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Who Will Speak for Us Now? Why Amendments to the University Act Are Undemocratic

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The current Universities Act negates the struggles that led us to the constitution which the Kenyan people promulgated after decades of struggle, blood, sweat and tears. And worse, it reifies the painful legacy of slavery that still haunts Africa and her descendants in the world’s most powerful country.

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Who Will Speak for Us Now? Why Amendments to the University Act Are Undemocratic
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In the last several months, students in Kenyan universities have been involved in translating the amendments of the University Act into their student body constitutions. The amended Act requires student councils to be voted in not by all the students, but by electoral college representatives elected by the students.

The amendments to the University Act, and their protection by the High Court following the legal appeal by some student leaders, are a serious blow to constitutionality in Kenya. The need for university students to entrench these undemocratic requirements into their constitutions is the opposite of the path that led to the 2010 constitution. Unlike the constitution that was the fruit of struggles for freedom, the Kenyan university students are being forced by law to deny themselves their own constitutional rights.

The anti-democratic roots of electoral colleges

The amendments to the Universities Act in 2016 were made by then Education Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang’I, as a way to rein in the multiple and chaotic terms of office in the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (Sonu) held by Fred Ogili, commonly known Babu Owino. But rather than simply limit the terms of office of student officials, Matiang’i made one draconian addition. He drafted a law that required university student councils to be chosen by electoral colleges, rather than by direct popular vote.

There are at least two disturbing implications of the amended Universities Act. First, the Kenya Parliament passed a law not on principle, but to prevent a single man from running for office. Laws are supposed to be written for the public good, not to target a single individual. This is a bad precedent, with snowballing effects already simmering with the recent proposal to amend the country’s constitution based on the failed presidential ambitions of a single candidate.

Rather than deal with the political, managerial and root causes of the crisis in university student politics, the country’s legislators chose to pass a law that, as the African proverb says, burns down a whole house to catch a single rat. It is because of the abuse of the students by Babu Owino and other university student leaders that legislators have now written a law that denies students a say in how they are governed.

The second, and more disturbing aspect, of the amendments was the recourse to electoral colleges – a system that is rooted in racist slavery in the United States, and which has led to the absurdity of American presidents who do not win the popular vote. The most recent case is that of the current president Donald Trump who won the presidency but received 3 million votes less than Hillary Clinton.

Rather than deal with the political, managerial and root causes of the crisis in university student politics, the country’s legislators chose to pass a law that, as the African proverb says, burns down a whole house to catch a single rat. It is because of the abuse of the students by Babu Owino and other university student leaders that legislators have now written a law that denies students a say in how they are governed.

Rooted in slavery

Electoral colleges were created by the founding fathers of the United States as a bargain between the northern, more populated states, and the southern slave-holding states. During the constitutional conventions in 1787, the delegates realised that if the president was to be elected by popular vote, meaning including votes from slaves, it would present a political problem for whites, because the slaves would choose their own candidate, which the white men in power could not allow.

In response, then, the suggestion was that voting should be limited to “free people”, meaning that only whites would vote. However, the southern states opposed that suggestion because in many of the states, slaves were a huge size of the population, sometimes even more than the whites. That meant that the northern states, which had a larger white population, would always dictate who would win the presidency. So southern states wanted to exploit the numbers of black people for electoral mileage, but without giving them an equal political voice.

In order to resolve the stalemate, the states reached what is known as the “three-fifths compromise”. The compromise would decide representation by counting the slave population as three-fifths of its actual size.

Electoral colleges are, therefore, by design, intended to limit the voice of actual people. Electoral colleges exploit the numbers of people without allowing the same people to have an equal say in how they are governed, which continues in the United States to this day. Indeed, American legal historian Paul Finkelman was right to say that the electoral college is “the last legacy of slavery in the US constitution that is still affecting our political lives”.

It is clear then that the intention of the Kenya government in requiring electoral colleges was to limit the voices of the students while giving students the illusion of having a say in how universities are governed. This conclusion raises two questions. Should student elections matter anyway? And, why did the High Court decline the appeal by students against the amended law?

Why do student elections matter?

One uncomfortable truth for university administrations, not just national governments, is that students do have an impact on how a country is governed. Many of the anti-colonial freedom fighters, like Frantz Fanon and South Africa’s Steve Biko, fought against racist oppression as university students. In the United States, it was black university students’ struggles that were a major pillar of the civil rights and black power movements, and that led to the introduction of African and African American studies in US universities.

Because university students have such an important national voice, how they conduct their affairs has implications for the nation’s future. In her article on the Universities Act, Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, one of Kenya’s important youth voices, reminded us that “for whatever happens in our universities, it is only a matter of time before it comes into national politics”. Therefore, if we want democracy and good governance in Kenya, universities must be places where students model what they envision for the rest of society.

Wako-Ojiwa is justified in seeing the curtailing of democracy in student elections as a preparation of the youth for the proposed amendment to Kenya’s constitution to have a parliamentary system, where the head of government is chosen not by the people, but by their representatives. Both the parliamentary system and the electoral colleges allow politicians to negotiate and play around with numbers while not consulting the people, and at the same time give the people the illusion that their opinion matters.

Because university students have such an important national voice, how they conduct their affairs has implications for the nation’s future. In her article on the Universities Act, Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, one of Kenya’s important youth voices, reminded us that “for whatever happens in our universities, it is only a matter of time before it comes into national politics”. Therefore, if we want democracy and good governance in Kenya, universities must be places where students model what they envision for the rest of society.

In other words, the amendments to the University Act are designed to not only disenfranchise students, but also to prepare the youth for the same disenfranchisement in their larger public life. It is, therefore, very sad that the first attempt of this generation at constitution-making is an exercise in putting shackles on themselves. This process is not only anti-constitutional; it is at its very essence anti-human.

But the second disenfranchising element of the electoral colleges is that they make manipulation of student elections even easier, rather than more difficult. Once the electoral college representatives are chosen, the representatives can sell their vote to the highest bidder running for office, or the candidate’s godparent. It will also mean that unscrupulous deals and negotiating will become more rampant as students seeking office or administrations seeking to manipulate the vote have fewer students to appeal to.

The legal challenge

That said, university students did challenge the anti-constitutional amendments in court. On January 24, 2017, a number of students, led by Were Samuel, argued before the High Court that the amendments were made without adequate public participation, and that the amendments violated the students’ right to vote, as enshrined in Article 38.

The government responded with a dubious argument that the amendments were made necessary by the violence and manipulation of student elections by politicians. However, as I’ve already noted, electoral colleges make the problem worse, because with electoral college representatives, there are fewer students to bribe more or manipulate in choosing the student council. But the bigger problem is the principle of the government’s argument, which is that it is necessary to curb electoral malpractice by limiting students’ rights even further.

Perhaps the joke of the government’s response was in what constituted public participation. A mistake which the government made, and which it repeatedly makes, is to equate public participation with consulting stakeholders. Public participation should be defined as seeking the views and input of the people who will be most affected by a policy or law, in this case, the students. Stakeholder consultation, its neoliberal substitute, is not the equivalent of public participation, because stakeholders are the people whose profits and power are affected by the law or policy, unlike the public which is the people whose lives are directly affected by that law or policy.

Indeed, the government’s evidence of public participation reads like a who’s who list of people with an interest in suppressing the democratic voice of students, namely employers, government and university administrations. According to government affidavits cited by the High Court, the stakeholders called to a workshop were the Association of Professional Societies of East Africa, the Commission of Higher Education, the Federation of Kenya Employers, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service (KUCCPS), the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB), vice chancellors of public and private universities and principals of university colleges.

Sadly, the High Court accepted that this list of “stakeholders,” and an announcement in the Daily Nation of 25th February 2016 by the National Assembly, were reasonable effort in involving the public in discussing the amendments. The Court also agreed with the government that the inclusion of the two-thirds gender clause in the rules on student elections was enough proof that the elections were, in fact, more democratic than the previous system of student elections. It is ironic that the gender clause was used as evidence of democracy in universities, while Parliament is yet to implement the same clause.

Although the Court argued that public participation should meet a certain level of reasonableness, it is amazing that the counsel for the students argued that the stakeholder workshop and a single announcement in a newspaper hardly constitute reasonableness. Since the government knew that the primary affected constituency is the students, it should have required, at the very least, that the university administrations announce the discussions of the amendments to their entire student bodies. Sending letters to vice chancellors’ offices, with no requirement for dissemination of the information, is a cynical wink at university administrations to keep students in the dark and deny them participation in a law that so directly affected them. The decent thing for the government and university bodies to have done would have been to actually visit some of the universities and have town hall discussions with the students. Instead, they met with fellow stakeholders in a workshop. Probably in a hotel.

Sadly, the High Court accepted a list of “stakeholders,” and a single press announcement by the National Assembly as reasonable effort in involving the public in discussing the amendments. The Court also agreed with the government that the inclusion of the two-thirds gender clause in the rules on student elections was enough proof that the elections were, in fact, more democratic than the previous system of student elections.

All in all, the amendments to the Universities Act, and the requirement for students to abide by them, is a sad testament of how the older generation continues to undermine our youth’s opportunities to fully exercise their rights as citizens. The height of cynicism is to require students to write and promulgate a constitution which denies themselves their own rights.

The struggle must continue

I hope that in the near future, a more robust case challenging the amendments to the University Act will be presented that will leave the courts no option but to declare the amendments unconstitutional, because accepting this disenfranchisement of our youth will eventually evolve into the wider disenfranchisement of the Kenyan people.

Until then, students will have to employ their creativity to find ways to ensure that their voices remain heard. The current Universities Act negates the struggles that led us to the constitution which the Kenyan people promulgated after decades of struggle, blood, sweat and tears. And worse, it reifies the painful legacy of slavery that still haunts Africa and her descendants in the world’s most powerful country.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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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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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“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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