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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean, complete, correct

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Indigenising capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Safaricom monopoly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Ilhan Omar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dual loyalty contradiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2020 reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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