have campaigned hard, written good manifestos, mobilised aggrieved and disaffected voters and sometimes, gone to court to seek reprieve, where they have faced non-democratic forces.

Chickens coming home to roost

Ruto’s quest for the presidency is a bid to bring down Kenya’s political dynasties. He wants to be king, an insider of sorts, taking on the dynasties in their own terrain. But he will be taking on the dynasties like a tragic hero, a hero whose character flaws and tribulations in the hands of mentors-turned- tormentors are strikingly different from those of Raila Odinga and Daniel arap Moi. But he still might generate some sympathy in various constituencies, especially if, as Dauti Kahura shows, he can deftly lay blame for the failures of the Jubilee government on Uhuru Kenyatta. Still, he’ll have a hard time turning these sympathies into popular votes.

Ruto’s chickens, it seems, are coming home to roost. In the week when the Kenyatta II succession talks were crackling, two of his legal and political advisers, Korir Sing’oei, and Kipchumba Murkomen, took to a newspaper and television, respectively, to extol some aspects of liberal democracy. Sing’oei, once a human rights activist, had a year ago, in the wake of the Jubilee government’s violation of a Kenyan’s rights – when Miguna Miguna was illegally detained, abducted, exiled and stripped of his Kenyan citizenship – argued that the government had broken no law. Now he argues that the Director of Public Prosecution’s “gung-ho and gunslinger approach” to fighting corruption smacks of abuse of public office and that it is more a pursuit of political vendetta than of justice.

Kipchumba Murkomen, Jubilee Party’s Senate Majority leader, now sees a big democratic deficit in the ruling party. It has dawned on Murkomen that internal party democracy matters and that it is better to hold regular party or parliamentary group meetings than to wait for the occasional trumpet from State House to assemble for the latest presidential edict.

Both Sing’oei and Murkomen seem to have swiveled 180 degrees – from legitimising impunity to thinking about what should be the ethical limits of state power or good democratic practice. No prize for guessing why they’ve taken the sudden shift. Since the Jubilee government’s selective prosecution of the corrupt, the boot is firmly on the other foot, William Ruto’s. And they’ve rediscovered that some salutary aspects of liberal democracy are sorely missing in Kenya’s political context and contests.

It’s a belated but heartening rediscovery. It’s heartening because William Ruto’s camp seems to have woken up and smelt the Mt Kenya coffee: only a truly liberal democratic system can sufficiently guarantee anyone and everyone a fair shot at the presidency. But presently, the ethos of the competitors for Kenya’s state power is as far removed from the ethos of the ancient Greece’s Olympics as the Czar’s of Sugoi’s multi-billion seat of power is from State House.

In the battle between the Kenyatta, Odinga, Moi, and Mudavadi dynasties, Ruto might remain the eternal outsider. Without Daniel arap Moi’s good luck and the help of highly placed Mt Kenya movers and shakers who have successfully executed several electoral coup d’états (two bloody ones in 2007 and 2017, one bloodless one in 2013 and one abortive coup on 1 September 2017), it might be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Ruto to capture the highest political office in the land.

It will be extremely hard for Ruto to win an amoral dynastic political game, however big his election war chest is, if the contest for state power is largely defined by the dynasties’ control of state power and by a retrogressive political ethos – a political competition that brooks no internal dissident and eschews fair play in regional strongholds or at the national level, or both, and which is hell-bent on self-perpetuation.

Avatar
By

Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

Politics

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

Published

on

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

Continue Reading

Politics

A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

Published

on

A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

Continue Reading

Politics

Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

Published

on

Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
Download PDFPrint Article

As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

Continue Reading

Trending