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Trouble in Paradise: Maize, Succession Politics and Anger in William Ruto’s Kalenjin Backyard

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Amid the apparent chest thumping by the Rift Valley elites, the ethnic Kalenjin base from which Deputy President William Ruto hopes to launch his biggest political project ever, is restless, and now, has been exposed by the emerging turbulent and choppy waters of succession politics. By DAUTI KAHURA

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Trouble in Paradise: Maize, Succession Politics and Anger in William Ruto’s Kalenjin Backyard
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With a spring in his walk, an upright lanky physique, reminiscent of the world famous marathon runners from the idyllic town of Iten, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Paul Kimaiyo Kimuge aka “Sirikwa” looks ageless, making it difficult to estimate his age.

At 77-years-old, Kimuge would easily pass for a 50-something year old man: he has a medium sized body, head full of hair and a beguiling moustache that makes his smile wearily sly. “Since I stopped drinking several years ago, I’ve been on natural honey which I make at my farm,” said Kimuge. “I’m a beekeeper with lots of beehives and harvest honey and I used to make local brew from the honey.”

But, I had not travelled 340km from Nairobi to Iten, 32km east of Eldoret town, to discuss bee keeping with Kimuge, but rather his other major preoccupation, which he has done all his life: maize farming – and the politics surrounding it. “Maize farming in North Rift has been infiltrated by politics and the farmer has found himself trapped in this unfortunate conundrum,” said a calm Kimuge. “He now cannot sell his maize to the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), because the board says its silos are full. And we don’t know from which maize farmers.”

The mzee told me he was a “small time” maize farmer. The maize from his 20 acres in Bogar, seven kilometers from Iten on the road to Kapsowar, was stuck in his barns. “I’ve just come from spraying them so that they are not attacked by stalk borers and maize weevils. I don’t know when the Board will buy my maize, if at all it will.” Kimuge said Bogar cooperative farmers had visited the Board offices in Eldoret town, but no official wanted to talk to them. “They locked themselves inside their offices and pretended to look busy.”

Maize farming in North Rift has been infiltrated by politics and the farmer has found himself trapped in this unfortunate conundrum

I asked Kimuge how is it that now there was a lot of hue and cry from North Rift maize farmers and what precisely was the mystery behind the current maize saga. “Maize has been politicised and has become a weapon to fight the Deputy President William Ruto. I refuse to believe that it is Ruto and his henchmen who are behind this maize ordeal. I’ve heard that talk of blaming Ruto and I’ve decided I’ll not be part of it. It is true we’re suffering, but we are suffering because of the government, not because of one person. Is Ruto in charge of the national maize policy? Is it Ruto who fixes the maize prices?”

Kimuge, a Keiyo, said the story about the alleged maize “importation” by some Kalenjin political elites was inconsequential. It was the work of the government to rein in on the culprits and ensure the farmer sells his maize to NCPB. “The President (Uhuru Kenyatta) recently said the Board will buy our maize at KSh2500, we are waiting to see if it will heed his orders. The truth is, even after the President commanded the Board to buy the maize from us, they are yet to do so. It looks like we are in for a long suffering.”

Kimuge’s views were sharply contradicted by another maize farmer, I spoke to in Kitale, in Trans Nzoia County who identifies as a Marakwet. The farmer, who asked me not to reveal his identity, openly stated that the maize scandal was the alleged handiwork of Ruto and his close associates. “Ruto and Kipchumba Murkomen, the Elgeyo Marakwet Senator purportedly ‘imported maize from Mexico’ but the truth of the matter is that that maize was bought from NCPB and the neighbouring Uganda,” alleged the farmer. “The maize bought from NCPB was later resold to the Board by the DP and his henchmen for a killing. That is why the Board cannot buy anymore maize, because the crux of the matter is, it has nowhere to store any extra maize, because they already have more than enough maize to handle.”

The farmer reminded me how maize used to be stolen at NCPB in the 1990s during the reign of President Moi: “Influential and powerful men linked to the president would hire trucks and drive to NCPB stores. With the collusion of the Ministry of Agriculture and NCPB bosses, they would load the maize into the awaiting trucks. The truck would drive away, only to return to sell the same maize to NCPB.”

The Kitale farmer said this is the reason why embittered farmers at the Senate ad hoc committee on Maize and Agriculture Committee held at the Uasin Gishu Hall in Eldoret town in September 2018, told senator Murkomen to his face, that he and his colleagues were behind the cartel that was bringing grief to the North Rift maize farmer. “Those making us suffer are from our own region. It is not (James) Orengo or (Moses) Wetangula making us suffer. We know them,” said some of the angry farmers, pointing a finger at Murkomen.

A Senate Ad hoc Committee on Maize and Agriculture Committee public hearing on maize issues in Eldoret, 2018. Source: Daily Nation

Jesse Mais, the former MP of Eldoret South, which was split into two constituencies –Kesses and Kapseret –, was among the farmers at the meeting. Mais, who is a large scale farmer in Mlango, next to Moi International Airport, told Murkomen that it was him and his hideous cartel that were behind the “maize heist” that was now causing untold suffering among the Kalenjin farmers.

“The politics behind the maize saga and the North Rift farmers’ grievances is now intertwined with the succession politics of 2022 and that is why, however much the farmers may feel aggrieved and, however much they may want to accuse their own leaders of being behind their suffering, they will not,” said the Kitale farmer. “The farmers know the people behind the maize cartel, it is their leaders, but ethnic politics of ‘this is our man,’ supersedes any suffering inflicted by the same leader(s).”

“Ngosamis murya kobo kot nebo,” said the farmer. It is a Kalenjin saying which the farmer translated to mean; however bad a situation is, your tribesman will always remain to be your tribesman.

The farmer shared the example of the intended fertilizer factory at Cheptiret on the Eldoret-Nairobi highway, that was supposed to be up and running, “but look it’s a shell of a building, with no fertilizer, the farmers were obviously cheated, yet Deputy William Ruto had promised it would be functional, but as you see, no Kalenjin will dare put Ruto to task over that factory.”

On January 31, 2019, Noah Wekesa the chairman of the Strategic Food Reserves (SFT) made a pronouncement in Eldoret at the NPCB offices, that the government would not subsidize fertilizer products this year, making an already bad situation worse, said the farmer. “The farmer cannot afford the fertilizer’s market price. And if the government insists on not importing the fertilizer, the farmer will be stuck and of course, this will certainly impact heavily on the local politics. The farmers are agitated that in the wake of all these happenings, William Ruto is quiet.”

Maize farming is the economic backbone of the North Rift, the bedrock of Ruto’s political fanatical support and vote rich backyard, and the base, is wallowing in angst and this suppressed anger is threatening to spillover, said the farmer. “A bag of maize is currently, at best, selling at KSh1400–1500 (forget what the President said). And this is if you get a buyer.”

The farmers’ barns themselves are packed with their own maize, because they have no one to sell to. “Eventually, the maize will rot.” He said the millers are not buying any maize from the farmers, but buying from the government, which has all the ‘imported’ maize. “Even if they were to sell their maize, they would sell it at a loss; the production cost is anything above KSh2200 per bag, whichever way for the farmer, he is screwed,” said the farmer.

Maize has been politicised and has become a weapon to fight the Deputy President William Ruto. I refuse to believe that it is Ruto and his henchmen who are behind this maize ordeal.

In Ziwa, 42km north of Eldoret town and Ruto’s staunchest political stronghold, Chief Elijah Serem of Segero location told me the government had allocated only 80 bags to be sold to NCPB. “An entire location, you allocate only 80 bags? The government should reconsider this particular allocation. Segero is a location of very serious maize farmers…all their barns are full….” Apparently to deal with the maize crisis, NCPB is allocating maize quotas to locations in North Rift and has come up with a raft of conditions for the farmers to fulfill, in respect to the maize they are supposed to deliver to the Board. Besides stating that the government would not import fertilizer, Noah Wekesa also announced that the government would buy only two million bags of maize from the farmers, ostensibly because the government has enough maize for strategic reserves.

Ziwa is populated by the Nandi people. It all used to be part of the Eldoret North constituency, which was one time William Ruto’s huge constituency when he served as the MP between 1997–2007. It was split into two constituencies: Soy and Turbo. In Soy, Mzee Julius arap Nabei lamented, “we’re not happy at all…there are some people in the government who are now engaging in some political mischief…why are they emasculating Ruto’s powers now? Please let it be known we are not amused with the ongoings in Jubilee Party.” I sensed the agitation among the Nandi of Ziwa was beginning to be audible. Samus murya ku nyengung, even if the rat (in the house) is smelly it is still yours, grumbled the mzee.

In Turbo, where the bulk of the Kikuyu people in Uasin Gishu County used to live, a retired Kalenjin senior chief said, “let us not kid ourselves; the bull has been dehorned and this a very unsettling situation here. (The bull in reference to William Ruto). We were going to take some time to observe the on goings at the party, but it looks like, we the Kalenjin elders, would sooner than later ‘recall’ William Ruto to candidly tell us what exactly is going on in Nairobi.”

A recent executive order issued by the President to the Cabinet Secretaries, delegating supervision of the government’s development work to them, has been interpreted by the ordinary Kalenjin man to mean a clipping off Deputy President’s powers. The work, according to the order, is to be overseen by Fred Matiang’i the CS for Interior and Coordination of National Government.

“What the executive order has done is to galvanize the Kalenjin community into fully rallying behind Ruto,” a senior journalist from the Kalenjin community told me: “They will now not see him as the man behind their maize woes, but as a victim of state machinations. Their argument is, ‘we the Kalenjin are under (external) attack, we should close in on our ranks and face the common enemy, we can deal with our internal issues later.’”

The Kalenjin community largely farm and rear livestock. “But the main crops that we rely on, have been politicized – maize has been the most affected – but even tea might soon became a political crop,” opined the Kitale farmer. He pointed out that Kalenjin farmers from North Rift were tottering on the brink of confusion and despair. “The farmer knows the scandal has been allegedly perpetrated by Ruto and his henchmen and now he is being told that if he is tired of maize, he can opt for Avocado. It is very demeaning and hurtful. Anatwambia tupande parachichi…hiyo ndio kitu gani…hiyo ndio italisha watoto wetu? He’s telling us to grow avocados…what’s that…is that what we’ll use to raise our children?

The farmer told me North Rift farmers had huge farms, that they had been farming for eons and come to understand and anticipate the seasons, learned how to predict the rains, that are heavy and good for maize farming. “What does Ruto mean when he says we should diversify and start growing other crops like Avocado?” The Kalenjin, the farmer said, had taken this pronouncement by Ruto to mean that they should vacate maize farming so that he can be the sole importer and distributor of all the maize in the country, for as long as it was lucrative. “Ruto does not care whether our children starve to death or not, whether we educate them or not, all he is interested in is, more money and the powerful presidential seat.”

The maize scandal has become an explosive matter and that is why Ruto is quiet and cannot do anything about it, observed the farmer. “He cannot do anything about the mess because he is the one behind this humongous scandal alongside his boys.” Yet the problem of the Kalenjin farmer does not now even end with the apparent lack of a market and price distortion of their chief crop: “These Ruto henchmen also have been messing about with the flow and quality of fertilizer in the country,” alleged the farmer.

The government imports genuine fertilizer for the farmers, but Ruto and his friends allegedly have been in turn, buying these fertilizer in bulk, repackaging it by mixing it with low grade fertilizer, which they then sell to the farmers at market prices, just like the real quality fertilizer would fetch, said the farmer. “The net result of this has been farmers’ maize output has witnessed a dip, because the yield per hectare is low, because of the low grade fertilizer. The North Rift Kalenjin farmer has been suffering quietly, but bitterly, knowing very well that the pain he is undergoing, has been inflicted by his tribesman.” Ngosamis murya kobo kot nebo. North Rift is largely made of the Keiyo, Marakwet and Nandi people.

Kimuge told me it is true he is a Ruto diehard: huyo ni kijana yetu, that’s our boy. “In 2013 and 2017, we the Kalenjin elders campaigned really hard for both Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. In 2012, when both of them were in trouble with the ICC (International Criminal Court), they came to us elders and begged for our support. Uhuru told us if he became President, he would serve for a maximum 10 years and then he would make sure Ruto serves his own 10 years. ‘Mimi mwenyewe, nitampigia Ruto debe,’ I’ll personally campaign for Ruto. The mzee remembers Uhuru telling them as much. This was a public promise made during the day. What are these stories we are now hearing about?”

The elder recalled that when Uhuru and Ruto decided to work together, the Kalenjin were relieved that the two most politically powerful antagonistic communities in Kenya had decided to bury the hatchet and co-exist peacefully. “That’s why we told our people, they must vote for the duo to secure development, peace and harmony. I’m now shocked that the Kikuyu seem to want to walk back on that promise.” They are many Kikuyus in the larger Rift Valley region engaged in varied businesses and farming, said Kimuge, “I’d really be shocked if they are now choosing death and destruction of their property over peace, security and stability.”

Kimuge said the Kalenjin elders have been watching President Uhuru and his close associates very carefully, since he shook hands with Raila Odinga. “It is true in 2007, we supported that Luo man, but he is a trouble maker and we don’t know what he is up to now. Still, President Uhuru is a puzzle to us: Even if he wants to now fight Ruto, did he have to use Raila to fix him?” The farmer said the Kalenjin elders were yet to respond to the March 2018 handshake, the May 2018 kutangatanga (roaming about) statement and, lately David Murathe’s ‘absurd’ remarks about Deputy President. “We’re bidding our time, closely observing the unfolding political happenings as we head to 2022, we’ve also not engaged our counterparts the Kikuyu elders, maybe we’ll in days to come by, but at an appropriate time, the Kalenjin elders may find it necessary to speak their mind.”

The mzee stated that if it was Raila causing havoc and friction within the Jubilee fraternity, then it is incumbent upon President Uhuru to rethink the political value of the handshake, else it may not augur well in the North Rift. “In 2007, we saw how Kikuyus lost lives and their property destroyed, especially in Uasin Gishu, we don’t want that scenario repeated, yet I’ll reiterate this: It is always important to honour a promise you’ve made with someone.”

If Kimuge, a Keiyo from Iten was implicit about his political feelings, sometimes struggling to hide them and sound unduly polite, despite being DP’s fanatical loyalist, Reuben Cheruiyot a Kipsigis from Bomet County was explicit about the current Jubilee Party turf wars being waged between President Uhuru and his Deputy’s respective camps.

Cheruiyot, is in his late 30s and has a cool mien, a suppressed easy laughter, with a knack for wisecracks and an unrepentant roving eye. He speaks with a soft voice, almost inaudible and repeats his sentences for emphasis sake. With his crimson suits worn without a tie, Cheruiyot could easily pass for the city of Nairobi’s wheeler-dealers, or tenderpreneurs, who are always on the lookout to strike deals with hungry middle cadre government bureaucrats.

Born and bred on the outskirts of Bomet town, Cheruiyot is well-heeled politically and properly ingratiated with the political networks of the Kalenjin nation. He is a member of the Kalenjin Professional Forum, Governor Joyce Laboso’s and Senator Christopher Langat’s inner networks, both of Bomet County, among his various political liaisons within the Kalenjin political elite circles and, keeps tabs with the inner sanctum of some of Ruto’s close associates.

“We’ve been keeping a close watch on President Uhuru’s actions and utterances since the maiden handshake with Raila Odinga and I can tell you he is treading on a misguided trajectory,” said Cheruiyot. In a move that took Kenyans by complete surprise, President Uhuru Kenyatta on the mid-morning of March 9, 2018, on the steps of Harambee House, shook hands with his greatest political nemesis Raila Odinga, leader of the Opposition outfit, National Super Alliance (NASA).

Deputy President William Ruto was not part of the handshake. Four months later, on July 8, 2018, in an interview at his Karen residence, with the NTV crew, he downplayed the significance of the handshake, argued that he had been fully aware of it. “In any case, the President doesn’t have to consult me in everything he does,” Ruto posited nonchalantly. But those who know Ruto says he was still rattled and startled, even as he invited NTV TV crew to his stately compound.

To state that Ruto was ambushed by the handshake is an understatement: “It could never have occurred in his wildest dreams that Uhuru Kenyatta – a man he had practically shared the presidency with, in their first term – would close ranks with his greatest political antagonist. But President Uhuru had just done that four months after he and Ruto had fought tooth and nail to stop Raila, by any means necessary, from snatching the presidential powers from them. As President Uhuru began his ‘legacy and last term’, Deputy President knew he had it all wrapped up. All that he needed to do was to lay a strategy that would ostensibly consign Raila Odinga into political oblivion. And that is what he had started working on when the handshake saga took place,” a Ruto confidante narrated.

“Uhuru and Ruto had spared no epithets and expletives, the worst kind they could ever find to label Raila. Uhuru was not bluffing when he described him as kimundu giki, (this ogre) and mundu muguruki (mad man), who needed to be stopped in his tracks by whatever schemes that could be assembled. They had sworn he would never rule the country – whether by might or right. Only now for Uhuru to turn around and become buddy buddy with kimundu giki”.

“That path Uhuru is taking is ill-informed and hurried,” said Cheruiyot, striking a pensive mood. “Before he goes off tangent, it is wise for Uhuru to pose and recall why in the first place he had teamed up with Ruto in 2012. It was because of two major things: to fend off the ICC cases and ease off the tensions in Rift Valley region. Let us be clear about one fact: it’s because of their teaming up that there is peace in Rift Valley and when I talk about peace, I mean peaceful co-existence between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin.”

Uhuru and Ruto had spared no epithets and expletives, the worst kind they could ever find to label Raila. Uhuru was not bluffing when he described him as kimundu giki, (this ogre) and mundu muguruki (mad man), who needed to be stopped in his tracks by whatever schemes that could be assembled. They had sworn he would never rule the country – whether by might or right. Only now for Uhuru to turn around and become buddy buddy with kimundu giki”.

“We’d anticipated there would be frictions within Jubilee Party in Uhuru’s second term – that is normal in coalition governments – but not of this nature,” observed Cheruiyot. “President Uhuru’s recent utterances on Ruto and his apparent dramatic change of body language have been creating palpable tension in the Rift Valley. When he refers to Ruto as this ‘young man’ and they are separated by only five years, what exactly does he mean? If the President thinks he is ostracizing Ruto, he’s grossly mistaken, he is ostracizing the Kikuyus in the Rift Valley.”

“President Uhuru is at liberty to pursue his legacy”, said Cheruiyot, “but he does not have to demean Ruto. It is a fact that Uhuru’s agenda of securing a legacy and William Ruto’s presidential pursuits of 2022 are at cross-purposes. It was bound to happen, nothing unusual about this. So, the president feels he needs to assert himself and craves his deputy’s support, but the DP is busy with 2022 and therefore, the President is jittery.” Edging closer to me, Cheruiyot whispered: “You know the President has always felt inadequate in the presence of William Ruto. He fears Ruto.”

For two people who had acted like bosom buddies in the first term, Uhuru’s recent dramatic change of behaviour is strange indeed, mused Cheruiyot. “The question we must fundamentally keep asking now is this: “Just when did President Uhuru discover corruption in his government? Are Kalenjins the only corrupt people in Jubilee? It is not a coincidence that this pending talk about lifestyle audit and demeaning of Ruto is happening at the same time. It is careless and unhelpful,” said Cheruiyot raising his voice. “It will boomerang on President Uhuru. If there is any lifestyle audit to be done in this country, it must begin with the Kenyatta family and should start in 1963. Mtego wa panya huingia waliomo na wasiokuwemo.” The literal translation of this Kiswahili idiom is: oftentimes a trap set to ensnare mice ends up trapping other (unintended) rodents. Translated figuratively, it means; you may set out to lay a trap to catch a (unsuspecting) foe, only for the trap to end up catching your (closest) friends or even ensnaring yourself. The narrative of, “if there must be any lifestyle audit to be done, it must begin with the Kenyatta family,” has spread across Kalenjin land like bush fire.

Cheruiyot told me Gideon Moi, son to Daniel arap Moi was being used by forces that want to frustrate and scuttle Ruto’s path to the presidency. “We know them: it is the deep state and Kikuyu hegemonists,” he said. Ruto learnt valuable political tricks from the grand master and ‘professor’ of Politics, but the DP’s relationship with Daniel arap Moi is bad: there’s no love lost between the two, but in May 2018, he had to go and see him, observed Cheruiyot. “They may not be friends, but Moi is our (political) father.” Cheruiyot said the May 3, 2018 visit was scurried by Gideon Moi, the Baringo Senator and last born son to the ageing Moi. “You think Ruto is foolish to just happen on (senior) Moi’s Kabarak home without prior arrangement?

“Gideon thinks he’s cunning? He’s a spoilt brat, he’ll soon know, who between him and Ruto is more cunning.” Accompanied by Charles Keter, (Cabinet Secretary for Energy) among others, Ruto landed with a Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) helicopter on the Kabarak lawns in the hope of shaking Moi’s hand. To Ruto’s fury, Moi snubbed him. In response the Rift Valley MPs allied to Ruto lashed out at Gideon, accusing him of behaving like the gatekeeper to the ex-President’s Nakuru home.

At the Kerio View Hotel in Iten and seated overlooking the breathtaking picturesque Kerio valley, Kibiwott Koross pointing yonder across the valley towards Baringo County, shared similar sentiments about Gideon: “We know which forces are cheating Gideon that he can be president of this country. He’s never going to be anything other than what he already is – a senator – which he got out of respect for senior Moi by the Baringo people. He says he still pondering whether to run in 2022 or not. Gideon is a snob and joker. Maybe one day he will vie for the presidency, but certainly not in the next general election.” Koross, a journalist, was a features writer at the Star newspaper, where I had once worked.

“Gideon was elected senator courtesy of Uhuru Kenyatta and his wife Zahra,” said another source, who is knowledgeable on the subject matter of Baringo politics, and who requested anonymity. “Uhuru came to Baringo pleaded with the people to vote for Gideon, because the people were reluctant. It had to take the intervention of the President himself – but more fundamentally, his wife.” My source alleged it was Zahra who distributed cash to women’s groups, the youth and voters around the county, canvassing for her husband. “Gideon is so mean, he only knows how to surround himself with menacing bodyguards…,” said the source. Here, he is referred to as GMO,” a pun that likened Gideon Moi to artificial (read fake) nature of GMO (genetically modified organisms) food.

“One of the great lessons that Ruto took to heart from Moi was to be generous and stay close to the people,” said Koross. “Ruto has been an excellent student of President Moi: he’s generous and social. Even though Gideon is his father’s son, he’s learned nothing – he’s a miser and anti-people.”

But a close associate of Gideon Moi told me this talk of booking an appointment by Ruto men, is all a fabrication. “Neither Ruto, nor his henchmen booked any appointment, he just arrived unannounced. You just don’t do that, yet, he knew what he was doing,” said the associate. “Ruto had a sinister agenda – he wanted to score with this trip – he knew whatever the outcome, he was going to make news and come out as the winner.” The associate said the DP in a me-too moment, decided he should also visit the Kabarak Home and not be seen to have been left behind, after Raila Odinga, had visited the former president on April 12, 2018. “He wanted to send a message to his Kalenjin base that he can also see Moi at will, and if he cannot, then, they will know who is working against their interests in capturing the presidency in 2022.” When Moi snubbed him, Ruto supporters turned the venom on the younger Moi, tongue lashed and accused him of being jealous of Ruto’s presidential ambitions.

“William Ruto has been looking for an opportunity to trip Gideon so that he can tackle him in a duel by dragging him through the mud and finishing him completely,” said Gideon’s confidante. “But Gideon has refused to swallow the bait, choosing not to engage Ruto in whatever storm he and his people create.” Even though Ruto was an “A” student of Moi’s school of politics, there are some crucial lessons he seems to have skipped, said the associate. “Moi was very patient, very obedient and totally loyal to his boss. He never did anything that would have been interpreted to mean he was undermining Kenyatta for all the time he was his Vice President. Ruto seems to want to take the battle to his boss’s corner.”

During the 2017 presidential campaigns, Ruto’s point men in the Rift Valley region would assure their supporters that the DP was as good as on the driver’s seat, “since the President himself is always busy enjoying (read drinking) himself, all the time,” a Ruto loyalist confided in me in Eldoret town. “Let us vote for Uhuru: while he will be drinking, the DP will be the one calling the shots. Look at the number of our sons and daughters in parastatal positions…sisi ndio serikali…we are the government.”

Once back in Nairobi, I asked a friend of President Uhuru whether this was true – about these allegations made by the DP’s men in 2017 campaigns. “Well, as you can now see for yourself: you can enjoy yourself and be equally tough”, he said in jest.

Cheruiyot mused loudly that they (the Kalenjin) always knew the Kikuyu would betray them, “Even Ruto has always known that, so nothing new there, but this current overt machinations is something we’ll have to deal with as the situation demands and unfolds.” If President Uhuru chooses to be dishonest towards Ruto, that is really up to him, said Cheruiyot. “It just goes to strengthen the political stereotype among Kenyans, about Kikuyus not keeping their word.” It was an observation that Brenda also from Bomet reiterated: “So, the Kikuyu (leadership) has decided to betray the Kalenjin? Kikuyus have always been like that. But, that’s all well and good. But this time round, they will have to countenance with a man who is ready to take the battle to their yard. Huyu mwanaume yuko tayari kupambana nao, yeye sio kijana yao. This man (Ruto) is all too ready to face them (the Kikuyus) and therefore, he is not their boy.”

The stereotype notwithstanding, Cheruiyot mentioned to me that the first round of the Jubilee factional wars in 2018 had resulted in Ruto camp’s win: “The calling of both camps’ troops to order was a result of a temporary truce called by the leaders of the respective camps: Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.” On June 29, 2018, President Uhuru and his deputy held a “crisis” meeting to “iron out” and “streamline” differences that had given the impression that Jubilee Party was wrought with infighting and on the verge of collapsing. After that meeting, Ruto asked his foot soldiers to observe the cessation and cease throwing brickbats towards their counterparts, the Central Kenya MPs, and instead talk about development.

“There wasn’t a cessation of anything and everybody knew it,” said Cheruiyot. “This is a protracted battle and we’re ready for it, sisi hatuogopi, we are not afraid.” He reveled in the fact that the Ruto camp’s strategy had worked: “the dragging of Uhuru’s younger brother Muhoho Kenyatta into the murky waters of the supposedly war on corruption was too much to bear on Uhuru Kenyatta’s camp and particularly, the larger Kenyatta family, which has always kept their social affairs very private and away from the prying eyes of Kenyans.”

As President Uhuru maintained that the war on graft was unrelenting and as the fight against it reached its zenith, Muhoho was fingered by Aldai constituency MP Cornelly Serem on June 26, 2018, as being one of the people who had imported contraband sugar, through his company Protech Investment. It forced the President to state publicly that if his brother was guilty of any corruption offences, he should not be spared and should equally face the law. It was a strained statement made in the heat of the battle for supremacy between Uhuru’s faction and his deputy’s.

“The David Murathe’s 2019 new year anti-Ruto utterances were not wholly unexpected,” said Koross. What shocked the Kalenjin people was his brazen and naked attacks on Ruto. Makibarjin tarit kwangoi.” Translated the Kalenjin proverb means – you do not show the bird the arrow. “If a hunter identifies a bird he want to bring down, he does not directly point the arrow to the bird, because it will fly away, you must catch it by surprise.”

The Deputy President has cautioned against verbal retaliation, “Some of the Kalenjin MPs were furious with Murathe’s statement, still the DP cautioned patience: ‘we should not be confrontational,’” he said. “Ongemuite amu 2022?” Now we just shut up because of 2022?” posed the MPs.

An Eldoret businessman who described Murathe as an attack dog said the President’s silence in the face of Murathe’s attack on Ruto was ominous, “but we can live with that, still, he should have cautioned and controlled the dog not to bark uncontrollably.” The businessman said, “the Kalenjin are happy, the attack dog-in-chief had yelped this early and exposed his master’s scheme soon enough: we now know how to take the battle to their doorstep.”

The businessman said since the kutangatanga snide remark by the President, last year, the Kalenjin community has been keenly observing the President’s body language. “It’s from that time that we noticed his handlers started scripting statements that had a different tone from the one we were used to from Uhuru.” The businessman said the narrative of linking all state sleaze on Ruto by President Uhuru Kenyatta camp had succeeded insofar as the elites are concerned: “Wanjiku and Cherop are not bothered by this narrative, they really would care less.”He said the Kalenjin were fully aware of how President Uhuru’s camp was working overtime on crafting a narrative of that links state corruption to Ruto.

The businessman was categorical that Ruto’s campaign team does not need President Uhuru’s endorsement or support. “We can fight our own battle – leadership is earned and fought for – not handed over. Ruto is not Kalonzo (Musyoka) or (Musalia) Mudavadi who have been waiting to be endorsed by being declared ‘Tosha’, so we are not afraid of our enemies, we can take on them on any front, any day.”

Amid this apparent chest thumping by the Rift Valley elites, the ethnic Kalenjin base from which Deputy President William Ruto hopes to launch his biggest political project ever, is restless, and now, has been exposed by the emerging turbulent and choppy waters of succession politics. At the heart of this state of uneasiness, is their food economy that is facing a meltdown, hence affecting their livelihood, the ever-precarious land ownership in the Rift Valley region and a destiny beholden to the personality cult.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corona parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election-related measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear cracks in the US system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump sinks the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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

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

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who decides?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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