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

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

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

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

Politics

The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans.

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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly
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Kenyans walking to work on Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue on the 16th of June 2016 were shocked to find that a pile of well-worn identity cards and driver’s licences had been dumped during the night on the pavement outside the Jesus is Alive Ministries’ church. The identity cards were those that Kenyans mistakenly call the second and third generation IDs – one, dating from 1995, is laminated, and the other, issued after 2011, is printed directly onto plastic. Both types of cards were produced by Thales, a French parastatal, so they are administratively identical. On the front side, they present the card’s serial number, the holder’s identity number, full name, date of birth, sex, district of birth, place of issue, date of issue, signature, thumbprint; on the reverse are the functional categories of colonial indirect rule: district; division; location; sub-location.

None of the cards in the pile were the third-generation or digital IDs that Kenyans have been promised for a decade: the polycarbonate sheet, laser-printed with solid colour images and etched holograms containing, critically, a machine-readable chip and a full set of digital finger and iris biometrics.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The third generation card was first announced publicly in 2007 in the wake of an investigation by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) into accusations of widespread corruption and discrimination in the issuing of IDs. The commission’s concerns were split evenly between the general complaint about the cash bribes officials demanded to perform basic administrative services and the more specific accusation that Somali-Kenyans were being systematically denied identity cards and their basic rights as citizens. Behind both worries lurked fears about the fragility of the laminated card, and its susceptibility to forgery. The notorious weakness of the cards had much to do with the seven-digit identity number and the vulnerability of the registry that was being used to authenticate claims for citizenship.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The appointment of a contractor for the production of the third generation cards was not so simple. The 2005 Anglo Leasing scandal – where the Mwai Kibaki government was notoriously implicated in the payment of a massively inflated tender to a British shell company for printing passports – loomed in the background of the call for tender for the new identity cards. The processes were fraught and contested, especially as losing bidders could bring show-stopping appeals to the newly established Public Procurement Oversight Authority after 2007.

The call for tender for the new cards was issued in May 2009, specifying a “third generation ID Card” with the establishment of an “elaborate infrastructure supported by appropriate software modules, including installation of live data capture equipment both at the headquarters and in the field offices, personalisation centre and a centralised database production facility, complete with the necessary biometric and facial recognition features”. The government allocated $10 million to the project, and the international biometrics giants all submitted proposals. In September that same year, the whole process came to a sudden halt when NADRA, the Pakistan identification agency (who were making Kenyan passports) raised a successful protest about the decision of the tender board.

Thales continued printing the laminated cards after the tender collapsed, but in July 2011 the cabinet refused to endorse their ongoing production, and the issuing of the indispensable IDs stopped completely, prompting something of a national emergency. The Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons issued a second tender in 2011 but that succumbed in the same way when the French ID contractor, Imprimerie Nationale, protested its exclusion on the basis of the tender board’s sloppy paperwork. With the 2013 election looming, the ministry had little choice but to restore Thales’ contract to print the backlog of two million – rising quickly to four million – of the new plastic (not laminated but also not third generation) cards.

That was the situation, at least as far as the ID cards were concerned, when Mwende Gatabaki arrived to join the Office of the President from her job at the African Development Bank in Tunis in February 2014. Gatabaki was chosen as the architect of the new plan for identification and information-sharing – the National Digital Registry System (NDRS) – as she had extensive experience working on the networking requirements of the cumbersome Kenyan parastatals and the large donor organisations in East Africa.

Clean, complete, correct

The plan to register the entire Kenyan population “afresh” was first made public at the ConnectedKenya conference in Mombasa in April 2014. It was presented by Gatabaki, who was tasked with assembling a new government agency that would unify the different functions of birth and death registration, the registration of aliens and refugees, and the issuing of identity cards, which were all spread across the detached Departments of Civil Registration, Immigration, Refugee Affairs and the National Registration Bureau.

The Act establishing the new service had already been passed in 2011. It called for a new co-ordinating agency that would develop a unique identifier for every person, manage all issues related to citizenship and immigration, and maintain a comprehensive and accurate national population register. Gatabaki’s plan drew on the heightened public concern around national security in the wake of the September 2013 attacks on the Westgate shopping mall. It lay out a potentially revolutionary reorganisation of the entire Kenyan state around a “single source of truth”. The new database would link together existing and new registries of population, land holdings, companies and moveable assets. Gatabaki argued that the new database and registrations would be significantly cheaper than the cost of upgrading existing but separate projects of registration and identification underway in the separate departments. To do all of this required a break from the existing forms of paper registration and a new set of purely digital biometrics for every person in the country.

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed.

This initial presentation made no mention of a new digital ID card, but the following day the CEO of the state ICT Authority explained that the government was preparing to spend nearly $100 million on the new database and that the new ID cards would have a chip or magnetic strip that would allow police officers on patrol to confirm authenticity.

 

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed. The official enquiry into this debacle, accusations of corruption and other ongoing controversies over the enormous cost and licensing of the biometric kit dominated public debate until the end of 2015. In Kenya, biometric registration is the main arena of a bitter struggle over state power, and it was hardly surprising that the opposition leaders immediately responded to the move to register all afresh by claiming that it was a scheme to rig the next elections.

Political mistrust was not the only serious problem, however; over the previous decade, the procurement processes for the long-promised identity card had repeatedly collapsed into a mess of conflicting corruption allegations.

Indigenising capital

Gatabaki’s project aimed, chiefly, at replacing the unreliable and limited paper-based population register with a digital biometric database. The new biometric system would have established a single official identity for all adults in Kenya for the first time and it would have allowed real-time, remote biometric authentication. But it was also motivated by an effort to create a new kind of property by registering collateral in moveable assets, such as vehicles, farm animals and companies.

Meanwhile, the EDAPS consortium had been busy working to build the IPRS, linking together the main repositories of identification and citizenship status. EDAPS first built the IPRS connections between the National Registration Bureau’s ID card database and the Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons (MIRP) passport and aliens registries. In 2010 they began to incorporate new data from the birth and death registries managed by the Department of Civil Registration. The following year, 2011, they built automated two-way links between the IPRS and the databases maintained by the two newly established credit reference bureaus (CRBs).

This relationship allowed the CRBs to do real time confirmation of the identity of the new applicants for credit (using automated queries against the linked civil registration and ID card records). Much more importantly for the broader political economy in Kenya, and the fate of the NDRS, it also pushed blacklisting data into the IPRS itself. The listing of defaults inside the state’s IPRS – what the Credit Information Sharing Association of Kenya (CISKenya) described as negative information – provided a simple, effective and real time sorting and coercive tool for the new mobile credit providers looking for instant decision-making systems. This simple link had the effect of separating Safaricom, with its troves of data on millions of users’ spending behaviour, from the broader alliance of formal lenders who were looking to build database profiles that would differentiate customers based on sharing positive (payments) and negative (defaults) information.

Safaricom – the monopolistic telecommunications firm that has created the globally distinctive system of mobile money known as M-Pesa – was able to develop simple forms of virtual reputational collateral using its own automated assessment systems and its own identification and authentication processes. The state’s existing population register was sufficient for its needs, where the banks’ credit information sharing (CIS) processes – with their demanding templates of data and very high errors of identification – faced continuous failures and material resistance.

The failure of the new digital identification scheme was the result of a conflict between the formal banks and Safaricom. It was also a struggle between different types of credit markets. On the one hand, the banks wanted to build credit reporting systems and new government registration arrangements that would allow individuals and firms to formalise non-fixed assets, such as vehicles and livestock, which would then act as new forms of collateral for further borrowing. The advocates of these assets registers and of the banks’ universal credit reporting systems were opposed by Safaricom (in practice more than in public) and eventually by the leaders of the Kenyan state, who championed a simple and effective system for delivering unsecured, high-interest micro-loans that did not require collateral registers.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit.

The advocates of the biometric plan justified it by appealing to the need for certain and secure identification, for stronger national security (and policing) and better tax coverage and recovery, but what distinguished it from the already existing plans for population registration was the effort to build a new kind of asset register – a database describing real, not informational, collateral assets. The National Digital Registry System plan proposed a joined-up architecture of state databases that brought the management of private collateral into the core of the state’s business. Aimed at the interests that the established banks had in the development of reliable, accurate and complete credit histories, it was also a radical effort to address the informational void that surrounds property on the African continent.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit. Policy makers argued that thousands of these small firms possessed moveable assets – buildings, vehicles, equipment, products, animals – that could provide secure collateral for formal credit when provided with the right administrative and information processing tools. This was the idea behind the NDRS – a centralised data exchange that would make information from the discrete registries (for example, of companies and vehicles) available to lenders. At the same time, this kind of centralised data hub would offer non-bank lenders a quid pro quo for sharing information about their customers’ servicing of existing loans. This idea – that the NDRS would, finally, make it easy for financial institutions to appraise borrowers – was at the heart of the Gatabaki proposal. “A central repository of personal and corporate information will facilitate banks in their credit appraisal,” as the Central Bank governor explained in endorsing the project in October 2014, “This should not only ease access to credit but also reduce costs of credit, given the lower search costs.”

In fact, of course, that integration never happened. Instead, the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), in alliance with Safaricom, developed its own separate scoring mechanism that drew on data from Safaricom’s transaction database specifically to identify borrowers who did not meet the initial basic criteria that were derived from Safaricom airtime purchases. The resulting scorecard worked only too well and – combined with the basic identification and simple blacklisting supported by the IPRS – it meant that CBA and Safaricom could issue M-Shwari loans without any need to look up or report data to the credit bureaus; the credit information templates of credit sharing were too cumbersome and too slow and would have ruined the rapid decision-making that is one of the attractions of Safaricom’s mobile lending.

From the outset, the CBA, like many of the other non-bank credit providers in Kenya, used credit information sharing only as a last resort in the effort to recover outstanding loans. After 120 days of non-payment, the bank reported delinquent M-Shwari debtors to the credit bureaus. These records, almost all of them negative reports, rapidly inflated the population covered by the CRBs from 1 million people in 2014 to 4 million the following year. This expansion was the exact opposite of the reputational collateral that the bankers had long used to justify credit sharing; it measured, instead, the dramatically augmented pool of those denied formal credit at any cost.

By the time that Gatabaki announced the NDRS project in April 2014, the effort to create a technological platform to foster reputational collateral for ordinary Kenyans had effectively failed. Over the following year, the balance of informational power shifted decisively towards Safaricom and CBA. Few people made the argument publicly, but the telecom giant had clearly come to exercise monopoly control over the heights of the Kenyan economy. Their interest in micro-loans – while profitable and useful to borrowers – did little to make formal credit available to individuals or companies. The CIS system was working only as a blacklist available to Safaricom on the IPRS platform and, far from working as a solution to the problem of asymmetrical information for other lenders, it simply encouraged local banks to deny ordinary Kenyans credit.

The Safaricom monopoly

Gatabaki’s scheme faced resistance from within the state, not least because the World Bank’s Kenya Transparency Communications Infrastructure Project (KTCIP) had been pouring money into the renewal of the old IPRS. As the NDRS was being debated, the Bank was busy upgrading the IPRS, supporting digitisation of the existing land and company registries, strengthening the administration of the fifty newly devolved county centres of government, and connecting all of the divisions of the state to an accounting database. The KTCIP overhaul reduced some of the pressure for repair of the existing state information systems, but it does not account for the collapse of Gatabaki’s scheme, which would in fact have been bolstered by the same processes. The real reason lay in the ascendancy of the highly simplified information systems controlled by Safaricom, the explosive growth of M-Shwari mobile loans offered by the CBA and the decline of the political influence of the other established banks.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world…

Two financial relationships were key to this influence. The first was the joint ownership of Safaricom between the British telecorp Vodafone and the Kenyan state, which gave the state a double-dipping interest in the company’s enormous profits: first as shareholder and second as tax collector. By 2017 the state was earning Sh60 billion in tax and licence fees, and an additional Sh12 billion in dividends – a total that meant a tenth of the revenues raised by the state came from a single firm.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world, offering credit and banking facilities to the majority of adult Kenyans – most of whom were very poor. During 2016, 35 million Kenyans used mobile banking to conduct 1.5 billion transactions for a combined value of Sh3.5 trillion. The number of wretchedly but newly employed field agents servicing this finance industry rose by 10 per cent to 165,000 individuals in the same year. And Safaricom exercises a textbook monopoly over the field, controlling 65 per cent of the SIM card subscriptions and 84 per cent of the mobile banking transactions.

By the end of 2016, M-Shwari was an even purer monopoly of the mobile credit market than its M-Pesa parent. It was being used by 16 million customers to take out 64 million small loans with a total value of $1.4 billion. One in five Kenyans were borrowing from M-Swari in a normal month. A highly simplified, stripped-down informational architecture that exploited the very limited capabilities of the Simcard Toolkit and the IPRS (the opposite of the integrated, interoperable and real-time biometric system proposed for the NDRS) was key to the explosive successs of the Safaricom-CBA product.

In contrast with the NDRS, the M-Shwari loans imposed no new identification process on borrowers. For loans of less than sh2500, M-Shwari relied only on the original M-Pesa paperwork – sight of the national ID and a completed application form – that each customer is supposed to have submitted to load the M-Pesa menu and the IPRS blacklist. This frictionless simplicity – turning ignorance and convenience into effective instruments of profit – is now internationally called the “tier-based Know-Your-Customer” procedure. It is intrinsically the opposite of the “clean, complete, correct and secure” registration process that Gatabaki envisaged for the NDRS. It is important to note that it is an instrument of monopoly power because Safaricom can control its risk exposure by relying on the data it owns about users’ purchases of airtime and their relationships with other users. That information – and possible histories of impersonation and PIN-swopping – is not available to the firms’ competitors. It is only in the final decision of blacklisting borrowers that Safaricom reports unpaid M-Shwari debts to the CRBs, effectively blocking those borrowers from future credit and their competitors’ access to future customers. In the short, in the three-year life of M-Shwari, the number of Kenyans – most without any prior connection with the formal banking system – added to the blacklist shared between the CIS and the IPRS has reached three million people (a tenth of the adult population). And nearly 400,000 of those blacklisted have been denied access to future credit for failing to settle debts of less than sh200.

In the years since the demise of the NDRS, Safaricom’s relationship with the Kenyan state has only grown more intimate. The company was an immediate beneficiary of the 4 per cent cap on interest which the Kenyan Central Bank imposed on formal lenders in September 2016 – not least because CBA successfully defended the argument that the 7.5 per cent monthly fee on M-Shwari was an administrative charge and not interest. (The effective interest rate offered on M-Shwari loans approaches 140 per cent over a year of borrowing, but this rate – ten times the legal limit imposed on the formal banks – was still much lower than the returns demanded by informal money lenders.) Safaricom has taken on many of the trophy projects pursued by the Kenyan state since, including a national CCTV surveillance network in 2016, and an e-citizenship project that takes up many of the goals of online convenience that motivated the NDRS.

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans, especially for firms and for individuals looking to invest relatively large amounts in productive investments. In place of the revolutionary, panoptic over-reach of Gatabaki’s National Digital Registry System, Kenyans have the simplicity and efficiency of M-Shwari. In comparison with the goals of full credit reporting and asset registries, this looks very much like the old pattern of skeletal registration and brutal administration that Africans have long had to endure.


This article is an abridged version of a report written by Keith Breckenridge, published on 23rd August. The full report dubbed “The failure of the “single source of truth about Kenyans”: the National Digital Registry System, collateral mysteries and the Safaricom monopoly” can be found here

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The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?

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The Chink in Raila’s Armour: Why ODM Is Losing Ground in Its Strongholds
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To some observers, it was a victory that recalls the Biblical David versus Goliath encounter, which will be told long after the “stone” that fell the giant Orange Democratic Party’s political machinery and its candidate in the 5 April Ugenya by-election has been buried deep in the fecund soils of Ugenya. For others, it was the epic duel, which Senator James Orengo – a living legend in Kenya and in Ugenya’s opposition politics – like Hamlet without the Prince, lost spectacularly to David Ochieng, a political neophyte.

In the 5 April Ugenya constituency by-election, a parliamentary candidate called David Ochieng’ of the little-known Movement for Democracy and Growth (MDG) took on a giant, the Orange Democratic Party (ODM), and floored its candidate, Chris Karan. This was not a first in the colorful history of Ugenya, a constituency whose politics has partly been defined by the political rivalries between in-laws James Orengo and his brother-in-law, Stephen Ondiek, who between them, represented Ugenya constituency for 33 years between 1980 to 2013.

Although there is no love lost between Orengo and Ochieng, Ochieng’s victory recalls James Orengo’s Nyatieng’s’ (the grinding-stone) victory in the 1980 Ugenya constituency by-election against Mathews Ogutu, a pro-establishment and a Jomo Kenyatta era minister for local government. Just like Orengo’s victory in 1980 as a Jaramogi Odinga colyte was a slap in the face of pro-establishment politics of acquiescence in the face of betrayals of independence ideals and KANU’s suffocating post-independence one-party state, Ochieng’s, too, is a rejection of Raila Odinga’s pro-status quo politics, which in the face of suffocating party politics demands acquiescence with politics of incompetence or ineptitude at the local level.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul…the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

Ochieng’s was a sweet victory, a crowning of a successful and drawn out election petition against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s declaration of Chris Karan as the victor of the 2017 Ugenya parliamentary election, in which he handed ODM, especially his Ugenya nemesis, Senator James Orengo, a humiliating defeat.

The victory was too sweet to be savoured only by Ochieng’ and his constituents. By saying that the by-election was a Raila versus Ruto contest and casting it as a proxy battle for Kenya’s soul – where a vote cast for Chris Karan is a vote for Raila Odinga, and a vote cast for David is a vote for William Ruto – the ODM party barons had invited the dissident United Republican Party (URP) wing of the ruling Jubilee Party to the Ugenya party. Or so, it seems.

As if on cue, the “hustler’s” nation, for whom everything ni kujipanga without compunction, showed up for the party, honouring ODM’s ill-thought, and perhaps proxy invitation, to a propaganda-fest. William Ruto, Kenya’s Deputy President, who craves an earthly kingdom, took a celestial leap for it, and tweeted, “Jameni wacheni MUNGU aitwe MUNGU. The hustler nation has spoken, the people have decided”, thereby quickly claiming David’s victory for the “hustler” Christian nation and milking it for its propaganda value: Odinga’s loss is a Ruto’s or self-declared hustler-in-chief’s gain.

Ostensibly, Ochieng’s victory now symbolised the miraculous ways of God, foretelling the coming victory of the kingdom of the hustler-in-chief over his nemesis Raila Odinga, the longed-for Godless earthly kingdom of Kenyans who seldom give a damn about justice or ethics in pursuit of power or wealth.

Ochieng’s MGD victory was a godsend. Irresistible. And they grabbed it, perhaps with the ease with which billions of shillings in dollar denominations is nowadays spirited out of Kenya’s public coffers to a few individual’s secret accounts abroad or safe boxes in local banks under the Jubilee government’s watch.

Senator Susan Kihika, a Ruto disciple, took a less optimistic but a more earthly view of Ochieng’s victory. She tweeted, “Is ODM’s loss in Ugenya & Embakasi South an indication of changing times? Ugenya being ODM stronghold begs the question, is the electorate finally ready to defy dictatorship vote & independently? Perhaps. Interesting times ahead. Kitaeleweka sooner than later!”

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion”…

“Not a big deal,” Raila Odinga said repeatedly, and rather strenuously, for the “just a drop in the ocean” loss of two parliamentary seats in a week when the twin ODM loss, especially the Ugenya by-election, was trending in the major call-ins in Dholuo breakfast and late night radio broadcasts.

For some of the diehard ODM supporters, the twin parliamentary electoral loss is symptomatic of ODM’s diseased body politic. “It’s suffering a T.B. Not the dreadful respiratory disease, tuberculosis, but the equally devastating “Tugni gi Bagni,” or “conflict and confusion,” for a party that has had a relative clear political vision,” said a disillusioned ODM supporter in a call-in breakfast radio show.

Still, others opined, the victory of these candidates raises several questions that the party ought to answer: why do sitting ODM MPs, who ably discharge their parliamentary responsibilities or good candidates seeking an ODM ticket lose to those said to be the party-anointed but lacklustre performers? Is it the region’s six-piece voting pattern or how the six-pieces of the ODM leaders is put together? Is it because, as some callers opined, “party ni gi wegi” (the party has its owners)? And therefore, have the party nominations, not just the ODM’s, but also other Raila Odinga-led parties’ nominations, been a charade? Does the party respect the wishes and interests of the majority? “Certificate e omo malo.” (Has the party been imposing candidates on the voters?) Is it because we’ve been electing charlatans who claim “wadhi konyo Jakom goyo lweny?” (Is it those who claim they are going to help Raila Odinga fight a war?)

Beyond the biblical analogies, evangelical Christian rhetoric, and the denials of ODM party barons, what does Ochieng’s victory mean? What does it tell us about Luo politics? What hopes does it hold, especially for those from the counties of Siaya, Homa Bay, Migori and Kisumu, who are disgruntled with ODM, especially the party nominations, and increasingly see Raila Odinga’s dominance in Luo politics as a stranglehold on regional democracy? What about those who yearn either for a change or a revolution in the ODM strongholds?

Unlike ODM power barons’ denials, the candid and passionate debates on Ochieng’s victory and ODM’s poor performance in the two by-elections throws up more than Ochieng’s winning formula or ODM’s ways of losing an election, which, for some rank and file members of the party, shouldn’t be waved aside.

Many ODM supporters who called various Dholuo radio stations last week blamed Senator James Orengo for the loss of the Ugenya seat to the MDG party. They put it down to the rivalry between Orengo and Opiyo Wandayi, said to be driven by competing ambitions for the Siaya County’s 2022 gubernatorial election. ODM had wrongly pitched the contest as a national issue, with little local touch, and favoured big roadshow events – which entertain the youth, but which scarcely educate the electorate – and counterproductive threats by Siaya governor, Amoth Rasanga, to punish his Ugenya constituents if they voted for Ochieng’. Yet Ochieng’ has a better development record in Ugenya than the Siaya County government, and carried out a more effective door-to-door campaign attuned to the hopes of Ugenya voters, especially women.

Ochieng is a young and ambitious politician who first came to parliament as an ODM Member of Parliament. His victory points to a deeper crisis gnawing at the heart of the Orange Democratic Movement. ODM not only failed to live up to its name and to its political ideals, but is suffered from a crisis of vision, as some callers pointed out. It also stalled intra-party, inter-generational succession, which is now simmering and might come to the boil before or by 2022.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns.

However, listening to ODM supporters who are still smarting from the party’s loss of Ugenya constituency does suggest that Ochieng’s victory is significant but that it is no more significant than the past victories of “independents” in the current Luo politics. Ochieng joins the league of politicians, such as Olago Aluoch, the MP for Kisumu West on a Ford Kenya ticket, Shakeel Shabbir of Kisumu Town East, who ran as independent in the 2017 general election, and even of the disgraced Okoth Obado, now an ODM governor, who was elected on a PDP ticket in 2013.

Ochieng’s victory, like that of the other “independents”, suggests that ODM or Raila Odinga are not invincible. However, winning an election is still an uphill task. You’ve got to factor Raila Odinga into your winning formula or circumvent it in your campaigns. Strategically, you must be an ally or be seen to be an ally of Raila Odinga’s cause. And as some callers said, those who have successfully run against the ODM wave, such as Olago Aluoch of Kisumu Town West or Shakeel Shabbir, have simultaneously avoided casting their quest for elective office as contests between them and Raila Odinga. They ran on a Raila-zone friendly party or no political party, and thoroughly localised the parliamentary contest while pledging loyalty to Raila’s cause or claiming him as their undisputed leader or leader of the Luo community.

Shakeel Shabbir, popularly known as “Onyango woun Mogo” (Onyango, the owner of maize flour), like Ochieng, bolted out of the ODM in 2017, but ran successfully as an independent. Upon winning, he said, “I still share ODM ideals and want to assure my people that I will stand with the party and leader Raila Odinga.”

Similarly, speaking to the Star after winning, Ochieng’ said, “I avoided the media like the plague since they were going to hype it as a war between me and Raila,” and added, “I have no issue with Raila. In fact, we kept talking when I was in court. There is no bad blood between him and myself. I respect him. I support the handshake, which is the best thing ever to happen to this country.”

Salim Odeny, a suave and eloquent ODM ideologue with a priestly mastery of the Bible, an ecumenical mastery of many Christian denominational hymns, liturgy, and rituals, and a mastery of dead-pan Dholuo put-downs or sexist insults, said that the ODM bigwigs in charge of the Chris Karan campaigns didn’t set the Raila trap well. He says that ODM lost the Ugenya seat, not only because the infighting within the Senator James Orengo-led campaign team, but also because they didn’t frame the contest in terms that resonates with the Ugenya electorate. “They should have asked, who does Uhuru Kenyatta deal with when he wants to deal with a Luo leader, a party leader called Raila Odinga of ODM or a party leader called David Ochieng’ of MDG?” said Odeny. The contest should have been framed as the battle between Raila and Ochieng’ for the leadership of the Luos – who of the two embodies the community’s fears and hopes? – not as a Raila versus Ruto contest.

Ochieng’ saw the trap and lifted the safety hatch. He simply asked his constituents, “Ka udhi ma ok uneno Raila e debe, gone David Ochieng’,” (If you go to the polling booth, and you don’t find Raila’s name on the ballot, then vote for David Ochieng), some callers pointed out. Raila’s absences, literary and figuratively, also worked in Ochieng’s favour.

Citing African Union engagements, Raila made only a single appearance at a funeral in Ugenya during the campaign period. Since the handshake, what he embodies or stands for, the larger-than-life cause cryptically referred to as “lweny” (the war), and the political cause that he has embodied in Luo politics (which gives him a free hand to choose who’s a loyal lieutenant and who’s not) has become foggy at best.

What’s more, “the handshake” has blunted the sharp edge of the “mole” label, the traitor charge, which can cut down one’s political career short, especially for Luo politicians who work with the establishment, either in times of opposition or outside the Raila Odinga umbrella, in times of co-optation.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

In 2017, David Ochieng’, who had been dubbed a mole, bore this burden. In 2019, after the handshake, the sharp opposition-establishment distinction is blurred, and the burden has lifted off a little bit. Moreover, unlike James Orengo, who was once a cabinet minister (a minister for lands), Ochieng’ seems to have leveraged his first term pro-establishment connections and delivered collective material goods to his Ugenya constituents better than both James Orengo and the County of Government of Siaya: a medical training centre, a teachers’ training college, a technical institute, subsidised fertilizer to farmers, and a forestry school in the making.

Tactically, by framing the by-election as a local contest and conducting a door-to-door campaign, Ochieng’ outflanked the ODM bigwigs who mounted colourful roadshows and pitched the battle as a national contest between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Backed by Ugenya professionals, he turned his first term development record as an ODM MP into an asset and bait: “I have built a TTC, and a MTC here, but the MTC College could collapse, because it offers only one course. Give me a chance to complete this project,” Ochieng, reportedly pitched.

But David Ochieng’, the ambitious rebel politician who says he eschews “politics of lies, personality cult, where you identify a figure of hate”, derides and is disdainful of Orengo’s brand of politics – what he dismissively calls “university type of politics, which no longer works for the masses” – as the kind of politics that has long reached its sell-by date and is a product the fallout that followed the ODM’s post-2013 generational succession politics in Luo politics.

Ochieng told the Star that he left ODM because “the party machinery was not taking my views. There is a lot of suspicion about me and how I work. At some point, I felt I didn’t want to go to parliament.” Moreover, “My party did not like people who can innovate or those giving views. I thought I did not want to go through that, hence, the birth of MDG,” Ochieng’ added, without mentioning the source of this suspicion.

That suspicion was borne out a the Sega Declaration in 2014. David Ochieng’, together with some youthful and freshly elected first-term members of parliament, such as Jared K’Opiyo, Silvanus Osele, Agostino Neto, Junet Mohamed, Millie Odhiambo, Ken Obura, and John Mbadi, sought to reform and re-energise the party after the loss of the 2013 presidential election and to change its leadership. But the doyens of opposition politics, such as Raila Odinga, Anyang’ Nyong’o, and Otieno Ka’jwang,’ read mischief in this move. The ODM MPs, who were party to the Sega Declaration, were viewed with suspicion as fifth columnists.

ODM power barons scattered this group, but didn’t adequately address the discontent, the injustice of the party nomination process, and the feeling of being left out of both the national party power structures and in the ODM county governments, which many youthful members of the party, including the rank and file, feel to date. Dubbed “moles,” the unrepentant signatories to the Sega Declaration faced a stiff challenge for the ODM ticket or opted for alternative political parties. Some, like John Mbadi and Junet Mohamed, beat a retreat and were rewarded with high party positions. Others, like Ken Obura and Silvanus Osele, fell by the wayside. A few, like David Ochieng, and Millie Odhiambo, retreated to their constituencies and worked hard to fortify their hold on them.

Labeled a Jubilee mole, David Ochieng’ felt it doubly, in 2017 and 2019. “There were days we could spend up to shillings 1 million in a day,” Ochieng’ told the Star, without disclosing either what he spent the money on or the total amount of money he spent to secure the seat. Clearly, one million shillings a day, even for a few days of campaigning in a rural constituency, is a little over the top, particularly, for a candidate who says his popularity rests solidly on his unmatched development record.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents…will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election.

Ochieng’s triumph over the ODM was sweet, hard-won, and crowning, but still an expensive victory. It reeks of a BUY-election. Although Ochieng says that his solid development record as an ODM member of parliament put him in good stead, he spent heavily to secure the seat, even when he avoided a “big entourage” and occasionally rode a bicycle while looking for votes.

Ochieng’s victory reminds the ODM party, and Raila Odinga, in particular, that that until ODM embraces internal party democracy, addresses the generational succession question, and Raila unequivocally states what the party stands for, the independents (who voters say are good leaders, but often fall out of favour with the ODM party barons) will always eat Baba’s lunch in a free and fair election – especially when the voters can’t tell what Raila Odinga stands for or what the political vision of ODM is since he signed a truce with the Jubilee government.

Questions arise: Is Raila still hunting, holding the leopard by the tail or has he domesticated the beast? Or is he stroking its fur, cleaning its bloodstained paws and its incisors while his core constituency, clawed or killed by the beast in the last electoral encounters, cries for justice? Does ODM fight for democracy and good government only at the national level? What about the ODM-led constituencies and the counties?

Ochieng’s victory too, is just an exception that proves the rule: the common sense that binds Raila Odinga and his die-hard political base still holds a contested sway, However, the yawning democratic deficits of the ODM party, which the ODM rank and file complain about on radio, and the ineptitudes of Raila’s lieutenants in local politics and in organising a smooth ODM generational succession, coupled with the incompetence, corruption, and nepotism of county governments, especially in Siaya, Homa Bay, and Migori counties, will ultimately claim ODM’s dominance in Luo politics.

Ochieng’s victory is good news, especially to those who find Raila’s two-decade long dominance in Luo politics too suffocating and too stifling for democratic aspirations. It reveals a chink in Raila’s amour. However, those yearning for a change or revolution in ODM have a tough task ahead. Electoral defeats, like Ugenya’s, though highly embarrassing, hardly chip at the Odingas’ dominance in Luo politics.

The twin electoral defeats, a recoil from a third, and the Wajir senatorial election reminds ODM that a coalition of widely different political dynasties, united only by a common fear of the prospects of a Ruto presidency, is unlikely to energise the ODM support base. ODM could suffer humiliating defeats in the hands of a wily, tenacious, and daredevil opponent bound by no compunction.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen. Omar walked into the national spotlight and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town
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Donald Trump’s election victory dismissed many conventional assumptions about the conduct and content of American political discourse. Once in office, the new president began hollowing out the nation’s foreign policy institutions. He threw allies under the bus, embraced dictators, and took every opportunity to undermine the multilateral institutions sustaining the post-World War II order. By jettisoning the framework containing nuclear weapon proliferation and withdrawing from the Paris consensus on global warming, he ratcheted up the risk factors facing the planet. On the domestic front, he bulldozed his party and staff into lining up behind him. The generals tried to limit the damage his maverick foreign policy was wreaking abroad. They failed.

Unlike the tweeting, dissembling, and mocking the norms governing national politics for generations, most of the president’s agenda represented policy positions that can be contested or debated. But when Trump came to the defence of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, it confirmed many critics’ worse-case scenarios. The number of hate groups in the United States increased by 7 per cent last year and hate crime reports increased by 17 per cent, according to the FBI.

In a polity where elected leaders usually gravitate towards the middle to implement their agenda, Donald Trump continues to weaponise the polarising subterranean logic that turned Washington into what General Kelley, the former Chief of Staff, described as “Crazy Town”.

Enter Ilhan Omar

The Democratic Party captured the US House of Representatives in the 2018 by-elections. Eighty-one of the record number of 102 women elected to the House are Democrats. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, expressed the hope of many: “When our new members take the oath, our Congress will be refreshed and our democracy will be strengthened by the optimism, idealism and patriotism of this transformative freshman class.”

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen that included the Palestinian American, Rashida Mtlaib, and the 23-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar walked into the national spotlight with panache and charisma, and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

Omar has constructed her political career on domestic social issues: affordable housing and healthcare, support for a living wagestudent loan debt forgiveness, universal access to higher education, proactive climate change policies, and the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She strongly opposes the immigration policies of the Trump administration and the Muslim travel ban.

The pivot to Foreign Relations encouraged expectations in this part of the world that she would focus fresh attention on African issues and insight into the shifts accompanying renewed interest across the greater Horn of Africa region.

Beto O’Rourke, the presidential hopeful exemplar of the new blood political wave, was recently revealed as a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. An ex-hacker running for national office would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. A reporter covering the story declared, “There has been no better time to be an American politician rebelling against business as usual.”

Omar proceeded to put the hypothesis to the test by igniting a firestorm that quickly escalated into the resurgent Democratic Party’s first internal crisis. It began when she tweeted lyrics from a rap song, “Its all about the Benjamins.” The reference to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC)’s financial tentacles was far less derogatory than calling Mogadishu Somalis ‘”skinnies”, or Iraqis “towelheads”. But Omar was vilified for promoting ethnic stereotypes, and then accused of being anti-Semitic after she defended her position.

In a Democratic primary campaign devoid of any religious or ethnic animosity, the Congresswoman defeated the Jewish incumbent of over forty years. But now she was in Trump’s Crazy Town. Instead of mollifying the critics, her attempt to place her opposition to AIPAC in context provoked even more intense condemnation. Some of the strongest reactions to her statement came from within her own party. It did not help that she broke ranks with the Party’s opposition to Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, the one foreign policy issue enjoying bipartisan consensus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used AIPAC’s annual conference to attack her, unleashing the formidable clout of the US pro-Israeli media industry.

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

The tweet detonated a firestorm of vindictive rage and self-righteous condemnation. The range of supporters who came to Ms. Omar’s defence, including a delegation of Jewish rabbis, received considerably less coverage. Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan speculated that “she, perhaps naively, thought she was highlighting a powerful and reactionary lobby group, no different to the NRA.”

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

At the time when Ilhan Omar was being placed on the rack, Trump avoided being sucked into the anti-Semitism maelstrom. He was given a pass despite his flagrant stereotyping of ethnic minorities, including a history of insulting Jews. Private citizen Trump is on record for saying only “short guys that wear yarmulkes” should count his money—itself a dig at the black accountants working for his organisation. He used to keep a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table. After he became president, as the author of an article differentiating anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism reported, Trump invited Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress (who is on record for saying Jews are going to hell for not accepting Jesus) to lead a prayer at the ceremony inaugurating the US embassy in Jerusalem. The “good people” marching with Charlottesville Neo-Nazis he defended were chanting, among other things, anti-Jewish slogans.

In 2016 Trump tweeted a “Crooked Hilary” campaign ad showing Clinton next to a Star of David superimposed against a background of 100 dollar “Benjamins”. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grandmaster of the recent Spike Lee BlacKKKlansman fame, completed the circle by congratulating her: “Ilhan Omar is now the most important member of the House of Representatives”.

Instead of interrogating the long tradition of hate resurfacing in the recent series of anti-Semitic violence across the US and Europe, the Ilhan Omar news cycle provided a timely gift for the Trump White House that diverted attention from Jared Kushner’s controversial security clearance, reports of the ballooning 51-billion-dollar trade deficit, and the farcical Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi.

The House Democrats’ motion to condemn crimes of hate in its diverse forms passed with only four dissenting Republican votes. The March 15 attack by a Trump-inspired white extremist on the mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand provided the counterpoint that placed the debate in its proper perspective.

The dual loyalty contradiction

Ilhan Omar was already a marked woman who has had to fend off attacks from conservative media outlets since she ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. The controversy provided a fresh entry point for recycling the kind of vicious allegations the fake news industry has raised to a commercialised art form. She vented on the hypocrisy of her critics in a robust response delivered at an informal gathering in Washington. This an abridged excerpt of what she said:

“We know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats. I have people driving around my district looking for my home, for my office, causing me harm. I have people every single day on Fox News and everywhere, posting that I am a threat to this country. So I know what fear looks like. The masjid I pray in in Minnesota got bombed by domestic white terrorists. So I know what it feels to be someone who is of faith that is vilified. I know what it means to be someone whose ethnicity is vilified. I know what it feels to be of a race—like I am an immigrant, so I don’t have the historical drama that some of my black sisters and brothers have in this country, but I know what it means for people to just see me as a black person, and to treat me as less than a human. And so, when people say, ‘you are bringing hate’, I know what their intention is. Their intention is to make sure that our lights are dimmed…What people are afraid of is that there are two Muslims in Congress that have their eyes wide open, that have their feet to the ground, that know what they’re talking about, that are fearless, and that understand that they have the same election certificate as everyone else in Congress.” 

Instead of setting the record straight, a semantic stumble re-energised the backlash:

“So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy.”

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above. He curbed his presidential ambitions and instead devoted his resources and political influence to position his sons to break the myth of American Catholics’ loyalty to the Vatican. John F. Kennedy cleared the way for Catholics and Irish Americans to vie for the highest political office.

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above.

Despite the inroads made by African, Muslim, and other ethnic candidates vying for elected offices—including Bernie Sanders’s challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination—the dual loyalty question never went away as a convenient prism for challenging the patriotism of minority communities. For American Muslims, the problem of Western Muslim radicalisation has recast the dual loyalty issue in stark terms. During the Republican primaries, Ben Carson openly stated that a Muslim should never become president of the United States.

According to American intelligence sources, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters joined ISIS’s ranks, about 3,400 of them from Western nations. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee placed the statistic in perspective. He reported that “upwards of 200 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict”. The Nazi’s Bund operated openly in the US during the run-up to World War II without generating a significant backlash against German Americans, even while the U-boats were sinking hundreds of American vessels. Japanese-Americans, in contrast, were interred in camps after Pearl Harbor.

The integration process in the United States has evolved since these events, as Ilhan Omar’s and the election of less prominent ethnic candidates to local offices indicate. But her “foreign allegiance” reference triggered an avalanche of alt-right and pro-Israel reactions focusing on her own political connections to Somalia and Islam.

PJ Media challenged Omar’s automatic security clearance by citing her activism within the Somali community. It focused on a meeting with Somalia’s then presidential candidate, Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, referring to his subsequent victory as “one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history”. It alleged that the meeting led to Ilhan Omar’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Keynan, being appointed to a high-level position in the Somali government.

Another website stated that her allegiance to the Qu’ran outweighs any allegiance she may have claimed to make to the US constitution.  A petition launched to remove her from office claimed that the “Qur’an appears to legalise hatred of specific people groups.” Anti-Israeli views gathered from ethnic Somalis serving in Minnesota jails backed up their claims while reinforcing the accusations of Omar’s Islamist affiliations repeated in Saudi and Israeli press attacks during her campaign.

In an insightful analysis of citizenship, Stephen Njuguna pointed out that most Africans are dual nationals by birth. He used Kenya’s post-multiparty political violence to illustrate how allegiance to community can undermine a citizen’s obligations to the nation.

For Somalia – now a nation no longer tethered to a contiguous territory or physical boundaries – its diaspora citizenship combines sanctuary from the event horizon of clan politics, while supporting many unique opportunities. For example, a Somali friend of mine is an Australian-Bimaal dual citizen. He ran a business from Kenya, was appointed to serve as liaison to the diaspora by the first transitional federal government in Somalia, and assisted the Australian navy with critical intelligence on the western Indian Ocean piracy epidemic.

The Red Sea region is now an important arena for a new Great Game drawing in a complicated array of great and second-tier powers. The Somali government facilitates American military operations in one of the Forever War’s most turbulent theatres. Djibouti is the base for AFRICOM (US Africa Command) operations across the continent. Both Farmajo and Keynan are American citizens; many other diaspora elites have held high political offices in the succession of post-collapse Somalia governments.

My guess is that Western intelligence mandarins for the most part view such dual nationals as insider assets – a long-term soft power advantage not available to the likes of Xi JinPing and Vladimir Putin – not a dual loyalty threat.

American Jews became the most successful exemplar of minority success in the US by turning the Israel dual loyalty issue into a proxy for national security. On the other hand, Omar’s relationship with Somali leaders reinforces her anti-Islamist credentials.

But at this juncture, there is nothing to be gained and much to lose from her pre-congressional links to the Somalia homeland. As one contributor on a Somali blog stated, “If I was her I would stay out of Somali politics. You don’t want to alienate US Somali voters and people back in Somalia don’t care about her or her endorsement.”

The 2020 reckoning

 The upside-down methods and polarising narratives that date back to the culture wars of the Ronald Reagan era now fuel the alt-right’s dumbed-down clash of civilisations algorithm. Their media warriors manipulate the dual loyalty issue to promote America’s own tribal rebellion.

PJ Media is the country’s ninth most conservative website, and the Omar-Farmajo story spawned comments associating Democratic voters in Minnesota with the “enemy”: “The simple-minded Left-wing voters are just as much an enemy as any Jihadi, but they are too stupid to figure out how much damage they are doing to this country.” Another commenter said the problem would persist until the coming civil war sorts things out.

These words function as a thinly-veiled call for action, like the August 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minneapolis by three members the White Rabbits militia. Donald Trump’s threatening reference to his own simple-minded supporters endorsed these sentiments: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Around the same time, the few hundred MAGA-hatted protestors gathered at the March 23 event in Los Angeles where Omar was giving a speech signaled the passing of this particular storm. These kind of warnings nevertheless raise the stakes for the potentially “transformative freshman class” in the much more challenging battles now taking form. Nate Silver and his data-driven 548 crowd estimated that Donald Trump would stand a 50-50 chance of being re-elected if the national elections were to be held now.

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Omar’s freshman colleague from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reset the climate change debate by tabling her comprehensive Green Plan that featured policy positions that demanded a sober response. Although a number of Democrats dismissed the document as unfeasible, the Plan moved the discussion forward and expanded the space it occupies.

Ilhan Omar would do well to use a similar comprehensive policy agenda to connect the dots between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s failed war in Yemen and Trump’s callous abandonment of the Kurds (the real warriors who defeated ISIS). She should cultivate bipartisan support for causes, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of the Chinese re-education camps in Xinxiang and made-to-order issues like the horrors visited on Africans trafficked through Libya. Above all, she needs to retake control of her narrative.

Israel was not the ideal subject for a maiden foray into foreign policy, however inadvertent. In any case, the country that now ranked fourth among the world’s most unpopular governments has its own long-term security dilemmas, as highlighted by the in-house critique authored by the University of Jerusalem professor, Martin von Creveld.

On the other side of the divide, the emergent Muslim female leadership personified by Omar and Tlaib and many other less recognised advocates elsewhere may over time invert Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations focus on the disruptive impact of the young Muslim male demographic.

There are, however, more immediate concerns at this moment. The two outspoken female representatives are popular in their constituencies but not so much elsewhere. Positive poll ratings at the national level for the articulate Alexandria’s Ocasio-Cortez hover around 25 per cent, disapproval slightly higher, and her Democratic socialist colleagues are probably lower after the recent cat fight.  Their rock star status and the aggressive positioning accompanying the new representatives’ high profile entrance has created frictions among the Democratic Party’s rank and file politicians who grind out the results. Their fascinating but too large field of presidential candidates is a potential damper on voter turnout, and Donald Trump is riding the crest of a vibrant economy that has seen real worker income rise for the first time in a decade.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation trap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community.

The shit storm over the Benjamins was a timely warning puncturing the euphoria over the new Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is already using their agenda as a campaign wedge. Instead of worst nightmare, Ilhan Omar is exactly the kind of prop Trump exploits to mobilise support.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation gap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community. When Rashida Mtlaib uttered her “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker” statement, one blogger backed the American Muslims who criticised her because “when you are a minority, people judge you not as an individual but as the group you belong to”.

She responded to this scenario by declaring: “There is an interest in putting us in the box of constantly defending our identities and I am not interested in being in that box. I am interested in defending my ideas and not my identity.” Ayaan Hersi created a political niche for Muslim women by blowing up the box. Ilhan Omar faces a more difficult escape route. But focusing on what she does well, supporting working class social issues, and turning out the vote, she increased voter participation by 37 per cent in her district – a good place to start.

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