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

20 min read. 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cost of terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problematic framing of CVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

The history of the problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The othering of Kenyan Somalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which way now for CVE and war on terror?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose borders? Remembering the Ghosts of Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoking the flames

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whither the Pan-African dream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glimmers of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

Gambling Against the Kenyan State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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