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

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

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

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.

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The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror

15 min read. IBRAHIM MAGARA argues that instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, the Kenyan state has adopted counterterrorism approaches and strategies that are deeply divisive and historically and contextually insensitive.

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The ‘Othering’ of Somalis and How This Impacts Kenya’s War on Terror
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Since September 11, 2001, the war on terror and associated programmes, such a countering violent extremism (CVE), have been a major focus of attention among experts drawn from a multiplicity of sectors and disciplines. The “war on terror” has been an evolving yet controversial realm of academic inquiry and policy discourse whose implementation is characterised by controversial conceptual contours and dramatic practical turns, with important challenges both in the United States (its origins) and abroad. It is a war that remains as elusive in actuality as it is contested as a concept.

So far one cannot confidently point at any known example of a society that has waged and won this war and indeed there is scepticism as to whether any will for the simple reason that that the said war is unconventional. Perhaps the best known way to win the war on terror is not to start one. But Kenya has, over the years, positioned itself as an unswerving ally of the West, particularly the US, in this war and as such the country is already deeply engaged in one.

This then raises the question about what we know about better ways, if any, of going about the war on terror and CVE. A lot of commentators on this subject have consistently argued for the need to focus on “winning hearts and minds”, particularly of members of the affected society – the so-called “at risk” groups – as a better approach to CVE programmes and addressing the menace of terrorism broadly understood. This entails, among others, the ability to create and diligently transact on a counter-narrative to sentiments of violent extremism with the aim of winning the confidence of the most affected communities in view of (i) dissuading those already engaged in this barbarism; (ii) reducing and hopefully eventually eliminating new recruitments and; (iii) recruiting and deploying the concerned and/or “at risk” community as an ally in the fight against the vice.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned. However, I argue that there is a little problem here given the fact that the Kenyan state and the Somali community have historically not enjoyed good relations, hence raising the question about how such antagonism negatively impacts Kenya’s CVE programmes and its approach to the war on terror in general.

The cost of terror

Having suffered numerous attacks, stretching from the 7 August 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi by elements linked to Al Qaeda to this year’s attack on the dusitD2 hotel complex in upmarket Nairobi, Kenya has undoubtedly paid a huge price with regard to terrorism, just as it has had its share of challenges related to CVE. Even as the country marks the 21st anniversary of the 1998 bombing that claimed over 200 lives, the risk of terror lurks, its smell lingers with its dangers obviously palpable as are its scars.

In the case of Kenya, and following the said logic, therefore, the Kenyan Somali community, given its strong national and cultural ties with Somalia (the base of Al Shabaab), is a major player which must be constructively and meaningfully engaged if the country is to make any significant gains in as far as the so-called war on terror and CVE programmes are concerned.

The impact of Al Shabaab’s reinvention and sophistication was first felt in Kenya and indeed the world during the Westgate mall attack on 21 September 2013 that left 68 dead and more than 200 wounded. Before this incident, Al Shabaab was associated with arguably low-level attacks, such as hurling grenades and/or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at groups of people in public spaces, such as churches, mosques, markets and bus stops, coupled with incidents of hijackings and kidnappings, especially in the north-eastern and coastal regions of the country.

After Westgate, two other complex attacks have been executed by Al Shabaab that not only led to loss of life, but also caused untold pain to Kenya and Kenyans. These were the Garissa University attack on April 2, 2015 in which 147 people, most of them students, were killed and the dusitD2 hotel complex attack on 15 January this year that left 21 dead. Such attacks have raised questions about Kenya’s preparedness, its ability to deter such attacks and/or deal with them, and most importantly, whether there are assurances of non-recurrence.

The number of Kenyans who have since died as a result of Al Shabaab attacks is certainly staggering. While this is the case, the Kenyan government has arguably not put in place measures to ensure and assure its public and the world that such horrifying attacks will not happen again. Furthermore, the number and frequency of low-level attacks, especially targeting security personnel in the north-eastern region, is worrisome. Even more disturbing is what I call the “kawaidaness” (near normalisation) with which a section of Kenyan society is increasingly greeting the news of the latter kind of attacks.

It is no secret that Al Shabaab still remains a huge threat to Kenya and the region. The terror group appears to have been able to manipulate religion and other historical dynamics, such as Kenya’s troubled internal divisions and worsening political and economic fragmentation along regional and ethnic lines, to further its cause, making it a resilient monster and most importantly an enemy from within whose rise can be seen, in part, as a direct result of the Kenyan state’s (in collaboration with foreign allies) approach to CVE and the war on terror.

The problematic framing of CVE

Following the recent wave of white supremacist attacks in the US, some minority groups, particularly Muslims, including those from Somalia, have continued to express their displeasure with the profiling that is associated with the US’s CVE programmes. Such programmes have been criticised as being vehicles for profiling and criminalising Muslims and other marginalised communities. Similar programmes in the UK under “Prevent” among others, requires all public workers (for example, every public school teacher) to report on radicalisation, solidifying what can be seen as a new channel of “the school-to-prison pipeline” largely affecting immigrants, especially from countries that are predominantly Muslim and Arab.

These kinds of skewed CVE and war on terror programmes and approaches are certainly deeply problematic since they not only create resentment but also provide a clear path through which the targeted communities’ vulnerability to violent radicalisation may actually increase, hence ultimately becoming counter-productive. These kinds of programmes, disguised as security measures, are not by any means new in the world. For example, in the US, there has been the so-called Black Identity Extremist (BIE) programme that has historically been used by the FBI to portray black activists as terrorists and a violent threat to law enforcement, thus creating a dangerous nexus of CVE and BIE with black Muslims as the target of close monitoring and containment.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence. As such CVE programmes are not only ineffective but actually possible avenues of breeding and exacerbating different types and levels of violence, including what is conceived as violent extremism, radicalisation and terrorism in many jurisdictions, including both in the global North and the global South, including Kenya.

Another problem that is closely related to these constructs and approaches is the “othering” associated with how the states in question decide who is “at risk” or who are the “concerned communities”. For example, looking at one of the CVE programmes in Boston, it is interesting to note that it outlines and documents social and economic trauma faced by the Somali community. Then it proceeds to lay out as one of the key solutions to such a social problem the establishment of opportunities and platforms through which the local police spend time with Somali youth aged between 13 and 17 years. It becomes difficult to ascertain if and how this is less humiliating and insulting than other programmes that, for instance, target similar sections of society with mental health support. This is for the simple reason that such programming has already judged and, in most cases, condemned, albeit covertly, a certain group of people as being dangerous, hence in need of help; otherwise they are terrorists, at least in potency.

Some commentators have argued that BIE, Prevent and similar CVE programmes, particularly in the West, are never designed to counter-violence. On the contrary, they are directed at suppressing dissent from marginalised communities, hence their focus is on individual acts rather than the systemic roots of violence.

In short, what runs across such conceptions and praxis is a thoroughgoing governmentality with a long history of criminalisation of marginalised communities, which unfortunately is not an answer to violence but a tool to constantly exclude and then justify the suppression of official state-sanctioned oppression on the grounds of those groups being potential producers of insecurity and/or disruptors of peace and harmony. This is exactly what is happening in Kenya with the securitisation and militarisation of the Somali territories operating within a complex context of historical marginalisation based on contested Somali identity.

The history of the problem

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence. This is, however, changing significantly, given the Somalis’ current ventures into and gains from business and trade.

Somalis have equally been victims of state-led violence of atrocious nature committed across the years, including during the irredentist Shifta War and a number of massacres, such as the Wagalla and Garissa massacres, which collectively saw the killing of over 8,000 Somalis

Somali territories have historically remained highly securitised and militarised. It only takes a road trip from Garissa – just across the Tana River – to Mandera and you will easily appreciate this fact. I recall that during my frequent travels to the region between 2016 and 2018, my driver often jokingly said that “sasa tumevuka mpaka wa Kenya” once we crossed the security check, which is curiously right on top of the Garissa Bridge.

As pastoralists scattered across the vast “wastelands” in the north-eastern part of Kenya, Somalis have historically largely survived in immense isolation, often under deplorable social and economic conditions away from the public domain and far from the centre, neither contributing much to national development nor sufficiently benefitting from economic and political gains that the country has been making since independence.

There are numerous accounts by experts tracing the history of the rise of Somali nationalism in the 1950-60s, the subsequent Kenya-Somalia border controversy and the associated cessation ideology and Shifta War. The systematic historical and contemporaneous alienation of the Somalis is traceable to the rise of Somali nationalism beginning towards the end of the 19th century into early 20th century. This was around the time of the advent of European colonisation and the partitioning of Somali-inhabited territories between Western powers.

The partitioning of the Somali nation between the British, the French, the Italians, and the Ethiopians was a critical moment in the political history of Somalis in the Horn of Africa. The permanent fragmentation of the Somali key grazing areas, which occurred when the British handed over the Somali-dominated, and still contested, Ogaden in 1948 and Hawd areas in 1954 to Ethiopians, was to follow. This set in motion not only one of the most disputed border areas in the Horn of Africa that renewed Somali resistance regionally, but also lay the foundation for Somalis’ later notions of “ambiguous citizenship in Kenya

The years leading to independence for both Somalia and Kenya were epitomised by intensified Somali political disturbances, which were repeatedly echoed in various means. The growth of nationalistic ideology led to the establishment of political parties, such as the Somaliland National League (SNL) and the Somali Youth League (SYL), with goals of furthering Somali nationalism

The quest for Somali unity does not fall too far from Al Shabaab’s dubious claims to unite the Somali people, especially the youth, and guard them against external (particularly Western) corruption, which resonates well with ideologies of Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in the Middle East.

We should not forget that before undergoing the two dramatic transformations that have led to the lethal terror group that Al Shabaab has become, the group was originally a youth militia associated with the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that rose to power in Somalia in early 2006 with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Somalia.

Perhaps the only nuance in the historical clamour for a Pan-Somali ideology is an emphasis on the need for the said Greater Somalia to be an Islamic state, which was always a factor anyway, although it was not as heavily pronounced back then as it has been in recent years. It is an ideology that Al Shabaab has continued to exploit and package in religious propaganda in furtherance of its terror activities. To this end, I think, we cannot dissociate the historical clamour for Somali unity with Kenya’s current challenges with the war on terror for the simple reason that the search for an all-inclusive Somali state was an unwelcome idea for the Kenyan authorities and had to be quashed at all costs and by adoption of all means, as was witnessed during the Shifta War.

The Kenya-Somalia border dispute was one of the earliest post-colonial border controversies and one that presented unprecedented challenges for the newly independent state, with Kenya adopting a militaristic pacification approach to quash the ideology. Revisiting such history is important, especially at a time when Kenya is again locked in an escalating territorial dispute with Somalia

While Somali leaders believed in the unity of the Somali people irrespective of the flags under which they lived, the Kenyan leadership, on the other hand, perceived the demands by the Somali population as an outright act of aggression on its territorial integrity. However, this is not a creation of the governments of independent Kenya since, in many significant ways, the strained relations between the Kenyan state and the Somali community is an inheritance from the colonial state’s blunders, including a referendum held in 1962 in the Northern Frontier District (NFD) regarding the political future of the inhabitants of the area, whose results the colonial government did not follow through, particularly due to opposition by Kenyan leaders who were serving in the colonial government, notably Jomo Kenyatta and Ronald Ngala

Expectedly, under Kenyatta, who had argued that no inch of Kenyan territory should cede, the newly-established post-colonial Kenyan state threw a cordon sanitaire around Somali territories of the country the same way the colonial government did. This meant that social, economic, cultural, and political activities of Somalis were seriously curtailed and human rights abuses against them intensified, marking the beginning of a bitter resistance (the Shifta War) whose consequences were historically disastrous and whose scars, particularly among the Somalis populations, remain to date. This became a major turning point in the “othering” of Somalis in Kenya, with far-reaching implications, especially as regards current CVE and war on terror. 

The othering of Kenyan Somalis

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate. It takes a simple observation of the patterns of the Somali lifestyle in urban set-ups like Nairobi to determine that they indeed live in same and specific locations, do business in specific spaces etc.

The historical disavowal of Kenya’s Somalis is based on several fetishes of differences relating to their language, culture and religion, but also with its own poetics, deeply invested in power as a product of discursive and hegemonic practices well theorised in mainstream discourse analyses. Under colonial rule, Somalis were stereotyped as “hostile”, “warlike” or “warriors”, concepts that the Kenyan government and the non-Somali Kenyan public seem to have easily accepted without question; they are assumed and adopted as true representations of Somali identity. This has come with a huge cost, as experienced through the so-called “violence of decolonisation” and indeed current struggle with homegrown extremist violence, which the majority of the Somali youth are perceived as highly exposed to.

The othering of the Somali community in Kenya is perhaps one of the single most important factors fanning the historical marginalisation and current identity contestation. This othering is characterised by stereotyping, with symbolically fixed boundaries including popular narratives about the Somali community’s inability to integrate.

The lack of integration of the Somali community and lack of interaction between them and the non-Somali populations in Kenya exist in and furthers relations of mutual suspicion. But since the government is seen as controlled by the non-Somali communities, the Somalis are simply victims of asymmetric relations in which they are viewed by the rest as troublesome. It takes a little attentiveness to the public mood and you will tell that such sentiments are heavily pronounced every time there is a terror attack. In such times, suspicion of the Somalis seems to surge and a lot of ordinary non-Somali Kenyans create a narrative that is openly aggressive to Somalis but somehow, with the help of the posture and conduct of the state, such aggressiveness is normalised.

It reminds me of an incident in 2015 after the Garissa attack when I attended a function in Nairobi in the company of a Somali driver who was wearing a kanzu. At some point after midday, he wanted to go for prayers in a mosque across the road and so he came to where I was to inform me about it. As he walked away, someone remarked, albeit jokingly, if “we were safe”, a statement that I found offensive, not only to my colleague but to Somalis and any reasonable person really. Of course, I raised my concern over the same, to which the said person casually apologised. This was especially annoying given the stature of the person in question and the nature of the event. It goes to show that as a society there is a prevalent perception about Somalis that we have been reluctant to interrogate in relation to the bigger discourse on terrorism.

The othering narrative discursively accentuates the distorted imagery of the Somalis as “warlike” or as the “enemy of the Kenyan state” and even birthed the derogatorily yet normalised stereotype of “wariah”, which is a rather unconscious continuation of the colonial representation of their identity as “warriors” by the public. This stereotype of Somalis has undoubtedly influenced the Kenyan government’s perceptions and handling of the Somalis but also positions the wider public against the Somali community.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”. Such images, real or imaginary, have continued to influence the Kenyan authorities’ behaviour towards the Somalis, leading to gross violations of human rights, for instance as was witnessed during Operation Usalama Watch that followed the Westgate attack. The historical othering was discursively articulated by portraying the Somali quest for independence as “secessionist” and its people as being anti the Kenyan state.

It is simply the nuanced formulation of such configuration that justifies the current narrative that associates Somalis with terrorism, or at least as sympethisers of Al Shabaab, and hence collectively perceived and dealt with as a threat to national security. Regardless of the political rhetoric of unity, the actions of the government and the mood of the general public regarding the place of Somalis in the wider scheme of CVE and the war on terror are that the community is a “problem to be fixed” – the same logic employed by the CVE programmes in the West, particularly in the US and the UK.

The relationship of antagonism between the state and the Somali community causes anxiety and uncertainty, especially at this critical moment when the state desperately needs genuine input from the Somali community if its CVE programme and the wider war on terror is to “succeed”. While there is a need for a sense of national unity and pride (patriotism) in the campaign against terrorism and extremist violence, the Somali othering obstinately negates the sense of that value by revealing the ambivalences of the Kenyan state as a stable unified entity, which creates fault lines that continue to be exploited to the advantage of terrorists, particularly Al Shabaab.

It should not be lost on us that by the time the NFD was handed over to the post-independent Kenyan government, stereotypes of “warlike” Somalis contributed to the beginning of anti-Somali sentiments, with an emergence of more derogatory repertoires mutating and normalised over time, ranging from “shiftas”, “wariah”, “bandits’,jangili”, “Al Shabab”, “Al Shabaab sympathisers”, and most recently, “cash points”.

Furthermore, this othering continues to be reinvented and redeployed as a tool for Kenya’s own precarious constitution as a “nation” but also as a justification for the perceived Somali revolt against their own country, including their indifference to the war on terror and government’s CVE programmes.

Which way now for CVE and war on terror?

Now that Kenya is already deep in the problematic war on terror, it is imperative to keep up the tempo of counterterrorism operations in order to eliminate threats and degrade the capabilities of militants, particularly Al Shabaab. Indeed, nothing can justify terrorism and violent extremism, but we must also acknowledge that they do not arise in a vacuum. As the United Nations Secretary-General (UN-SG) rightly notes, “actual or perceived injustice and promised empowerment become attractive wherever human rights are being violated, good governance is being ignored and aspirations are being crushed.” He particularly singles out state violence and abuse of power as “tipping point” for terror.

If the Kenyan state is to make and/or consolidate its gains, if any, on the war on terror, it must deeply reflect on its positionality in regard to the conception and approaches that it has since adopted and experimented on. This includes, but is not limited to, a genuine appraisal of how the state’s perception and handling of the Somali community undermine the country’s own efforts against extremist violence.

To address any type of violence, society must focus on the structures that disadvantage certain groups, including historically marginalised communities – not just obvious physical violence, but also structural violence, such as that related to and sustained by inequities. This is for the simple reason that violence, including terrorism, emerges and survives in environments of identity contestation, hence ultimately insurgencies are best defeated by political legitimacy.

In its attempts to tackle the drivers and enablers of extreme violence, Kenya needs to open a political conversation on the county’s painful history and create a platform through which to forge a future that promises opportunities for all its people. This is one of the pathways to enacting in its people the sense of patriotism and national unity that are vital ingredients in the struggle against insurgency and the ever-changing terrain of security challenges. This calls for re-imagination of ingenious and pragmatic approaches in forging solidarity in addressing the pressing security concerns of our time.

Unfortunately, instead of exploring opportunities to heal wounds, as suggested by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), and mending ties in pursuit of the national interest, specifically national security, it appears that the war on terror and approaches to CVE that the Kenyan state continues to adopt are deeply Western and historically and contextually insensitive. Hence they actually contribute to reproducing and deepening antagonism between the state and a section of its own society, thereby significantly undermining the former’s security objectives.

One then wonders if and how Kenya’s current CVE programme and counterterrorism strategies, tilted to Western framings and laden with American bias, will succeed. It certainly is a problematic issue area, especially when the CVE within the purview of the war on terror is perceived as nothing other than a violent return of the colonial past, with its split geographies of “us” and “them”; “civilization” and “barbarism”; and “good” and “evil”.

Without any intention whatsoever to validate such grave claims and conspiracies, one would want to seriously consider the implication of certain narratives that are prevalent in Kenyan society, especially during and around terror attacks. Issues, such as claims of Al Shabaab discrimination during attacks and/or conspiracy theories such as that there was word among Somalis about the impending attack at the Garissa University College, calls on experts to reflect deeply on such matters and place them in their historical-political context as they wrestle with the process of meaning-making of Kenya’s prospects as far as the war on terror is concerned and the positionality of the Somali community in these complex dynamics.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa

8 min read. The recent Afrophobic attacks in South Africa are symptoms of a deeper problem that has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

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Xenophobia in South Africa: A Consequence of the Unfinished Business of Decolonisation in Africa
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South Africa has consistently experienced cyclical xenophobic flaring that has dented its image in Africa and in the world. The country continues to receive a high number of both documented and undocumented migrants as it has become a top destination in South-to- South migration. Beyond its geographical proximity to other African states, the current migration patterns have to be understood as a consequence of history and as such the xenophobic flaring has to be read as an unfinished business of decolonisation in Africa.

History created two processes that shaped Africa’s politics and economies, even up to today, creating a complex conundrum for our policy makers. Firstly, the Berlin conference created artificial borders and nations that remain problematic today. These borders were not fashioned to address the political and economic interests of Africans but the imperial powers of Europe. Institutions and infrastructure were created to service the imperial interests, and this remains the status quo despite more than four decades of independence in Africa. Secondly, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of “Cape to Cairo” became the basis upon which the modern economy was built in Africa. This created what the late Malawian political economist, Guy Mhone, called an enclave economy of prosperity amidst poverty, and resultantly created what Mahmood Mamdani termed the bifurcated state, with citizens and subjects.

A closer look at the African state’s formation history provides insights on the continuities of colonial institutions and continuous marginalisation of Africans as the state was never fashioned to address their political and economic interests from the beginning.

Drawing on classical African political economists, this article argues that, unknowingly, the South African government and in particular, the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, a former liberation movement, have fallen into the trap of the logic of the underlying colonial epistemologies informing migration debates in Africa. The Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

In his essay “In Defence of History”, Professor Hobsbawm challenges us to read history in its totality:

However, the new perspectives on history should also return us to that essential, if never quite realisable, objective of those who study the past: “total history”. Not a “history of everything”, but history as an indivisible web in which all human activities are interconnected.

It is when we read history in its totality that we are able to make connections about the relations between the past, present and future. Looked at closely, the current xeno/Afro-phobia insurrections engulfing South Africa have to be read within the totality of history. Therefore, this piece argues that the xeno/Afro-phobia flarings that have been gripping South Africa ever since 2008, and which have cast South Africa it in bad light within the African continent, are contrary to the ethos of Pan-Africanism and are largely a product of the history of the scramble and partition of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

By the beginning of the 1870s, European nations were in search of natural resources to grow their industries and at the same expand markets for their products. This prompted strong conflict amongst European superpowers and in late 1884, Otto von Bismarck, the then German Chancellor, called for a meeting in Berlin of various representatives of European nations. The objective was to agree on “common policy for colonisation and trade in Africa and the drawing of colonial state boundaries in the official partition of Africa”.

The xenophobic/Afrophobic attacks in South Africa fly in the face of Africa’s founding fathers, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Machel, Kaunda and Mandela, and of the African Union’s dream of a borderless African economy and society.

At the end of the Berlin Conference, the “European powers had neatly divided Africa up amongst themselves, drawing the boundaries of Africa much as we know them today”. It was at this conference that European superpowers set in motion a process that set boundaries that have continued to shape present-day Africa. Remember that there was no King Shaka, Lobengula, Munhumutapa, Queen Nzinga, Emperor Haile Selassie, Litunga of Barotseland among many other rulers of Africa at this conference. There was Otto von Bismarck, King Leopold II and their fellow European rulers who sat down and determined borders governing Africa today.

This is the epistemological base upon which current “othering” within citizenship and migration policies are hinged. This colonial legacy has its roots in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where major European powers partitioned Africa amongst themselves and formalised it with the current borders that have largely remained intact and the basis of the modern state in post-colonial Africa. Therefore, policies on identity, citizenship and migration in Africa have been largely informed by modern nation-state forms of territoriality drawn from remnants of colonial policies. These have tended to favour the elites and modernised (privileged, intelligentsia, government officials and business) at the expense of the underclass in Africa, who form the majority.

Most of the institutions and policies characterising the post-colonial African state are bequeathed by legacies of colonialism, hence the need for African states to listen to the wisdom of Samir Amin and “delink from the past” or bridge Thabo Mbeki’s “two nations” thesis and create a decolonised Africa where Africans will be no strangers.

Africa’s citizenship and migration policies remain unreformed and informed by colonial epistemology and logics. The partitioning of Africa into various territories for European powers at the Berlin Conference means most of the present-day nation-states and boundaries in Africa are a product of the resultant imperialist agreement. The boundaries were an outside imposition and split many communities with linguistic, cultural and economic ties together. The nation-state in Africa became subjugated by colonial powers (exogenous forces) rather than natural processes of endogenous force contestations and nation-state formation, as was the case with Europe.

Stoking the flames

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference. Africa’s poor or the underclass are the most affected, as these xeno-insurrections manifest physically and violently amongst poor communities. Among elite communities, it manifests mostly in subtle psychological forms.

South African leaders continue to be oblivious to the crisis at hand and fail to understand that the solution to the economic crisis and depravity facing the South African citizenry can’t easily be addressed by kicking out foreigners. In 2014, prominent Zulu King Goodwill Zwelthini had this to say and the whole country was caught up in flames:

Most government leaders do not want to speak out on this matter because they are scared of losing votes. As the king of the Zulu nation, I cannot tolerate a situation where we are being led by leaders with no views whatsoever…We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries…The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.

After a public outrage he claimed to have been misquoted and the South African Human Rights Council became complicit when it absolved him.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…” Not to be outdone, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been on the blaze, blaming foreigners for the rise in crime and overcrowded service delivery.

On the other hand, Minister Bheki Cele continues to be in denial as he adamantly characterises the current attack on foreigners as acts of criminality and not xenophobia. Almost across the political divide there is consensus that foreigners are a problem in South Africa. However, the exception has been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that has been steadfastly condemning the black-on-black attacks and has characterised them as self-hate.

Whither the Pan-African dream?

In his founding speech for Ghana’s independence, Kwame Nkrumah said, “We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa; for our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

This speech by President Nkrumah set the basis upon which Ghana and some of the other independent African states sought to ensure the liberation of colonised African states. They never considered themselves free until other Africans were freed from colonialism and apartheid. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere had this to say:

I reject the glorification of the nation-state [that] we inherited from colonialism, and the artificial nations we are trying to forge from that inheritance. We are all Africans trying very hard to be Ghanaians or Tanzanians. Fortunately for Africa, we have not been completely successful. The outside world hardly recognises our Ghanaian-ness or Tanzanian-ness. What the outside world recognises about us is our African-ness.

It is against this background that countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa benefitted from the solidarity of their African brothers as they waged wars of liberation. Umkhonto weSizwe, the African National Congress’ armed wing, fought alongside the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army to dislodge white supremacist in Southern Rhodesia. And Nigeria set up the Southern Africa Relief Fund that raised $10 million that benefitted South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. The African National Congress was housed in neighbouring African countries, the so-called frontline states of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Tanzania. In some cases, these countries had to endure bombings and raids by the apartheid regime.

African communities are burning from Afrophobia/xenophobia, and at times this is sparked by Africa’s elites who make reckless statements based on the logics of the Berlin Conference.

The attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly African and black by black South Africans and the denial by South African government officials that the attacks are not xenophobic but criminal are attempts to duck a glaring problem that needs urgent attention. It is this denialism from authorities that casts aspersions on the Pan-African dream of a One Africa.

Glimmers of hope

All hope is not lost, as there are still voices of reason in South Africa that understand that the problem is a complex and economic one. The EFF has also managed to show deep understanding that the problem of depravity and underdevelopment of Black South Africans is not caused by fellow Africans but by the skewed economic system. Its leader, Julius Malema, tweeted amidst the flaring of the September 2019 xenophobia storm:

Our anger is directed at wrong people. Like all of us, our African brothers and sisters are selling their cheap labour for survival. The owners of our wealth is white monopoly capital; they are refusing to share it with us and the ruling party #ANC protects them. #OneAfricaIsPossible.

Yet, if policy authorities and South Africa’s elites would dare to revisit the Pan-African dream as articulated by the EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, they may be able to exorcise the Ghosts of Berlin.

Signs of integration are appearing, albeit slowly. East African countries have opened their borders to each other and allow free movement of people without the need for a visa. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has even gone further to allow people from Tanzania and Uganda to work and live in Kenya without the need for a visa. In addition, Rwanda and Tanzania have abolished work permit fees for any national of the East African Community. Slowly, the Ghosts of Berlin are disappearing, but more work still needs to be done to hasten the process. The launch of the African Union passport and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers further hope of dismantling the borders of the Berlin Conference. South African authorities need to look seriously into East Africa and see how they can re-imagine their economy.

Towards the South African 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa also jumped onto the blame-the-foreigner bandwagon by stoking xenophobic flames when he said that “everybody just comes into our country…”

The continuous flow of African migrants into South Africa is no accident but a matter of an economic history question. Blaming the foreigner, who is an easy target, becomes a simple solution to a complex problem, and in this case Amilcar Cabral’s advice “Claim no easy victories” is instructive. There is the need re-imagine a new development paradigm in South Africa and Southern Africa in general to address questions of structural inequalities and underdevelopment, if the tide of migration to Egoli (City of Gold) – read South Africa- is to be tamed. The butchering of Africans without addressing the enclavity of the African economy will remain palliative and temporary. The current modes of development at the Southern African level favour the growth of South African corporates and thus perpetuate the discourse of enclavity, consequently reinforcing colonial and apartheid labour migration patterns.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State

7 min read. After spending several months with gamblers in Kenya, Mario Schmidt finds that many see their activity as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

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Gambling Against the Kenyan State
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In the period from June to August this year Kenyan gamblers were hit by a wave of shocking news. Only a couple of weeks after Henry Rotich, Kenya’s National Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 10% excise duty on any amount staked in betting in order ‘to curtail the negative effects arising from betting activities’, the Kenyan government decided to shut down several betting companies’ virtual mobile money wallet systems because of alleged tax evasion. As a consequence, gamblers could no longer deposit or withdraw any money. This double attack on the blossoming betting industry has a background both in Kenya as well as elsewhere. Centered around the capitalist conundrum to realign the moral value of hard work and the systemic necessity to make profit, states tend to combine moral attacks on gambling (see the case of Uganda) with attempts to raise revenues. The vice of gambling turns into a virtue as soon that it raises revenue for the state.

It is also gambling’s allegedly nasty character which made the term a prime metaphor for the excesses of finance capitalism as well as for the pitiful status of the economies of neoliberal Africa characterized by rampant inequalities. Social scientists, politicians as well as journalists portray financial capitalism as a place where, in the words of George Paul Meiu, ‘gambling-like speculation and entrepreneurialism replace labour’ and the ‘magical allure of making money from nothing’, as Jean and John Comaroff have written, has seized the imagination of a vast majority of the population. Faced with a dazzling amount of wealth showcased by religious, economic and political leaders alike, young and unemployed men increasingly put their hopes on gambling. Trying to imitate what they perceive as a magical shortcut to unimaginable wealth, so the story goes, they become foolish puppets of a global capitalist system that they often know little about and have to face the dire consequences of their foolish behaviour.

After spending several months with gamblers both in rural as well as urban Kenya, I can only conclude that this story fails to portray reality in its complexity (see Schmidt 2019). While it is undeniable that some gamblers attempt to imitate the acquisition of a form of wealth that they perceive as resulting from a quick-to-riches scheme, a considerable number of Kenyan gamblers do not. In contrast, they portray and enact gambling as a legitimate and transparent attempt to make ends meet in an economy that does not offer them any other stable employment or income.

Narratives about betting leading to poverty, suicide and alcoholism neglect the fact that the majority of young Kenyan gamblers had already been poor, stressed and under extreme economic pressure before they started gambling, or, as a friend of mine phrased it succinctly: ‘If I don’t bet, I go to bed without food every second night, if betting does not go well, I might sleep without food two days in a row. Where’s the difference?’ Gambler’s betting activities therefore cannot be analyzed as a result of a miserable economic situation alone. Such a perspective clearly mutes the actors’ own view of their practices. They see betting as a form of work they can engage in without being connected to the national political or economic middle class or elite, i.e. without trying to enter into opaque relationships characterized by inequality. In other words, I interpret gambling as directed against what gamblers perceive as a nepotistic and kleptocratic state capitalism, i.e. an economy in which wealth is not based upon merit but upon social relations and where profit and losses are distributed in a non-transparent way through corruption, inheritance and theft.

Before I substantiate this assumption, let me briefly offer some background information on the boom of sports betting in Kenya which can only be understood if one takes into account the rise of mobile money. The mobile money transfer service Mpesa was introduced in 2007 and has since changed the lives of millions of Kenyans. Accessible with any mobile phone, customers can use it to store and withdraw money from Mpesa agents all over the country, send money to friends and family members as well as pay for goods and services. A whole industry of lending and saving apps and sports betting companies has evolved around this new financial infrastructure. It allows Kenyans to bet on sports events wherever they are located as long as they possess a mobile phone to transfer money to a betting company’s virtual wallet.

Gamblers can either bet on single games or combine bets on different games to increase the potential winning (a so-called ‘multi-bet’). Many, and especially young, male Kenyans, bet regularly. According to a survey I conducted last November around a rural Western Kenyan market centre 55% of the men and 20% of the women have bet in the past or are currently betting with peaks in the age group between 18 and 35. This resonates with a survey done by Geopoll estimating that over 70% of the Kenyan youth place or have placed bets on sport events.

Both journalistic and academic work that understand these activities as irresponsible and addictive had previously primed my perception. Hence, I was surprised by how gamblers frame their betting activities as based upon knowledge and by how they enacted gambling as a domestic, reproductive activity that demands careful planning. They consider betting as a meticulously executed form of work whose attraction partly results from its detachment from and even opposition to Kenyan politics (for example, almost all gamblers avoid betting on Kenyan football games as they believe they are rigged and implicated in local politics). Put differently, the gamblers I interacted with understand their betting activities as directed against a kleptocratic capitalist state whose true nature has been, according to my interlocutors, once more revealed by the proposal to tax gambling in Kenya.

Two of my ethnographic observations can illustrate and substantiate this claim, the first being a result of paying close attention to the ways gamblers speak and the second one a result of observing how they act.

Spending my days with gamblers, I realised that they use words that are borrowed from the sphere of cooking and general well-being when they talk about betting in their mother tongue Dholuo. Chiemo (‘to eat’), keto mach (‘to light the fire’), mach mangima (‘the fire has breath’, i.e. ‘is alive’) and mach omuoch (‘the fire has fought back’) are translations of ‘winning’ (chiemo), ‘placing a multi-bet’ (keto mach), ‘the multi-bet is still valid’ (mach mangima) or ‘the multi-bet has been lost’ (mach omuoch). This interpenetration of two spheres that are kept apart or considered to be mutually exclusive in many descriptions of gambling practices sparked my interest and I began to wonder what these linguistic overlaps mean for a wider understanding of the relation between gambling and the ways in which young, mostly male Kenyans try to make ends meet in their daily lives.

While accompanying a friend of mine on his daily trips to the betting shops of Nairobi’s Central Business District, I realized that the equation between gambling and reproductive work, however, does not remain merely metaphorical.

Daniel Okech, a 25-year-old Master of Business Administration worked on a tight schedule. When he did not have to attend a university class during the mornings which he considered not very promising anyway, he worked through websites that offered detailed statistical data on the current and past performances of football teams and players. These ranged from the English Premier League to the football league of Finland (e.g. the website FootyStats). He engaged in such meticulous scrutiny because he considered the smallest changes in a squad’s line-up or in the odds as potentially offering money-making opportunities to exploit. Following up on future and current games, performances and odds was part of Daniel’s daily work routine which was organized around the schedules of European football leagues and competitions. The rhythm of the European football schedule organized Daniel’s daily, weekly and monthly rhythms as he needed to make sure to have money on the weekends and during the season in order to place further bets.

Even though betting is based upon knowledge, habitual adaptations and skills, it rarely leads to a stable income. With regard to the effects it has, betting appears to be almost as bad as any other job and Daniel does not miscalculate the statistical probabilities of football bets. He knows that multi-bets of fifteen or more rarely go through and that winning such a bet remains extraordinarily improbable. What allows gamblers like Daniel to link betting with ‘work’ and the ‘reproductive sphere’ is not the results it brings forward. Rather, I argue that the equation between the ‘reproductive sphere’ and betting is anchored in the specific structure between cause and effect the latter entails.

What differentiates gambling from other jobs is the gap between the quality of one’s expertise and performance and the expected result. For young men in Nairobi, one could argue, betting on football games is what planting maize is for older women in arid areas of Western Kenya in the era of global climate change: an activity perfected by years of practice and backed up by knowledge, but still highly dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. Just like women know that it will eventually rain, Daniel told me that ‘Ramos [Sergio Ramos, defender from Real Madrid] will get a red card when Real Madrid plays against a good team.’

For young men who see their future devoid of any regular and stable employment betting is not a ‘shortcut’ to a better life, as often criticized by middle-class Kenyans or politicians. It is rather one of the few ways in which they can control the conditions of their type of work and daily work routine while at the same time accepting and to a certain extent even taming the uncontrollability and volatility of the world surrounding them.

Gamblers do not frame their betting activities in analogy with the quick-to-riches schemes they understand to lie behind the suspicious wealth of economic, political and religious leaders. While religious, economic and political ‘big men’ owe their wealth to opaque and unknown causes, gambling practices are based upon a rigid analysis of transparent data and information. By establishing links between their own life and knowledge on the one hand and football games played outside the influence of Kenyan politicians and businessmen on the other, gamblers gain agency in explicit opposition to the Kenyan state and to nepotistic relations they believe to exist between other Kenyans.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that, in the context of the betting companies’ alleged tax evasion, many gamblers have not yet repeated the usual complaints and grievances against companies or individuals that are accused of tax evasion or corruption. While some agree that the betting companies should pay taxes, others claim that due to the corrupt nature of the Kenyan state it would be preferable if the betting companies increase their sponsoring of Kenyan football teams. No matter what an individual gambler’s stance on the accusation of tax evasion, however, in the summer of 2019 all gamblers were eagerly waiting for their virtual wallets to be unlocked so they could continue to bet against the state.

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This article has been co-published between The Elephant and Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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