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Building Bridges to Nowhere: Some Reflections One Year After ‘The Handshake’

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The question that has been boggling many Kenyans’ minds is: What exactly led to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga…to suddenly make peace? Was this a spontaneous reaction of two leaders who had suddenly been imbued with an undying desire to save their country, which was on the verge of ethnic and geographical fragmentation?

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Building Bridges to Nowhere: Some Reflections One Year After ‘The Handshake’
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A year ago this month, an unexpected political commotion jolted unsuspecting Kenyans who were still reeling from the effects of two presidential elections that had taken place in a space of just 79 days. These elections had openly split the country into ethnic fault lines that were now threatening to plunge the country into an abyss of anarchy and civil strife.

The 9 March 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga – pejoratively referred to as “the handcheque” by cynics and Raila’s former front line and hard core supporters, who see the détente between the president and his main rival as the ultimate betrayal – took place against a backdrop of four months of palpable ethnic rivalry and tension that had been simmering since the 26 October 2017 presidential poll, in which Uhuru had essentially run against himself.

When he was sworn in on 28 November 2017, it was evident that President Uhuru did not seem to savour his presidential victory: In the first general election of 8 August, half of the total registered voters of 19.6 million people who cast their votes had voted against him, even as claims of rigging by the opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA) were rife. On 1 September, the Supreme Court of Kenya overruled the Jubilee Party win, and sued for a fresh presidential election in 60 days – a decision that to date rankles and startles President Uhuru, said a Jubilee Party MP from Central Kenya.

“In a country where the judiciary has always been malleable and at the beck and call of the executive since 1963, it was unheard of that a court would dare rule against the president’s wish,” observed the MP. “It had never happened, hence Uhuru was secure in the knowledge that the court wouldn’t ever dream of ruling against him, just like it hadn’t in 2013. And because African presidents don’t lose elections, at least not through the courts, he did not expect to lose his.”

So, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a repeat election, Uhuru Kenyatta hit the roof and swore against the court’s judges, threatening to “revisit the issue”.

In the repeat October election, Uhuru Kenyatta garnered far less votes than in the August election. Seven and half million people supposedly voted, a figure the MP, now with the knowledge of hindsight, told me was cooked. A majority of Raila’s supporters had boycotted the October election and apathy, fatigue and a don’t-care attitude among Uhuru’s support base ensured that the October election was even less credible than the August one.

The question that has been boggling many Kenyans minds is: What exactly led to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, two of the bitterest of political rivals, who had left nothing to chance – as one fought to keep the coveted seat of the presidency to himself, while the other hoped to snatch it from the incumbent – to suddenly make peace? Was this a spontaneous reaction of two leaders who had suddenly been imbued with desire to save their country, which was on the verge of ethnic and geographical fragmentation?

The politics of handshakes is not exactly a new phenomenon in Kenya, so this was not a first. Ten years ago, almost to the month, on 28 February 2008, President Mwai Kibaki and his chief political nemesis, Raila Odinga, shook hands on the steps of Harambee House to the great relief of many Kenyans. The 2008 handshake had been occasioned by a hotly disputed presidential vote between Kibaki and Raila, which had driven the country on the precipice of ethnic warfare that had flared in the Rift Valley and in several other parts of the country.

The question that has been boggling many Kenyans minds is: What exactly led to President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga…to suddenly make peace? Was this a spontaneous reaction of two leaders who had suddenly been imbued with an undying desire to save their country, which was on the verge of ethnic and geographical fragmentation?

The truce between Kibaki and Raila was a negotiated peace settlement: both politicians had been encouraged by the chief negotiator, Kofi Annan, and his team to form their own respective negotiators, who then for weeks discussed the modalities of how they would accommodate each other in a government of national unity. And so it came to pass that a government of national unity with Raila Odinga as a non-executive Prime Minister was formed. The process was transparent and Kenyans were kept abreast of the proceeding by the media.

The economic boycott and demands for secession

Fast forward to March 2018. The handshake between President Uhuru and Raila is mired in mystery and subterfuge. Days after the handshake on the steps of Harambee House, a working committee was formed on 24 March to cement the newly found rapprochement, thenceforth referred to as the Building the Bridges to Unity Advisory Task Force, also known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

The alleged behind-the-scenes secret talks, political manoeuvres and familial visits soon after Uhuru assumed his second term are as intriguing and interesting as they are revealing. Through wide-ranging interviews conducted through President Uhuru Kenyatta’s intermediaries, Raila’s close confidantes, Deputy President William Ruto’s associates and bosom buddies, Central Kenya and North Rift Jubilee MPs and through my own investigations, I culled an array of information that suggested a presidency in crisis, trapped in a paradoxical pyrrhic victory and a withering state. Then there was a defeated opposition leader who for the very first time in his political career was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and was faced with the devil’s alternative of either quitting politics altogether or re-engineering his ebbing political career. Add to this scenario a scheming deputy president who had already trained his guns on 2022 no sooner had his Jubilee Party won the presidential elections.

Looking back to one year ago, it is as if the clock was ticking and time was not on all of the three protagonists’ side. As one of Raila’s aides said to me: “Raila had come to the late realisation that he would never win the presidential elections as long as the Kikuyus were counting the votes. True, he would force them to spend billions of shillings, but that was just about it. It was about time he recalibrated his political career if he intended to keep it going.”

“Nothing had scared President Uhuru like the NASA’s economic boycott programme and secession talk,” confided one of the president’s friends. Like the Americans would say, Uhuru and his family were “scared shitless” of these two ideas. After opting out of the 26 October fresh presidential election, Raila and his team had come up with a raft of options that were meant to force President Uhuru and his Jubilee Party mandarins to listen to NASA. NASA supporters’ boycott of products made by certain companies associated with the Jubilee Party and resurgent demands for secession by some opposition politicians, particularly at the coast, threatened to tear the country apart – literally.

The most potentially lethal of NASA’s projects was the economic boycott, in which Kenyans of oppositional goodwill were asked to keep away from the Kenyatta family’s businesses and any companies that were either associated with them, or had, in one way or another, presumed to have abetted President Uhuru’s contested win. So, in addition to the family’s large business empire, Safaricom, the largest mobile network company in this part of the world, was on NASA’s radar of companies whose products were to be avoided. The second tier to the economic boycott was a proposal, through the creation of county assemblies in opposition strongholds, for people to decide, whether indeed they wanted to be part of Kenya.

The family business

The biggest Kenyatta family business visible on a daily basis in Kenyan homes is the Brookside Dairy Company. Plutocrats, as well as mainly urban proletariats, use one or more of the several milk products sold under the Brookside label.

Milky tea is consumed widely in Kenyan homes. Drinking a cup of tea is a habit so ingrained in Kenyans’ psyche that it has become second nature for Kenyan families to round off their supper with a steaming cup of tea. It is a habit they picked from the British colonialists, who encouraged tea growing as a cash crop.

With the onset of the boycott, Brookside, a market leader in processed milk, suddenly suffered a steep slump, so much so that Christina Pratt, President Uhuru’s sister, took to visiting various supermarkets, especially in Nairobi, to gauge the daily sales of Brookside products. (I confirmed this in December 2017 when I also did my own survey to measure to what extent the boycott was biting. The French consortium, Danone, had in 2014 acquired a 40 per cent stake in the milk conglomerate through the holding company Brookside Africa Holding Ltd, while Abraaj Group, the Dubai-based private equity firm, had staked a 10 per cent ownership in 2009. Danone is supposed to push Brookside products abroad, hence globalising the Kenyatta family’s business and leveraging its merchandise in a world of cut-throat competition.

With the onset of the boycott, Brookside, a market leader in processed milk, suddenly suffered a steep slump, so much so that Christina Pratt, President Uhuru’s sister, took to visiting various supermarkets, especially in Nairobi, to gauge the daily sales of Brookside products.

“The boycott was a dangerously crippling idea as a political tool, because the Kenyattas’ best-known flagship was going down the drain, right in front of their eyes…something had to be done fast…and done very fast,” said my friend, who works for the Brookside Dairy Company in Ruiru, off the Thika Superhighway. “Let us cut to the chase,” added my friend. “Uhuru Kenyatta is not concerned with the Kenyan nation’s legacy but with the Kenyatta family’s legacy.”

“The family business had to be protected by all means, by any means necessary,” said a Central Kenya MP who is close to President Uhuru. “Instructions from the matriarch, Mama Ngina, to Uhuru and family was that the cardinal rule was to protect the business and not politics per se. In other words, use politics to shield your businesses from external interference or collapse.”

The other issue that terribly worried President Uhuru and his close-knit political cabal was the talk about secession. “It became a terrifying waking nightmare to them, that a section of Kenyans would even contemplate the thought of slicing off the country because of political dissatisfaction,” said the MP. “These were a different type of angry Kenyans, separate from the Kenyans who even when their votes had been stolen in past elections never contemplated going their own away.”

Apart from the Kenyatta family’s business agonies, Safaricom, which NASA and its opposition supporters countrywide had accused of providing servers to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – servers the election commission to date has refused to open for public scrutiny – was seriously looking to the possible end of its close to two decades of mobile telephony monopoly. Kenyans allied to NASA were furiously opting for Safaricom’s competitor, Airtel. “The Safaricom management team was wailing in its boardroom, wondering what to do, as scores of Kenyans daily migrated to Airtel,” said a Safaricom senior manager to me. “The team called Raila and asked him why he was hell-bent on collapsing the company. Similarly, the team was also piqued by President Uhuru because he seemed impotent in the wake of the economic boycott. They were peeing in their pants, in a manner of speaking.”

The economic boycott, the threats of secession, a withering state, and pressure from Western governments became the push factors that drove the Kenyatta family to initiate a political rapprochement with Raila Odinga, confided an aide to President Uhuru.

The people’s president

Raila, on the other hand, was also undergoing his own political catharsis. “Wherever he went, the people become cantankerous and difficult to calm down: “Hapana…hapana…kula Bible kwanza, kabla hujaongea na sisi” (Swear by the Bible first before talking to us), roared the crowds. Critically, his political career was on the cards, observed one of his aides recently in an interview. “The masses had run ahead of Raila and they were demanding he become their president, failure to which they would abandon him.”

The economic boycott, the threats of secession, a withering state, and pressure from Western governments became the push factors that drove the Kenyatta family to initiate a political rapprochement with Raila Odinga, confided an aide to President Uhuru.

The NASA brigade had decreed that in the light of the contested presidential elections, Raila Odinga would be publicly sworn in as “the Peoples’ President”. He had postponed this once on Jamhuri (Independence) Day on 12 December 2017, and the backlash from his supporters was unmistakable. “If he postponed it again, they were going to have him for supper and that would have been the end of his illustrious political career,” reminisced one of Raila’s aides. “On 30 January 2018, a reluctant Raila was publicly sworn in at Uhuru Park as the Peoples’ President to great aplomb by the throngs of the masses who attended the rally.”

Western countries’ ambassadors and like-minded envoys told Raila point black: “You’ve been appointed the peoples’ president, but know that you’re all alone.” They reminded him of his political stature as one of the country’s leading politicians, his international reputation, and his input of many years in national and global political arenas. They asked him whether he was willing to see all that credibility washed away because of his recalcitrant stance. “Separately, therefore, Raila Odinga was also having his moments of exorcising his demons and coming to terms with the political realities of the day,” observed the aide.

Although the same Western envoys did not rebuke President Uhuru, they nonetheless asked him to map out ways of accommodating and working with Raila. “It was a veiled threat because they let him know that if he failed to do so, they would institute economic sanctions on his regime and make his life as a president keen on a legacy difficult,” confided a foreign diplomat friend who works for the European Union (EU).

Raila Amolo Odinga has paid a huge price for dabbling in national politics: He has been detained for close to a decade by the state. In the 2007 general elections, he saw his presidential victory snatched. In recent times, he has also experienced personal traumas: His first-born son Fidel died in 2015; his daughter Rosemary is recovering from a debilitating sickness (both of these two calamitous situations have been energy-sapping, friends of Raila tell me); and real threats had been made on his life. At 75, Raila is also no longer the youthful adrenaline-driven politician who could pack public rallies and indoor meetings into 18 hours and still spare four hours of just enough sleep to see him through the next day’s political onslaught.

Although the same Western envoys did not rebuke President Uhuru, they nonetheless asked him to map out ways of accommodating and working with Raila. “It was a veiled threat because they let him know that if he failed to do so, they would institute economic sanctions on his regime and make his life as a president keen on a legacy difficult,” confided a foreign diplomat friend who works for the European Union (EU).

Amid all this, his dutiful wife, Ida, has borne the brunt of his oppositional politics. While Raila politicked, she held the family together, ensuring that politics did not come in the way of the family’s private lives. “But the 2017 presidential elections, his swearing-in ceremony on January 30, and threats on his life had tested her great patience and worn her down,” said a friend close to the Odingas.

Impeccable political folklore has it that it was the Kenyattas who approached the Odinga family for a candid sit-down, said a Central Kenya MP. “With the ongoing threats to their businesses, a wobbly economy and a hollow electoral win, the Kenyattas were in a bad place: they had to reach out to Raila, but only through Ida,” said a source who was privy to the on- goings.

“Before the actual handshake on the material day, President Uhuru and Raila had met for several hours, haggling and going over issues of mutual convergence and interest,” revealed an MP from Central Kenya. BBI has nine points that President Uhuru and Raila agreed to work on. They are: ethnic antagonism and competition, lack of a national ethos, inclusivity, devolution, divisive elections, safety and security, corruption, shared prosperity, responsibilities and rights.

“I remember President Uhuru telling his deputy William Ruto: ‘We’ve to bring on board Raila Odinga, if we don’t, we’ll not be able to govern this country,’” said my source, who is known to both of them. “The only thing that Ruto was not told was when and where the handshake would take place.”

Ruto had run the country between 2013 and 2017, quipped the Central Kenya MP, “and it had been a disastrous affair. Yet both Uhuru and Ruto share blame for running the country down.”

BBI and the Kikuyu-Kalenjin rift

In 2014, a year after Uhuru and Ruto formed the Jubilee government, President Uhuru summoned all Kikuyu MPs to State House and told them that if they needed anything, they should go to the Deputy President. “We must ensure our people trust the DP…you know our people are conservative,” the President is purported to have told the MPs. The two had campaigned on a platform of being the victims of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and therefore had been “joined at the hip” as they canvassed for votes from Kenyans who had been ethnically and emotionally whipped to vote for them.

“In that meeting, Esther Murugi (former Nyeri Town MP) disagreed with the president,” recounted the MP. “‘In Nyeri, we’ve had IDPs [internally displaced people] at Kinoru. Mwai Kibaki [Kenya’s third President] ruled with these people [the Kalenjin] because he feared them,’” said Murugi to President Uhuru. “This is simply untenable.” Three years down the line, Esther Murugi was one of the first Central Kenya MPs to fail to recapture her seat because she did not get the Jubilee nomination.

“Ruto is very vindictive,” the Central Kenya MP reminded me. “He doesn’t forgive: all those people he suspects of having implicated him in the ICC case must be punished.” The MP told me that some of the MPs who failed to bag the Jubilee Party nomination tickets and eventually “lost” in 2017 elections are suspected by Ruto’s people of helping to compile part of the report that incriminated him and sent him to the ICC.

2014 was not the last time that President Uhuru summoned MPs to State House. In August 2017, he met with newly elected Jubilee Party MPs. “He was soaking drunk and he lectured us, as a headmaster would his pupils,” said a first-time MP from North Rift. “Rookie MPs who had never been to State House were excited to be called for the breakfast meeting. But when they were lectured by a drunk president, who was allegedly banging tables, cursing and swearing, they were dumbfounded.”

“Ruto is very vindictive,” the Central Kenya MP reminded me. “He doesn’t forgive: all those people he suspects of having implicated him in the ICC case must be punished.” The MP told me that some of the MPs who failed to bag the Jubilee Party nomination tickets and eventually “lost” in 2017 elections are suspected by Ruto’s people of helping to compile part of the report that incriminated him and sent him to the ICC.

“Don’t joke with a president who’s not seeking a second term,” President Uhuru is reported to have told the MPs. “I dare anyone who will not do as I say to walk through that door,” he hollered to the now cowed MPs. “Why he was angry, we don’t know. When he finished ranting, the MPs stood up and instead of heading to the laid out breakfast tables, they hastily walked to their waiting cars, and drove off in a huff.”

As fate would it, a few days after that tense meeting, the Supreme Court nullified the election on September 1. “Uhuru once again quickly summoned us to State House: ‘You’ve seen what the court has done to our win’” said a now mellow and pliant president. ‘We need to put our heads together and strategise on how to win the presidential seat again.’ He was now speaking to us in collegial terms – ‘our win’ – the insults and threats had gone, he wanted our help so badly…that’s our President Uhuru.”

“A year later, BBI has not communicated the handshake properly to Kenyans,” said my Central Kenya MP friend. “There hasn’t been enough awareness about its real and true agenda and intentions.”

Unlike the handshake of 2008, which was witnessed by, among others, Tanzanian leaders, Benjamin William Mkapa and Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, and the Ghanaian statesman Kofi Annan, the 2018 handshake did little to reduce mistrust or to help build confidence and lend credence to the rapprochement. On the contrary, the 2018 handshake is shrouded in suspicion; many Kenyans believe it has an insidious agenda and most are hard put to explain what it means.

One of the very first things President Uhuru and Raila, now under the auspices of BBI, had planned to do was to visit Central Kenya, as the first entry point of selling the BBI agenda, said the Central Kenya MP. “It was a natural and obvious consequence that BBI seeks to build trust and confidence among these two warring communities, but the visit has remained on the cards, postponed several times.” The MP said Central Kenya has not been in the mood to welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta. “Right now, they don’t feel him, they feel let down by a leader who seem impervious to their economic tribulations. This is what the intelligence reports relayed to the president have been saying.”

But, said the MP, this could all be hot air: “Right now, it’s true they are angry and bitter with muthamaki, so, to project their anger they become emotional and end up saying irrational things like, ‘We’ll vote for William Ruto.’ Kikuyus are the most ethnocentric community in Kenya, and all this bottled-up anger melts on the D-Day [election day]. When they say they’ll vote for Ruto, they mean they’ll vote for him from their houses. No Kikuyu will troop to the ballot booth to line up and vote for a non-Kikuyu presidential candidate – Ruto included.”

Paul Mwangi, one of the joint secretaries (the other is Martin Kimani) to BBI, disputes the assertion that there has been a planned Central Kenya visit from the two leaders that has failed to materialise. “It is not true that the two leaders have been planning to visit Central Kenya. Remember BBI has been holding town hall meetings across the country and it wouldn’t be a great idea to start the visits. For two reasons: one, fear of raising political temperatures and two, fear of misinterpretation of BBI’s work by some MPs, who would want to hijack the BBI’s agenda for their own gain.”

“A year later, BBI has not communicated the handshake properly to Kenyans,” said my Central Kenya MP friend. “There hasn’t been enough awareness about its real and true agenda and intentions.”

Mwangi said BBI had already conducted 18 town hall meetings. “There 29 more to go, it is obvious we’ll not beat the stipulated one year deadline. We’re going to ask for more time from the principals.”

Even with less than half of the counties visited, the emerging theme in these meetings has been – punda amechoka…punguza mzigo (The donkey is overloaded and therefore fatigued…let’s lessen its weight). That is the literal translation. The interpretation is that the voter feels burdened and therefore fatigued by the seemingly overwhelming extra political seats created by the new constitution promulgated in August 2010.

With a ballooning wage bill, and mounting domestic and external debts that have apparently overwhelmed the government, the state has sometimes inadvertently been giving the impression that it cannot deliver development and services to the people because it is having to spend a lot of money paying political leaders.

Be that as it may, “BBI is nothing but an entrenched political cabal’s way of controlling national politics and state power so that they remain with the people who have always controlled the two. But more importantly, it is the cabal’s way of ensuring that state power does not land in the ‘wrong hands’’, said a Jubilee MP, who is a friend to both President Uhuru and his deputy. “The Kenyatta family would like to have a political stranglehold on Kenya, the way the Bongo family in Gabon has done.” (Ali Bongo, who has ruled Gabon since 2009, took over from his father, Omar Bongo, who was president for 42 uninterrupted years.)

“BBI’s town hall meetings are supposed to culminate in a referendum and this is where the catch is – it’ll not be by popular vote, but by delegates voting by acclamation,” opined the Jubilee MP. “All these supposed town hall meetings are a ruse: BBI knows what it wants, how it wants it…these meetings are dress rehearsals that are supposed to dupe the people to believe that their voices matter. Carefully selected delegates from 24 counties will be assembled at the Bomas of Kenya for a convention in which they will all unanimously agree to pass the tabled resolutions. That’s how it shall come to be.”

Yet, in a carefully worded rejoinder, Mwangi retorted to the contrary: “BBI has no position on whether or not there’ll be a referendum, that’s a matter that will be dependent on the solutions that BBI will recommend to the principals and where the holding of the referendum will take place will be part of those resolutions.”

The referendum is a must, my sources from Raila’s quarters said to me matter-of-factly. “Raila has indicated there’ll be a referendum this year, it must happen, if it could happen before the population census, the better and he is not bluffing…if it doesn’t take place, he walks away…it is a very serious matter to him.” (The Kenya population census is slated for August this year.)

“We welcome the referendum,” said a North Rift Jubilee MP and one of the DP’s close associates. “We’re not afraid of it. We are going to frame the question differently and better and we’ll be asking Kenyans – kama kweli punda amechoka, (if truly the people are overwhelmed, hence, the demand for a reduction of the constitutional stipulated seats), why then expand the executive? This not our first referendum to engage in…we have been there before and we know how to play the game.”

The Ruto factor

The MP observed that the machinations against Ruto by the so-called “Kiambu mafia” will not work. “Ruto is a hardened and seasoned politician, he has passed through many political tribulations and overcome them. Even this one, he’s going to overcome it.”

The MP pointed out to me that during the August 2010 referendum on the new constitution, in which the Greens supported the new constitution, while the Reds opposed it (with Ruto in the Red corner), “Ruto, even without having money to wage a proper campaign, still gave his antagonists a run for their money.”

Recently, William Ruto’s think tank has advised him to travel abroad and seduce Western countries’ audiences. At a Chatham House lecture on 8 February this year, he supposedly talked tough and even alluded to Raila as a professional perennial presidential loser. These presidential losers are the people who cause trouble in Africa, he is said to have told the audience. After the Chatham House engagement, on 12 February, he dropped by at the BBC’s London offices for the first of his planned media charm offensives – an interview with BBC Hard Talk host Stephen Sackur. Sackur was typically blunt and probing, even suggesting that Ruto was known to be among Kenya’s most corrupt people. The charm offensive obviously failed as Ruto struggled to make his case.

But BBI is not the only juggernaut the DP will have to contend with. “Ruto rigged many of the Central and Mount Kenya Jubilee Party MPs that he felt were not on his side, or would be difficult to control, or influence,” said the MP. “He ensured all loyal MPs from his side were handed the certificates easily. That was not the arrangement he had with Uhuru when he was tasked to take charge of the party nomination affairs after the fiasco of the first countrywide nominations trials.”

The MP said that all the former MPs who lost their seats and who are still smarting from their loss loathe Ruto, and are just waiting for the opportune time to strike back. “Yes, they also rail against President Uhuru privately; ‘the man has never been in control of anything.’ They, therefore, have sworn to not support any venture by Ruto. They are adamant they won’t stop saying Ruto rigged them out.”

Among the most hurt of the Mount Kenya politicians who accuse Ruto of rigging them out are: Cecily Mbarire (who ran for the Embu governor seat); Kabando wa Kabando (former MP, Mukurwe-ini in Nyeri County); Martha Karua (who ran for the Kirinyaga County governor’s seat); Mutahi Kagwe (who ran for the senator’s seat in Nyeri County); Ndung’u Gethenji (the former MP for Tetu, Nyeri County); Peter Kenneth (who ran for the Nairobi County governor’s seat); Peter Munya (who ran for the Meru County governor’s seat); Rachel Shebesh (who ran for Women Representative in Nairobi County); and William Kabogo (who ran for the Kiambu County governor’s seat). “Kagwe, Kenneth and Munya are still so angry with Ruto, they won’t even talk to him,” said the MP.

Some of these politicians ran as independents after forming the Kenya Association of Independent Candidates (KAIC) led by Kabogo and deputised by Gethenji. “These are the people who will form the bulwark of opposition to Ruto in the Mount Kenya region. Take it from me, the Jubilee Party, as currently constituted, will not be there in 2022,” said the MP. Hardly surprising in a country where political parties are vehicles for convenience and conveyance and where new parties are formed during every election season.

The Mount Kenya MPs are not only privately accusing President Uhuru of political inaction, “they are also nervous and suspicious of him,” said the MP. “They know President Uhuru, on his own, cannot out-think both Raila and Ruto. They therefore cannot hitch their wagon in his current party. They are also scared of voters’ backlash: it cannot be that the country must be ruled by two communities, passing the presidential race baton to each other, back and forth…that at some point must stop, because it’s unacceptable by all standards.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

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

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

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

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

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enablers and drivers of development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

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

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

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

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

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

Why money is never free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

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

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

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

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

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


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

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

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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