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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

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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