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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

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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