Connect with us


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



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.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.


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


The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya

A cabal of politicos has appropriated the everyday language of hardworking Kenyans to camouflage their intentions to perpetuate corruption and state capture.



The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

Andrew Ngumba had a curious way of explaining away institutionalized corruption every time he was accused of engaging in it. “In the days gone by, before the village elders arbitrated any pressing or thorny issue, they would be offered libation just before the deliberations and then thanked with a goat thereafter, as an appreciation for a job well done.”

Those who are old enough will remember Ngumba, who died in 1997, as the mayor of Nairobi from 1977–1980. He later became the MP for Mathare constituency, renamed Kasarani, from 1983–1986. Ngumba estate, off Thika highway, next to East African Breweries, is named after the canny entrepreneur-politician, who founded Rural Urban Credit Finance Limited, dubbed the “ghetto bank”. The finance house collapsed in 1984 and Ngumba sought political refuge in Sweden.

Just like your archetypal politician, the wily Ngumba would with characteristic panache then ask, “Was the libation and the goat a form of saying ‘thank you for your time’ to the elders, or was it just plain corruption?” His cheekiness aside, which Kenyan society was Ngumba describing? Pre-colonial, before the advent of British settlers and missionaries? Or was he referring to a pre-urban, rural-setting Kenya, before it was contaminated by colonialism, modern capitalism and corruption?

We can imagine what his answer to his own rhetorical question was. Of greater interest, is the way he chose to re-tell the socio-cultural anecdote, with the obvious intention of exonerating himself and like-minded politicians, when caught engaging in bribery and institutional corruption: he implicitly gave a nod to the nefarious activity by normalizing bribery, a vice previously unknown and unexperienced in the very society he was describing.

“Political elites [also] appropriate moral language and social norms to ‘conventionalise’ corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that takes the moral sting from opprobrium, corruption and its various forms,” says Wachira Maina in his report, State Capture – Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption. “Corruption is ‘traditionalised’ and reframed as gift-giving or as a form of socially recognizable reciprocity. Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some ‘token benefit’.”

But when is a gift a bribe and a bribe a gift? Let us take the example of the chief – village or otherwise. Until very recently, up to the late 1990s, the chief was a powerful creature bestowed with the powers of “life and death” over his subjects. Until just before the December 1997 general elections, the statutory powers of the chief were many times greater than those of any elected official that you can think of. With the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, some of their powers were supposedly clipped.

Picture this: Two parties are squabbling over a land boundary. They must go to the chief for arbitration. On the eve of the arbitration, one of the parties, most probably the one who has encroached on his neighbour’s land, gets a brainwave and pays the chief a visit in advance, ostensibly to remind him of their big day. Because of the unwritten law that it is “culturally rude” to visit a chief “empty-handed”, the visiting party decides to “gift” the chief with whatever, as has happened from time immemorial. One can, without too much effort, imagine the possible outcome of the land tussle the following day.

Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned. Should we wonder why chiefs as public officials, for example, own some of the biggest chunks of land in their area of jurisdiction? At the grassroots level, a socio-cultural norm was deliberately subverted to allow open bribery and the establishment of institutionalized corruption.

As currently constituted in the country, chiefs are an invention of British colonial rule. They are part of the indirect rule that the colonial government imposed on Kenyans. When Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963, the post-independent government inherited the colonial indirect system of government — the whole kit and caboodle. With their “illegitimacy” and corruption networks carried over and sanctioned by the new African government, chiefs entrenched themselves even further by extending their corrupt patronage networks within the government bureaucratic structures.

During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”; any person with matters arising at the chief’s court knew that a “gift” had to be carried along. So, even though this form of corruption was covert and not dangerous to the existence of the state, it impoverished and terrorized the poor peasants.

Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned.

Corruption, as an evolving concept, was introduced into Kenya society by the British colonial government and, the civil service has been known to be the home of institutionalized state corruption since pre-independence Kenya. Think about it, the word corruption does not exist in the lexicons of Kenya’s ethnic communities. In the Kikuyu community, for instance, there is a specific lexicon that describes a thief and theft, but there is no word for corruption per se, because in African societies, corruption, a Western concept (and as defined today), was unknown in many African traditional societies.

Indeed, as Wachira observes in his report released in 2019, “corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence, but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.”

What is corruption? For the longest time, corruption has been defined in the binary fashion of either petty or grand corruption. Political scientists have variously described corruption as an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain. In other words, the misuse of public resources by state officials for private gain. Corruption has also been described as behaviour that deviates from the formal rules of conduct governing the actions of someone in a position of public authority or trust.

The benefits of corruption are either economic — when an exchange of cash occurs — or social, in the case of favouritism or nepotism. Hence, grand corruption, sometimes referred to as political corruption, involves top government officials and political decision makers who engage in exchanges of large sums of illegally acquired money. Petty corruption involves mid- or low-level state officials, who are often underpaid and who interact with the public on a daily basis.

In his concise report, Wachira notes that “a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.” Why? “Part of the problem is conceptual: How we name corruption and how we understand its character,” points out the constitutional lawyer.

These simple but loaded terms of “petty” and “grand” corruption present a false dichotomy, says Wachira. “Petty” suggests that the corruption is merely an irritant, something people do to speed up things or evade a long queue — a way of “lubricating the system. “The term suggests an expedient with trivial effect, considered case by case. In fact, that characterization is deeply mistaken. . . . Most important, it becomes a fee, because it guarantees that what was initially a free service is no longer so. From a macro-economic perspective, its distortionary effect could be as at least as impactful as grand corruption,” writes Wachira.

That is why petty corruption in Kenya has long been baptized chai, meaning tea, or kitu kidogo, which means something small. It is daily language that is used to camouflage an illegal act by likening it to one of Kenya’s best-known pastimes — drinking tea. Civil servants demand chai from the public in order, they argue, to grease the bureaucratic wheel, which oftentimes revolves very, very slowly and needs to be lubricated for it to move. Chai and Kitu Kidogo have become interchangeable, because “something small” also connotes a kind of “lubricant” that “hastens” service delivery.

The police, especially traffic cops, who are synonymous with petty corruption, have perfected the language of chai-taking more than any other state official such that when Kenyans conjure bribe giving, the first person who immediately comes to mind is the policeman.

The State Capture report says, “Indeed language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice ‘cuppa’ tea between intimates.”

During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”.

The report further states that, “the term ‘grand’ on the other hand can also be misleading if grand suggests debilitating to the state. Implicit in the term is the notion of a corrupt deal of significant size, involving senior officials and high-ranking politicians. Such corruption involves large-scale stealing of state resources and, the theory goes, it erodes confidence in government, undermines the rule of law and spawns economic instability.”

In Kenya, grand corruption has involved such mindboggling money schemes as the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scandals and more recently, the Eurobond scandal. These mega-scams are a result of collusion between state officials and politicians, who over time have formed powerful corruption cartels that have proved inextinguishable.

Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public? Why is it not obvious to all? “There are cases in which the term ‘grand’ corruption fails to communicate the moral shock and magnitude that seems implicit. ‘Grand’ then becomes merely an audit term that simply describes financial scale,” says Wachira. “If that conclusion is right, it would then explain the frequent lack of moral outrage about widespread theft in government, with the result that there will be cases in which characterising corruption as petty or grand implies nothing about its impact or the social and political levers one can push to eliminate it.”

“Grand corruption” in Kenya today has evidently surpassed the current nomenclature; the staggering sums of money stolen have numbed the people’s sensibilities to shock and have refused to register in their psyche. How, for example, can the president have the audacity of treating Kenyans to shock therapy by telling them that KSh2 billion is stolen from the state coffers every 24 hours? That kind of pillage can no longer be termed as corruption, let alone grand corruption. A more appropriate language has to be found; and there can be no other word for it other than theft.

The State Capture report problematizes the matter of the naming of state plunder and discusses at length what could be the problem with language that seeks to explain the massive haemorrhage of state resources orchestrated by unscrupulous individuals. The report notes that corruption in Kenya has been described as a malignant tumour that hampers the government from governing properly “The problem of naming [corruption] is then compounded by medical or sociological language that pathologises corruption. . . . Therein lies the problem: Anti-corruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ ‘a disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions.

Wachira says,

Even when the language used is sociological rather medical, the pathological dimension stays. Corruption is ‘a perverse culture’ or ‘negative norm’. Both the medical and the sociological language mobilise a deep-seated ‘conviction that there is something pathological – an illness – within [Kenya] politics and culture’. This suggests that what the reformers must do is ‘to identify this pathology’ and formulate a diagnosis that examines the Kenyan society and brings to the surface the ‘fissures and contradictions’ that explain the graft.

In his report, Wachira goes on to say, “The medical perspective that implies that the state has gone awry and can be put to rights with an appropriate intervention is pervasive. Implicit in the diagnosis and the proposed cure is the thought that the state is constructed for some legitimate — or benign — purpose that has been perverted by corruption.”

Joseph G. Kibe, a Permanent Secretary in six different ministries in the 1970s, was once interviewed about his experience working as a top government bureaucrat, many years after his retirement in 1979. Said Kibe, “In those days, I could see some kind of low-level corruption starting to creep in, especially involving clerks. For instance, in the Lands Office, they would remove one file and hide it away from where the index shows it is and wait until the owners of the land wanted to conduct a transaction at which point they would ask for a bribe.”

The same low-level corruption has been rampant in the corridors of justice. The low-paid court clerk in the magistrate’s court “disappears” a case file so that he can solicit a bribe to enable the miraculous re-appearance of the “lost” file.

“A generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.”

The former PS, who went on to work for Transparency International (TI) Kenya Chapter, said in 2004, “Corruption had crept into ministries, departments and government corporations and was likely to entrench itself unless it was stopped. With corruption you give up development because all resources you have, only a little will do good. A lot will be taken away for personal use.”

Because the patronage networks created by the civil service and the political class have ensured that corruption is profitable and has high returns, it has become extremely difficult to fight the vice. “The difficulties of fighting corruption lie in the union of corruption and politics; a union in which, at least since Goldenberg scandal, a power elite has captured the state, especially the Presidency and the Treasury and repurposed the machinery of the government into a ‘temporary zone for personalised appropriation’” says Wachira.

State capture is a term that was popularized in South Africa, a country that since its independence 27 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest state scandals since the end of Apartheid. “What is at play in Kenya [today] is ‘state capture’ defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit”, explains the State Capture report.

The success of the state capture rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy, while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of the politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt. Arrest and indictments are often the precursor of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.

“Corruption eats at the moral fabric of the nation,” once said Harris Mule, one of the finest PSs to have served at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance. “Positive norms and traditions, once appropriated by the corrupt, instantly transform themselves into curses. Take the uniquely Kenyan institution of Harambee, as an example. It has been changed from what was once a positive manifestation of the culture of philanthropy and community service, into a political tool that fails to deliver what it promises.”

Mule further said, “Corruption causes poverty by promoting unfair distribution of [the] national income and inefficient use of resources. Poverty and inequality in turn breed discontent and can cause national instability. The political implications of sharp economic inequalities are potent.” The former PS was clear in his mind that corruption was the art of “transferring state assets into private hands at the expense of the public interest and purse.”

Harambee, which means, “pulling together”, was a noble idea that tapped into the egalitarian and altruistic nature of African society, that of pooling their meagre resources together for the public good. It was very popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2003, his government instituted a probe into the now much-maligned popular group effort. Wachira explains that,

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees showed clearly, politicians are the largest donors to ‘charitable’ causes — churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites — to which they give fortunes that are many times more that their own legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait and switch ploy: once moral institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to dip deeper into the public coffers.

Both the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes misused the Harambee spirit for self-aggrandizement. Mzee Kenyatta, who hardly gave any money towards any Harambee effort and if he did, it was a symbolic sum, expected Kenyans to contribute to his Harambee causes, which were baptized all manner of noteworthy names. The monies were not accounted for and nobody would dare ask how the funds raised were spent, whether they were spent on the causes for which they had been contributed. In many instances, the money collected went to line the pockets of Mzee’s friends.

During Moi’s time, Harambee was used by civil servants, especially chiefs, to solicit bribes and favours from people calling into government offices for services that are meant to be free. A citizen visiting a chief’s office to obtain a personal identification document would be presented with a card for a Harambee by the chief and his subordinates. If you wanted to be served at the Ministry of Lands for example, you would be presented with a Harambee card by a junior officer acting on behalf of his boss. Yours was not to question the authenticity of the card, why a public office was presenting a Harambee card to and all sundry, or why it was “mandatory” to contribute before being served in a public office. If you did, you would be called an “enemy of development” and labelled anti-Nyayo.

Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public?

Just after the Narc party was swept into power in 2003, the country witnessed a “citizen’s jury” at work: it exposed and sometimes went as far as making citizens’ arrests of errant police officers caught engaging in bribery. But what happened to citizens’ arrests? It was just a matter of time before the citizens themselves caved in and returned to offering the same bribes to the very same police officers. Why? Because they realized belatedly that to fight institutionalized corruption in Kenya, there must be goodwill and concerted effort from the government: the fish rots from the head and the fight against corruption must begin at the top.

Since 2013, corruption seems to have acquired a new word to camouflage it – hustler. Under the Jubilee government, “hustler” has come to describe tenderpreneurs masquerading as the toiling masses. It is the new lexicon that has been adopted by a cabal of people intent on raiding government coffers, a cabal that has appropriated the everyday language of Kenyans who eke out a living the hard way. It is the latest socio-cultural jargon that has been unleashed on the political landscape by a network of politicos intent on acquiring state power so that, in their turn, they can perpetuate state capture.

Continue Reading


Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic

Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. What we need is a Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.



Pan-Africanism in a Time of Pandemic
Download PDFPrint Article

There was a time, in the last century, when the under-privileged of the world shared a common understanding of the causes of their condition. Today the causes manifest in vaccine Apartheid. That the COVID-19 pandemic should find most African countries with less than one doctor and less than ten beds per a thousand of their population shows the failure of the development efforts of the past 60 or so years. The same countries all struggle with unsustainable debt, which is still being paid during the pandemic and has been increased by the COVID debt. When the global emergency was declared in January 2021, development partners began to hoard personal protective equipment. When vaccines became available a year later, there was insufficient production capacity to meet world needs. The same development partners rejected the option of allowing African countries to manufacture the vaccines on the continent. They hoarded their supplies until they were nearly expired before donating them to African countries.

In the 1950s, there would have been a different reaction. By then, African and Asian countries were moving inexorably towards independence. Organised by Indonesia, Myanmar (now Burma), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Pakistan, African countries attended the Bandung Conference of 1955 with economic and social development in mind. Then as now, China and the United States were on opposite sides of the Cold War and each sought to influence Africa while Africa sought non-alignment in order to freely pursue her development goals.

For one week in Bandung, Indonesia, twenty-nine African and Asian heads of state and other leaders discussed the formation of an alliance based on five principles: political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality. The ten-points in the communiqué released after the conference became the governing principles of the non-aligned movement and they included self-determination, protection of human rights, the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, and a call for an end to racial discrimination wherever it occurred. The alliance began to disintegrate when India and Yugoslavia shunned the radical stand against Western imperialism, leading to the organisation of a rival non-aligned conference in 1965. The 1965 conference was postponed.

While there was no follow-up to Bandung, the ideals it stood for were being espoused by other formations. On the African continent, the Casablanca Group—the precursor to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)—had a membership of five African states: Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, and Morocco. The All-African Peoples’ Conference (AAPC) took place in Cairo in 1958 after the founder, Uganda’s John Kale, was inspired by his attendance at the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference the previous year. It was a meeting representing peoples and movements and not just states. The conference demanded the immediate and unconditional independence of all the African peoples, and the total evacuation of the foreign forces of aggression and oppression stationed in Africa.

The All-African People’s Conference recommended African co-operation in the interest of all the Africans, denounced racial discrimination in South, East and Central Africa, and demanded the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the suppression of the Federation of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and independence for the two countries.

The Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) organised a conference in Cuba in 1957. The 500 delegates to the AAPSO conference represented national liberation movements as well as states and after a number of such gatherings, AAPSO resolved to include Cuba and Latin America in its membership. Thus was the organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) born.

The activities of OSPAAAL included financial support for the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine and for South Africa’s Africa National Congress (ANC). American aggression towards Cuba and its blockade of Vietnam were denounced and global solidarity was shown to political activists under threat of arrest. The movement solidified in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba. The Solidarity movement established a think tank, the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research which produced educational materials in the form of newsletters, articles and the now iconic revolutionary art. This work continues to this day.

For the next decade, Cuba provided support to the armed struggle for independence in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, and to South Africa’s ANC. Fidel Castro was a familiar face on the diplomatic circuit and received Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and other leaders, in Havana.

The United States government was caught between the expectations of its allies, the former colonial powers and those of the soon-to-be independent countries whose alliance it sought. The civil rights movement in the United States was a thorn in its side as it appealed to Africans in the Independence movement. America chose her traditional allies and neo-colonialism put down roots.

Regardless of that, leaders of African and American movements interacted, learning from each other; Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and a number of other leaders of the day met Kwame Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957. Martin Luther King was also there. Reflecting on the cost of freedom and mentioning Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya, King later wrote, “Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It’s never easy. . . . Ghana reminds us of that. You better get ready to go to prison.” Following a visit to Nigeria in 1960, King reported,

I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence [. . .] they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.

Today Dr King would probably have added predatory debt to that list.

Malcolm X visited Egypt and Ghana in 1959 and met Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah. In 1964, he spoke at the OAU conference in Egypt. He went to Tanzania and to Kenya where he met Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta. Back in New York Malcolm X related his experience: “As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.” Prophetic words. Just this month the President of the United States warned against a “Jim Crow assault” on the voting rights of people of colour and the under-privileged that were won in 1965 after a long and hard civil rights struggle.

By the time the Bandung Conference was taking place, Frantz Fanon had already published Black Skin, White Masks and was to follow it up with A Dying Colonialism and The Wretched of the Earth. Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa would appear in 1972. There was an explosion of global awareness of Africa. Musicians like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, and Caiphus Semenya and others became known in Europe and America as they raised awareness about apartheid. African fashion became the signature of the civil rights movement. On the African continent, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac77) was held in Lagos, attracting 59 countries. Exhibits ranged from David Aradeon’s African architectural technology to work by the Chicago Africobra arts collective. The welcome given to the American diaspora contingent at the venue is testament to the sense of oneness that prevailed at the time.

Yet here we are in the new millennium facing identical existential crises. Palestine has lost over half the territory it had in 1966. The televised ethnic cleansing taking place in the country is openly supported by American aid. The Republic of South Africa has found that the end of apartheid may only have been the beginning of the struggle for human development. The country is just emerging from three days of looting and burning by impoverished citizens. Cuba is still under a US embargo and there was even an attempt to blockade medical supplies being shipped to Cuba for the fight against COVID.

Cold War tensions between China and the West have been revived with the United State’s growing opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has remained faithful to the non-interference principle, to the extent of transacting business with African leaders without regard to that other principle, the observance of human rights.

While most African countries are nominally independent, this has not brought development as they had envisaged it. Now, as in 1966, the main economic activity is the export of raw commodities. Africa’s Asian partners in the Bandung Communiqué have long since moved out of the realm of what used to be called “The Third World”. Malaysia, at number 62 out of 189 countries listed on the Human Development Index, is ranked as a Very High Human Development Country. Indonesia, the host of the Bandung Conference, is in the High Human Development category, with a ranking of 107. India, which abandoned the spirit of Bandung, is a medium human development country (ranked 131) while Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Only eight African countries are highly developed, while 30 fall in the Low Human Development category. Within that category, Uganda slipped down one place in 1997 and is ranked 159.

Solidarity conferences have been replaced by aid conferences called by “donors”. They are no longer organised by activists like the Moroccan Mehdi Ben Barka who, together with Chu Tzu-chi of the People’s Republic of China, organized the Tricontinental Conference (Ben Barka was abducted and “disappeared” in 1965 before the conference took place.) or John Kale.  Recent conferences have been organised by European heads of state or United Nations bodies. India and China organise their own conferences for Africa, having transitioned to the ranks of developed countries. Attending delegates are the residual wretched.

The India–Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) inaugurated in 2008 is scheduled to be held once every three years. The France-Africa Finance Summit is an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron whose various remarks about Africa on his tour of the continent were perceived as racist and disparaging.

At the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg in 2015, China offered US$60 billion in development assistance, US$5 billion in the form of grants and the rest in loans. Attendance by African heads of state was higher than for the most recent African Union Conference; only six did not turn up (but were represented).

Attending delegates are the residual wretched.

The following year FOCAC was held in Beijing. On the first day, members of the American Congress issued a statement condemning China’s predatory lending to African and Asian countries. They argued that the recipient countries eventually wound up needing to be bailed out by the IMF, mostly with American money, thereby transferring American capital to China. For his part, the beleaguered president of economically battered Zimbabwe received the offer of another US$60 billion with fulsome gratitude, saying President Xi Jinping was doing what “we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”

The International Development Association for Africa: Heads of State Summit held on 15 July 2021 was a World Bank exercise. The agenda, according to their website, was “to highlight the importance of an ambitious and robust 20th replenishment of the International Development Association.” In other words, it was about increasing members’ debt. These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity. This year there will also be a virtual African Economic Conference (AEC) to discuss “Financing Africa’s post COVID-19 Development”. It is organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the African Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Africa.

Of the original anti-colonial activist countries of the 1960s, most Asian countries are in a position to offer solutions to economic questions; they compete in the global arena manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agricultural technology. China has mastered all of the foregoing as well as dominating foreign infrastructural development investment. The African bloc stands alone in not being organised enough to participate in the global discourse except as receivers of aid.

It is true that together with Latin American countries, resource-wealthy African countries have endured Western-engineered coups d’état and other debilitating interference but the dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing. In its place is the renewed use of the once hated colonial public order laws to quell dissent against corruption and repression.

These days “cooperation” means aid – with strings attached – not solidarity.

Two decades after Lumumba’s assassination, the less wealthy Burkina Faso lit the path to self-sufficiency before the country’s radical president, Captain Thomas Sankara, was assassinated with French connivance. Three months earlier, Sankara had called for the repudiation of debt at an Organisation of African Unity Conference. The delegates were stunned as can be seen from the expression on the late Kenneth Kaunda’s face.

The last African-Asian Conference organised by Africa may or may not be more of a memorial than the birth (re-birth?) of the solidarity movement. On the 50th anniversary of the original Bandung Conference, in 2005, Asian and African leaders met in Jakarta and Bandung to launch the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP). They pledged to promote political, economic, and cultural cooperation between the two continents. An interesting outcome was their communiqué to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council concerning the development of Palestine. On the cultural front, there is talk of a third Festac.

Then there is Cuba, host of the 1966 Tricontinental Conference. Cuba ranks as a high human development country and has the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world—more than double the concentration in the US—and the most hospital beds per 10,000, nearly double what is available in the US. Cuba also has the highest pupil-teacher ratio in the world. Out of necessity due to the economic embargo imposed on it, and being unable to import fertilisers, Cuba pioneered vermiculture, a technique now in use globally. The country manufactures 80 per cent of its vaccines and has five COVID-19 vaccine candidates (two are being used under emergency licence like AstraZeneca, J&J and the other Western products). While Western pharmaceutical manufacturers took an early decision to bar Africa from manufacturing its vaccines on intellectual property grounds, Cuba is willing to transfer its technology to countries that need it. Funds should have been no object as the African continent is awash with COVID Emergency Response funds borrowed from the World Bank and the IMF. This is the kind of development that has been sought for the last sixty-plus years.

The dynamism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral is missing.

But Africa is not talking to Cuba about developing vaccine capacity. African leaders are waiting for UNICEF, appointed by the World Bank, to procure Western-made vaccines for them with funds they shall have to repay. In Uganda, delivery is expected in six months. Meanwhile, Norway and others are donating small amounts of vaccine, hardly enough to cover the twenty-nine million Ugandans that will give us immunity. The Indian-manufactured brand, AstraZeneca, is not recognised in Europe and will prevent recipients travelling there.

The Conscious Era began to wind down with the accession of leaders of independent African states more interested in the instant gratification of cash inflows than in the principles of the past. Yoweri Museveni had the opportunity to learn from the Cuban model when he met Castro in the early months of his rule. As it turned out, he was only wasting El Comandante’s time. Despite condemning his predecessors’ SDR177,500,000 debt to the IMF during the Bush War, Museveni’s SDR49,800,000 structural adjustment facility was signed on 15 Jun 1987—he had been in power for just eighteen months. Since then he has extended his credit to SDR1,606,275 (US$2,285,199.26) from the IMF alone. New debt to the World Bank (contracted since 2020) amounts to US$468,360,000.00. A separate COVID Debt owed to the World Bank amounts to US$300 million so far while over US$31 million is owed to the African Development Bank. These funds have not been used to purchase vaccines.

The Black Lives Matter movement has echoes of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. The movement is strong on showing solidarity with persecuted activists and victims of racism through online campaigns. BLM chapters are in solidarity with Ghanaian activists. Like the Tricontinental Institute, BLM has made attempts to educate, for example via the Pan-African Activist Sunday School. What is needed is another Pan-African conference organised by movements and individuals committed to human development.

Continue Reading


Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past

The recent riots are an attempt to force change after years of neglect by a state that has remained aloof and uninterested in the economic and social dispossession of the African majority.



Protests, Chaos and Uprisings: Lessons from South Africa’s Past
Download PDFPrint Article

The current upheavals across South Africa are ostensibly in response to former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest (or surrender) on 8 July 2021. But contrary to the misinformation in circulation, Zuma was not arrested on charges of corruption, racketeering and for diverting state assets and resources to a circle of cronies including the Gupta family. His reluctance to appear before the Zondo Commission led Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the Chair, to issue a warrant for Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court.

Protest politics in South Africa have a long history and protests have been deployed differently at different historical moments. Whereas protests were an important vehicle during the fight against apartheid, their resurgence and propulsion to the centre of the struggles in post-apartheid South Africa has come as a surprise to many. These so-called “service delivery protests” are said to be caused by community dissatisfaction with municipal service delivery and to lack of communication between councils and councillors on the one hand, and citizens on the other.

The African National Congress-led (ANC) government has been facing growing protests associated with economic contraction, and the dual pressures of a recessionary environment and rising unemployment. But while their grievances may be valid, citizens’ protests have been perceived as having a negative impact on government programmes, businesses, investor confidence and jobs. Indeed, the ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them, mostly the municipalities located in the peri-urban areas.

Historians and experts argue that these types of riots are not merely random acts of violence or people taking advantage of dire circumstances to steal and destroy property. They are, instead, a serious attempt to force change after years of neglect by politicians, media, and the general public.

This article takes a historical view of South Africa’s current upheaval and suggests that this moment has been a long time coming.

Service delivery in historical context

The pre-1994 era was prone to mass protests and defiance campaigns, some sporadic but most coordinated by social movements. They include the two defiance campaigns of 1952 and 1989, in Gauteng, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) defiance campaigns that led to the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in 1960 and, of course, the 1976 Soweto student uprisings. These coordinated mass protests had a clear aim — the abolition of the apartheid laws which were central to racial segregation, white supremacy and the oppression of the majority black population.

The violent service delivery protests, which are mostly prevalent at the local government level, have been associated with the results of apartheid: marginalisation of the majority black population with regard to basic needs, including housing, clean drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, and access to healthcare and to infrastructure. After the end of apartheid, the new democratic government led by the ANC inherited an unequal society and was confronted with protests against lack of basic services and systemic corruption at local government level. Some scholars and analysts have suggested that such unrest epitomises the dispossession of African people, precluding them from complete liberation in their own land and subjecting them to continued subjugation by their white counterparts.

The ongoing service delivery protests could be regarded as a self-defeating strategy in those areas that are more susceptible to them.

Various communities throughout the country have resorted to violent riots, destroying schools, libraries and the houses of underperforming local government councillors. One opinion is that service delivery protests are exacerbated in the informal settlements where poverty and unemployment are high, and where there is a lack of technical and managerial skills within municipalities beset by corruption, poor financial management, and a lack of accountability on the part of local councillors and municipal officials.

Public protests did not feature as prominently during the initial part of the Mandela   administration (1994–1999). The relative lull in public protests following the inauguration of the Mandela presidency in 1994 might have been a result of three key factors. One aspect is the negotiated settlement that gave rise to what is often characterised as a democratic dispensation, popularly and quite falsely  described as a new era  for South African people but which  rapidly  descended into  mass frustration. In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing. Protests were suddenly viewed as acts against the state and were vigorously discouraged by an ANC government that was increasingly detached from the broader population. The ANC-led administration preferred to mobilise mass movements as cheerleaders of government programmes and as a result, when   protests did take place, they were often state-managed to be peaceful, media-friendly events.

Another factor is that militant apartheid-era civic society formations were demobilised, which effectively weakened opposition to unpopular government policies and even brought newer NGOS into sharp disagreement with the government. Finally, the adoption of the pro-poor Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was aimed at redistributing wealth, was well received as a pacifying measure. However, in 1996, less than 24 months after the introduction of the RDP, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy was adopted, signalling a shift to neoliberalism that prioritised the interests of big business over those of poor citizens. The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.

Various social formations including the labour movement and civil society organisations accused the government of “selling out the people’s mandate”. Cost recovery was an essential part of GEAR, and this soon pitted indigent citizens against the government. While the shift to GEAR marked a radical change in how the government approached delivery of services and generated criticism from various quarters, it did not immediately trigger mass protest action mainly because the organisations championing workers’ and ordinary citizens’ rights were in alliance with the ANC. But the grounds were laid for future public protests.

In the neo-liberal euphoria of the “new democratic South Africa”, the strategic power of mass protest action that had helped to remove the apartheid regime struggled to find a new footing.

Some point to the FIFA World Cup (June–July 2010) as a tipping point. The country’s working poor came out in protest, angered by the commercialisation of municipal services and escalating poverty. Other factors that have been the cause of the so-called service delivery protests include the rising costs of basic services (clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity) as a result of the implementation of orthodox market policies, forced demolitions of informal settlements, disparities between luxury stadia and impoverished neighbourhoods and the gentrification brought on by the World Cup which has made inner-cities inaccessible to low-income informal traders.

This contradictory socio-economic policy framework has produced a highly fragmented regulatory structure, which has further compounded the socio-spatial unevenness of contemporary South Africa. The protracted low growth after the 2014 crash of commodity prices and various political scandals undermined the credibility of the ANC leadership. The national difficulties reverberated at the local level; after ruling Johannesburg for over two decades, the ANC lost the city to a coalition of opposition parties in 2016. The new mayor, Herman Mashaba, a self-styled libertarian entrepreneur, announced his commitment to “pro-poor” investments and to ending the arm’s length approach of municipal service providers.

Analysing the rationale behind the provision of basic services may help to clarify the uneasy categorisation of South African social policies and political discourse with respect to the neoliberal paradigm.

The current situation

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision not to increase the country’s extensive social grant payments — that now reach 18 million impoverished citizens — above inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a bigger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt — which has now breached the 80 per cent of debt-to-GDP ratio threshold — and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30 per cent.

And, as is often the case — whether they have been peaceful, organised, or not — protesters have been largely viewed as looters, rioters and thugs. Feelings of righteous anger following a year of lockdown, precarious livelihoods, escalating state aggression, and hostile and often deadly policing are bound to have been co-opted by thuggish elements. But the dangerous shades of ethno-nationalism that originally seemed to fuel the riots cannot be left unexamined as they have an impact on how we think about the protests, just as terms like “uprising” and “upheaval” offer ways to think about the unrest as indications of a far deeper social, economic and political rupture.

The adoption of GEAR led to the immediate loss of the few economic benefits citizens had received under the apartheid system.

Reducing the unrest to a “looting spree” also averts attention from a state that has for 27 years been aloof and not interested in recalibrating the economic and social dispossession of the African majority. While President Ramaphosa seems lethargic and tone-deaf, he is no different from his predecessors in insisting on market-led policies, foreign-investor largesse and failed non-distributive economic policies. Add to this the small matter of the “missing” R500 billion. In April 2020, a stimulus package of 500 billion rand was announced. The money was meant to augment the existing social safety net that provides 11.3 million South Africans with monthly assistance for food and other social services. The Auditor-General has described the expenditure as irregular, noting the wrongful diversion of some of the funds to state employees through contracts. To date, the hectoring tone adopted by most public officials regarding this matter shows no sense of irony or self-awareness that their own hands are dirty.

Many analysts and observers inside and outside South Africa have predicted this moment for over fifteen years, evoking the Arab Spring as a cautionary tale. South Africa is not the only country going through a seismic shift. Haiti, Cuba, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Mozambique and Hong Kong are all facing profound upheavals. But while South Africa elicits deep sentiments across the world, it is not immune to the complexities of state formation, fractured class interests and a leadership vested in maintaining the status quo.

Continue Reading