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Déjà Vu: Eerie Similarities Between the Congolese and Kenyan Elections

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It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

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Déjà Vu: Eerie Similarities Between the Congolese and Kenyan Elections
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On Thursday, January 24, Felix Tshisekedi became the fifth president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Like many others in the region’s recent history, his was a contested victory, its legitimacy marred by suspicion regarding a range of issues throughout the electoral cycle, as well as by damning evidence that his main competitor, Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, was the true victor.

Tshisekedi’s inauguration, delayed for three days as controversy over the legitimacy of the results raged, was notable for significant gaps in attendance. The powerful Catholic Church, whose observers disputed the legitimacy of Tshisekedi’s victory, was absent. Representatives of Fayulu’s coalition also declined to be present. The European Union merely “noted” the result, and the African Union, usually reluctant to express any serious disagreement with members’ official results, also declined to congratulate Tshisekedi.

There was one foreign dignitary there, though: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. His lone presence was striking, a vivid reminder of the contention that has marked all four of the elections in which he has participated. Indeed, from his vantage point in the audience, President Kenyatta may have experienced a case of déjà vu. It is, after all, difficult to look past the multiple similarities that marred both of the most recent Congolese and Kenyan election cycles.

In addition to a slew of irregularities in the lead-up to election day, civil society and opposition candidates in both countries provided hard evidence of important variations between official announced outcomes and what had been shown to the public. In both cases, electoral victories did not correspond to election results.

It is now possible to “win” elections without garnering the most votes; democratic elections have given way to electoral coups.

Hope deferred

The most recent Congolese and Kenyan electoral cycles began in a charged atmosphere, alive with hope and anticipation of change. In the DRC, the 2018 election was a long-awaited milestone: it marked the end of Joseph Kabila’s 18-year rule and was a first chance for the transfer of political power through democratic means. Despite ongoing violence and instability in some parts of the country, as well as Kabila’s moves to ensure his continued influence the country’s politics, citizens were highly engaged. In fact, the Catholic Church (CENCO) mobilised and deployed more than 40,000 observers around the country in a rigorous observation exercise.

The most recent Congolese and Kenyan electoral cycles began in a charged atmosphere, alive with hope and anticipation of change. In the DRC, the 2018 election was a long-awaited milestone: it marked the end of Joseph Kabila’s 18-year rule and was a first chance for the transfer of political power through democratic means.

Vibrant campaigns were also inspiring, and two of the three leading candidates were opposition figures. Two days before the election, one of them – Martin Fayulu – was polling with 47 per cent of voters’ support, almost double that of the next most popular candidate, opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi. New York University’s Congo Research Group described the results as indicative of an electorate “eager for change.”

In 2017, Kenya’s citizens were similarly hopeful. Months of street protests, civil society advocacy campaigns, court battles and a joint parliamentary review of electoral administration had reformed significant parts of the electoral process. In fact, hard-won, new leadership at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), more fully integrated biometric voter registration and identification kits, rules requiring the IEBC to honour polling station-level results, and the creation of an online portal promising to show results forms in real time had renewed public faith in the credibility of the electoral process.

In both contexts, though, hope quickly eroded as it became clear that key parts of the electoral cycle had been taken over by power-hungry elites who used the trappings of elections to engineer their own “victories”.

State violence

Although a broad array of technical irregularities contributed to low electoral integrity in the DRC and Kenya, it is critical to remember that the state’s use of violence to intimidate, threaten and silence the public’s questioning and criticism exerted an insidious influence over the entirety of both processes.

In Kenya, the violent repression of peaceful protesters began as early as 2016, when security forces descended on anti-IEBC demonstrators. In 2017, the electoral cycle was bloodily punctuated by incidents that included the murder of infants and violent house-to-house operations in opposition areas.

In the DRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over reports of the state’s use of excessive force, including live bullets, against opposition rallies. Human Rights Watch also reported the state’s use of arbitrary detention of opposition party activists, the firing of teargas and live ammunition to break up largely peaceful opposition rallies, and the closing of an international border to prevent a presidential aspirant from filing candidacy papers. Six months before election day, ongoing repression prompted the Catholic Church to write to the African Union. Its letter described “a crisis of confidence” in the electoral process.

The use of state-sanctioned violence indicated the authorities’ complete unwillingness to engage with the people; it was clear that elections would not be fair.

Voter registration 

It was clear from early on in the process that something was amiss. In fact, registration processes in both countries revealed how deeply problematic political and logistical contexts – both of which presented significant challenges to inclusive processes – cast an early pall on the legitimacy of elections. In the DRC, rebel groups attacked DRC electoral commission (CENI) officials and attempted to prevent certain groups from registering. CENI itself was accused of incompetence, discriminating against certain ethnic groups, and accepting bribes in return for illegal registrations. In Kenya, certain minorities described their struggles to obtain the national identity cards that are necessary for voter registration, a process which has taken some individuals upwards of five years. Research revealed that “special vetting procedures,” which essentially ensured that IDs would not be processed, are discriminatorily applied to ethnic minorities. Registration was also marred by the continued use of the much-maligned “green book” and an audit that used sub-standard methodology and that failed to make its full report publicly accessible.

When the final voters’ rolls were released, there were more problems. In the DRC, an audit of the voter register revealed that the records of more than 6.5 million voters (16.6 per cent) lacked all ten fingerprints. It was reminiscent of the 2013 Kenyan election, when a “special list” of approximately 36,000 registered voters, also lacking fingerprints, appeared during the Supreme Court trial challenging the integrity of the election. In both cases, the election commission had failed to be forthright about the existence of such lists. In the DRC, five political parties demanded that voters lacking fingerprints be removed from the rolls altogether; protesters agreed. In 2017, the Kenyan voter register was similarly contentious, marked by the presence of, for example, more than a million records of deceased voters, thousands of incorrect records, and tens of thousands of duplicate records.

The courts 

The Congolese and Kenyan processes both concluded with court cases challenging election results, and in both cases there was suspicion of serious executive interference. In the DRC, the Constitutional Court, made up of Kabila’s close allies, dismissed Fayulu’s petition as “unfounded” and claimed that it had failed to prove any inaccuracies in the results. The Court’s ruling was made in spite of widely reported evidence that Fayulu had won 60 per cent of the vote.

When the final voters’ roll was released, there were problems. In the DRC, an audit of the voter register revealed that the records of more than 6.5 million voters (16.6 per cent) lacked all ten fingerprints. It was reminiscent of the 2013 Kenyan election, when a “special list” of approximately 36,000 registered voters, also lacking fingerprints, appeared during the Supreme Court trial challenging the integrity of the election.

In Kenya, the Supreme Court boldly nullified the results of the August election. Its decision hinged on evidence of fraudulent forms and the IEBC’s refusal to comply with court orders that it open its servers for inspection. Although the petitioners in the October repeat election case also demonstrated evidence of irregular forms and differences between the IEBC’s “official” results and what the Commission had posted on the public portal, the Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence.

This ruling came after President Kenyatta made his intentions with regard to the Court clear. In fact, in the aftermath of the nullification, he publicly referred to the judges as “crooks” and promised to “revisit” the judiciary. Insecurity heightened days before the fresh election in October, when Deputy Chief Justice Mwilu’s driver was shot and seriously wounded. One day before the election, Chief Justice David Maraga announced that the Court, which had failed to achieve quorum, would be unable to hear a case that sought to postpone the elections.

By exerting influence over the judiciary, the state not only protected certain elites’ victories, it also controlled the narrative, establishing a certain amount of legitimacy around what would otherwise be a questionable result at best.

Equipment

The use of electoral technology also tainted both elections. In the case of Kenya, post-election investigations have made it clear that technology was little more than a tool for elites’ personal enrichment. Procurement scandals tainted the reliability of the equipment as well as its immunity to external hacking and interference. The reliability of digital systems became even more doubtful when, days before the August election, the IEBC’s head of IT was found murdered; his case has yet to be solved. Indeed, it was unsurprising when the electronic results transmission failed – just as it had in 2013 – and the IEBC once again turned to the manual collection of more than 40,000 paper forms from around the country.

In the DRC, voters were also suspicious of technology. In fact, public protests called for authorities to abort the idea. Days before the election, a fire destroyed 70 per cent of the machines slated to be used in Kinshasa; authorities suspected arson. CENI’s decision to use such technology, especially in light of poor infrastructure to support it, was questionable. In Kenya, the IEBC even attempted (unsuccessfully) to justify its abandonment of the results transmission system by claiming that the lack of 3G connectivity in some locations made it impossible for the system to work.

What has become apparent is that technology, while claiming to increase the credibility of elections, actually does more to build a wall between electoral processes and the voters. In fact, the complexity of digital systems makes them inherently inaccessible to the average voter. It is thus easier for manipulation to occur and go undetected.

Voting and results 

Kenya and the DRC also restricted voting altogether for some citizens. In the DRC, roughly 1.2 million voters in three opposition strongholds were barred from casting their ballots because of health risks and security threats. In Kenya, voting in the October presidential election was first postponed and then cancelled altogether in 27 constituencies; nine per cent of registered voters were thus disenfranchised.

The last straw in both cases, however, was the state of the results. In the DRC, the powerful Catholic Church deployed more than 40,000 observers to polling stations across the country and found that election day was marred by the delayed opening of polling stations, the establishing of stations in prohibited areas, and problems with voting machines. It also scrutinised results forms, finding that Fayulu won 60 per cent of the vote, making him the clear victor. The African Union and the European Union both “noted” Tshisekedi’s apparent victory, pointedly choosing to withhold any congratulations.

What has become apparent is that technology, while claiming to increase the credibility of elections, actually does more to build a wall between electoral processes and the voters. In fact, the complexity of digital systems makes them inherently inaccessible to the average voter. It is thus easier for manipulation to occur and go undetected.

Kenya’s domestic observers also found multiple problems on the day of the election—in August and in October — including delayed opening of polling stations, insufficient materials in the stations, violence, malfunctioning voter identification kits, and problems with reliability of the voter register. These issues were compounded by evidence of highly questionably polling station forms, which were rife with errors. Forms featured mathematical inconsistencies, missing information, altered figures, the lack of IEBC signatures, and irregular printing. In fact, petitioners’ scrutiny of October results forms revealed that the IEBC’s “official” forms differed from forms that had been posted on the public portal and submitted to petitions as part of the Supreme Court case. Although these problems were sufficient for the Court to nullify the August elections, the Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to annul the October polls.

Clearly, results have little value anymore.

Reclaiming elections

It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

First, it is critical for voters to demand some basic minimum standards of election administration. This begins with a clear and verifiable record of results. In Kenya, the IEBC has failed to publish polling station-level results for any of the elections it has overseen, leaving the public without the means to analyse, understand, and validate their own votes. In the DRC, CENI has to yet to publish polling station-level results.

Election results go hand in hand with voter registration details. In the aftermath of the August election, Kenya’s IEBC announced voter registration totals that differed from the officially gazetted totals; civil society questions about the differences remain unanswered. In the aftermath of the October repeat election, a summation of the county-level numbers of registered voters again showed differences. Public demands for greater transparency should start here; resulting questions and clarification will reveal the way forward in terms of urgent reforms.

Second, a re-engaged citizenry should think deeply about what elections mean and how to modify laws and practice to shape polls into participatory, meaningful exercises. This kind of evaluation begins with and is based upon the premise that elections are not a privilege; they are universal rights and it is the state’s duty to facilitate voters’ access to and participation in them.

It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

If voters understand elections as public services, as part of what governments owe their citizens, they may understand the importance of rethinking the status quo. This means questioning the very nature of political interaction. Elections do not have to be divisive, dangerous affairs that include “zoning,” hate speech and highly unequal playing fields. In fact, a shift away from the first-past-the post could incentivise and encourage politicians to broaden their support bases and adopt more moderate political platforms. In the long term, such a system could help bring voters on extreme ends of political divides closer together.

Third, citizens should demand more from their elected representatives. In an age of advanced digital technology and increasingly diverse ways of being in touch, the public may be able to interact with representatives on a more regular basis, questioning decisions and tracking things like parliamentary voting patterns. Such tools could enhance accountability and arm voters with better information for their future voting decisions. Widespread use of such tools could also result in more policy-oriented parties.

Finally, citizens can and should be proactive about claiming their space throughout the electoral process. This may involve watching and questioning things like boundary delimitation, voter registration and decisions about the use of technology. The more questions people raise over time, the greater the chances that electoral processes will become easier to understand and more transparent.

Votes matter; it’s time to make sure that results do, too.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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