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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart
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The Luyia community has produced more vice presidents than any other Kenyan community. Musalia Mudavadi was appointed vice president in 2002 for 90 days, Wamalwa Kijana in 2003 for seven months and Moody Awori was also Mwai Kibaki’s vice president between 2003 and 2007. But has this ever translated into any political clout or force? That has always been the big question of the day.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu. This history does not make any of the clans less Luyia. Indeed, the entire community is an amalgamation of Bantu and Nilotic genealogy, bound by a common linguistic and cultural orientation acquired through adoption or assimilation. There are more than 800 Luyia clans to date, existing as units with fluid boundaries, joined together by a thin mosaic band of cultural and linguistic similarities.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu.

The political union between these clans has eluded them since the formation of the word “Abaluyia” in 1943. In essence, Luyia ethnicity did not exist before then. British ethnographers called all tribes in western Kenya “Kavirondos”, a pejorative term resented by the Luyia, Luo, Kalenjin, Kisii, Kuria, and Teso. The fight by these communities to redeem their respective ethnic pride was somewhat achieved when the name Kavirondo was expunged from official use and replaced by “Nyanza”, which in some Luyia dialects means “a large water body”. What we refer to as Western Kenya was then called North Nyanza.

Most of these clans that shared closely related ethnic polity did not have a centralised system of traditional governance. Around the Second World War, traditional leaders in pre-colonial Kenya realised the world had changed, and with it political parameters. Only organised societies with definite ethnic identities could survive and possibly benefit politically by bandying together. The so-called Luyia communities were not spared the effects of this political idea.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word Luyia was first proposed by the local African Mutual Assistance Association in 1930 and adopted by the North Kavirondo Central Association in 1935, although some sub-communities’ elders rejected it. Their opposition gradually waned and the name started gaining currency.

In 1940, the Abaluyia Welfare Association was born, partly to popularise the name “Abaluyia” as a first step to creating a super ethnic identity. Shortly afterwards, a language committee was formed, and following its recommendations in 1943, the Luyia nation was born. It was formally adopted to describe a federation of lexically- related Bantu sub-tribes as a distinct tribal group living in the western part of Kenya.

According to Shadrack Bulimo, a Kenya-born ethnographer based in Edmonton Canada, “midwifing the super tribe was the easy bit; nurturing and developing socio-cultural institutions to anchor an impregnable system with national ethos, has evaded Abaluyia tribesmen for three generations. Over the years, talk of Luyia unity has waxed and waned depending on prevailing political temperatures, in a cyclical pattern that continues even today especially during electioneering.”

“Luyia unity is a favourite subject among politicians whenever elections are looming, but the same leaders are unwilling to jump into one political vehicle to harmonise the region’s socio-economic interests,” Bulimo argues.

Origins

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters. If a stranger joined them, they would ask, “Which Oluyia do you belong to?” to establish where the person was from in order to guard against threatening strangers or enemy infiltration.

Besides a family hearth, each clan had a common village gathering place where elders assembled to honour a village summon. This way, Oluyia also served as a village court where important matters were discussed, argued and adjudicated. It derived a different meaning but for a similar purpose. The village’s largest tree replaced the individual family’s hearth and became the focal point of Oluyia during the day. Gradually, when people said they were going for a meeting at Oluyia they meant the village common ground, rather than the literal fireplace. (Note the spelling of the word “Oluyia” without the “h”. The first Arabs encountered by Luyias are to blame for being unable to pronounce the word “Luyia” hence corrupting it by adding the letter “h” in their writing. Eventually, the new spelling came to be and was gradually adopted by scholars.)

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters.

The other meaning of Oluyia is both micro and macro. Those who share a fireplace as a lineage or clan belong to the same Oluyia (micro meaning). Thus when a group of clans come together they form Aba-luyia (sub-tribe) or Aba-luyia (macro-tribe). Nowadays the Abaluyia or Luhya generally means people who speak any of the closely- related 18 dialects found in Busia, Kakamega, Bungoma and Vihiga counties.

However, this group of 18 related nations have had distinct experiences under colonialism, and specifically under the various Christian missions. The missionary church played a huge role in the politics of the Luyia community and in the developments and cleavages of Luyia identity.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway reached Kisumu (then known as Port Florence) in 1901. Two years later, the Quakers (Friends Mission) started a mission hospital and primary school at Kaimosi in Tiriki. The Quakers would quickly become dominant in the area because, apart from evangelising, they introduced vocational training that imparted employable skills like carpentry, tailoring, masonry and machining to the natives.

A defining moment in the political history of Luyias had just been established. And somehow, the seed of discord among the community had also been sowed.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

Under this pact, the Church Missionary Society – later called Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) and today the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) – was assigned to evangelise among the Luo and the Marama. The Church of God was assigned Bunyore, Kisa and Butsotso. Friends African Mission (Quakers), with its headquarters in Kaimosi, was assigned Maragoli, Bukusu and Tiriki. Catholics were to concentrate on Wanga, Isukha and Idakho; the Mill Hill Fathers – also Catholic – anchored their mission at Mukumu in Isukha. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) from Ontario, Canada, through Otto Keller, later established the mission at Nyangori. (Nyang’ori is located about 15km from Kisumu at the confluence of Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Province.) Keller soon became very popular because he introduced drumming, which attracted locals to his church and annoyed Quakers who were already dominant in the area.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

The Church Missionary Society (Anglicans) started a mission at Maseno, led by James Jamieson Willis and Hugh Saville, to preach to the Luo people. Maseno School later developed into one of the best centres of academic excellence in Kenya. Having been established at a borderline, many neighbouring Luyia boys were enrolled into the mission alongside Luos. After all, inter-marriage between the Luo and Luyia had existed along the Maseno borderline.

The British appointed Nabongo Mumia as paramount chief of the region in 1913. Nabongo Mumia acquired the first bicycle in 1910, making him the first Luyia to do so, and since then, the item has remained a precious possession amongst the Luyias. Mumia was also the first Luyia to own a motor car. He retired in 1926 and died in 1949 aged 100 years, and was buried at Itokho in Mumias. The first sewing machine was introduced in 1916 by the Singer Company, which sold it to the Irish CMS Missionary at Butere. Modernity or “civilization” had arrived in Luyialand.

The Bukusu were the only Luyia community to openly resist the colonialists in 1895. They built Chetambe Fort in Webuye to reinforce their battle with the white man. The British fought back their warriors in 1895, ending the Bukusu resistance. To date, Bukusus perceive themselves as brave warriors.

The Quakers and their mission

Islam was also present in Luyialand, and was brought to Wanga by Arab traders en route to Buganda in 1902. Beyond Wanga, there was little success in spreading the religion to the rest of Luyialand. Since Swahilis raided Bukusus for slaves, they met stiff resistance and hence few Bukusu converted to Islam. In Nabongo Mumia’s court, the Swahili occupied an envious position in the colonial administration. They were employed as tax collectors, informers and circumcisers of Wanga Muslims convertees, despite being associated with cunningness and corrupt practices. Today many Luyias refer to Abawanga as Abaswahili (implying cunning and untrustworthy people).

But it was the American Quakers Mission, which was dominant in the area, that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism. Their arrival marked a radical approach that was different from that of earlier evangelists who only preached the gospel without investing in vocational and educational infrastructure.

Kaimosi was established in Tiriki where believers did not initially resist the American missionaries. (They especially enjoyed and appreciated the health facilities.) Yet things took a turn for the worse when the Quakers began to question the traditional Tiriki way of life. The backlash was so severe that by 1910, only eleven Tirikis remained as converts. With time, the missionary efforts were combined with other colonial instruments like schooling, waged labour, taxation, property laws and urbanisation. Christianity disrupted traditional social practices like marriage and circumcision.

But it was the American Quakers Mission…that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism.

The Tirikis found themselves in a deep quagmire when their land was forcefully acquired by the missionaries, and when their culture was maligned and disrupted. They coexisted as uneasy neighbours with the Quakers, who they now disliked for their stand on polygamy and traditional culture. It meant that other Luyia communities gradually found refuge at the Kaimosi mission. Girls who sought refuge after running away from forceful suitors arrived at Kaimosi. Another sticking point was the presence of many non-Tiriki, especially Maragoli, as workers to the missionaries. This fostered the feeling that the mission favoured “outsiders”.

Where the Tiriki lost, the Maragoli gained. With a huge population occupying a small area, they migrated in droves to live among the Tiriki in Kaimosi, becoming a sizeable minority. As early as 1904, the Maragoli made up the majority labour force at Kaimosi, a trend that has continued to date.

At this point, Kaimosi was the only intermediate school in Luyialand where the rest of the sub-clans had to go for education past Standard 3. On arrival, they came face to face with the perceived Maragoli dominance at the mission, which caused resentment. Led by the Bukusu, the other communities felt that they were “there to be seen and not to be heard”. Most of the leading schools in Luyialand were either established or affiliated to Quakers; these included the Musingu, Kaimosi and Lugulu schools. However, the first government school (Kakamega High School) was built in 1932.

In any case, the Maragoli were the first Luyia to take advantage of the new economic and social opportunities presented by colonialism. They were among the first to join schools, so the Quakers found it easier to work with them as opposed to the Tiriki. Consequently, the Quakers, led by Emory Rees and his wife Deborah, arrived at Vihiga from South Africa, and between 1903 and 1926 they learnt the Maragoli language and translated the Bible and school texts. This made conversion to Christianity among the Maragoli much easier. To date, most Christian hymnals among the Luyia are written and sung in their language.

The Maragoli started drifting from their traditional ways after 1910 with the arrival and influence of the Quakers. They for instance gradually started to drift from traditional circumcision ceremonies altogether, preferring western medical practices. Their purview of customary belief systems also changed dramatically. Conversion to Christianity or adoption of Western values had no negative social backlash among them. Maragolis, hence, became the first amongst equals in the eyes of the missionaries and other Luyias.

In Kaimosi, the Quakers mission would gain even more prominence in 1927 when it was the centre of a Pentecostal revivalist rebellion led by native Africans. The discontent simmered until the missionaries met with rebels and they had no choice but to expel some members who went ahead to establish the African Spiritual Church (Dini Ya Roho). In 1942, Daudi Zakayo Kivuli also founded his own church: The African Israel Nineveh Church. He installed his wife Rebecca as the High Priestess and when she died in 1983, her grandson John Mweresa Kivuli, took over as the current High Priest. Their followers are noted for wearing white turbans.

In 1946, Dini Ya Musambwa (Religion of Ancestral Spirits) was established by Elijah Masinde as a protest movement against Christian churches, which preached against ancestral sacrifices and polygamy. The Bukusu revere him as a prophet (omung’osi). In 1957 another splinter group led by Saulo Chabuga formed the African Divine Church in Maragoli. By 2008 they had around 25,000 churches spread out in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

After several misunderstandings and clamour for autonomy, the Kaimosi Quakers transferred the boys’ school from the Tiriki and Maragoli to the Bukusu, renaming it Friends School Kamusinga in the heart of Bukusuland in Kimilili. The seeds of future disunity were planted by that simple action. Bukusus started seeing themselves as equal to Maragolis, at least on the education (read civilisation) front.

Meanwhile, the Catholic missionaries tolerated local customs like polygamy, drinking alcohol and dancing at funerals. Locals in Isukha and Idakho who wanted to continue with this way of life found refuge amongst the Catholics, who did not condemn these practices too loudly. When they tried to replicate their success in Maragoli, they met stiff resistance – the Maragoli were already firmly embedded with the Quakers. The only Catholic mission arrived in the form of Maragoli Girls’ Secondary School at Mbale set up by Mill Hill Missionaries, and this was as late as 1971.

The Tiriki resistance to Christianity was finally broken when Chief Paul Amiani joined the Salvation Army in 1932, and by the sheer force of his personality built strong followers, offering the much-needed alternative to Quaker dominance. Through him, the Tiriki elders accepted their youth to undergo both Christian and traditional initiation ceremonies. They also embraced education as an engine for personal and economic development. But as they did this, the horse (read Maragoli) had already bolted with the diadem of “modernity”.

In fact, when the idea of forming an “Abaluyia” identity was mooted in 1943, resistance came from the Maragoli community, who made it known to all and sundry that the Maragoli were not part of the Luyia nation – they were simply Maragoli. Nevertheless, the Maragoli never formally or officially asked for the name to be expunged from the list of communities that form the Luyia nation, leaving them firmly included.

Pulling apart

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas: Cluster one – Logooli, Nyole, Tiriki; Cluster two – Isukha, Idakho, Kisa, Wanga, Batsotso and Marama; Cluster three – Bukusu, Tachoni, Kabras, Abanyala (Kakamega); and Cluster four – Samia, Marachi, Abakhayo, Abanyala (Busia). According to scholar Abraham Mirimo, “all Luyia dialects share a core lexical structure and only minor inflection in suffixation and prefixation divided them”.

Talk of Luyia unity and two groups strongly come to mind – the Bukusu and the Maragoli, who are always believed to be pulling apart. Is it a coincidence that they are also the most migratory and daring of all Luyia sub-nations? Sample this. The Bukusu are mainly found in Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. They are the most populous of the Luyia sub-nations, forming about 20 per cent of the estimated six million Luyia population. (The name Bungoma is derived from Bongamek, a Kalenjin tribe that originally occupied the territory.) In the 10th Parliament, they had seven MPs representing their domiciled interest in Kanduyi, Bumula, Webuye, Sirisia, Kimilili, Tongaren, Kwanza and Saboti. Their presence is spread out and overlaps into Trans-Nzoia, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu counties.

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas…

Maragolis are also found beyond the boundaries of Vihiga County. In 1927 they ventured into Uriri in Migori County. The international language encyclopedia Ethnologue, Issue no.16, even lists the Maragoli as a tribe in Tanzania, across the border from Migori. A contingent of Maragoli immigrants settled in Bunyoro, Uganda in 1958 following an agreement between the British colonial government and the Kingdom of Bunyoro. Now estimated at around 35,000, the Maragoli were even allocated land at Kigumba in Kiryandogo district but are now spread to Ntoma and Masindi. They have an unofficial pressure group led by one Eliakimu Adola pushing for their official recognition as a fully-fledged Ugandan tribe, having settled there for over half a century.

Masinde Muliro, a Bukusu, proved quite a principled and fair leader who earned respect across the community. Born at Matili near Kimilili in 1920, he was among the founders of the FORD party, which struggled against President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party tyranny. Muliro instantly became the quintessential Luyia leader and is immortalised by a university in Kakamega, the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). On August 27, 2011, the government declared him a national hero.

Muliro came from the Bakokho clan, and his political defining moment came in 1975, when he voted against a government report into the murder of JM Kariuki. He was the only cabinet minister to do so. Peter Kibisu, an Assistant Minister for Labour and MP for Vihiga, also voted against the report. An angry President Jomo Kenyatta sacked both Muliro and Kibisu, tossing them into the political wilderness. Once again the Bukusu and Maragoli had proved their political mettle within the Luyia nation.

After Muliro’s sacking, Moses Substone Budamba Mudavadi stepped into his large shoes. By virtue of his close association with President Moi, Mudavadi – a Maragoli – wielded immense power that was felt across Luyialand and beyond. Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi has followed as a titular Luyia leader, but his “gentle” mien attracted detractors who until today feel he lacks “fire in his belly”. Musalia, though, proved them all wrong in 2007, when under the ODM party he delivered 18 seats as the party’s torch bearer. So far he has cut his own apron strings by launching the Amani National Congress (ANC).

Another leader who earned respect across the Luyia community was the late Michael Christopher Kijana Wamalwa. Though raised a Bukusu, his roots can be traced to the Sabaot. Wamalwa’s father, Senator William Chemayek Ngeywo, was a Sabaot who changed his name to Wamalwa to get a missionary education as the Sabaot suffered discrimination in those days. (“Chemayek” in the Sabaot and indeed Kalenjin language is “alcohol” and its equivalent in naming is “Wamalwa” in Lu-bukusu.) Michael’s mother, Esther Nekesa, however, was a Bukusu from the Baengele clan. His Sabaot roots did not matter as he was raised Bukusu, underscoring that the Luyia nation is a confluence of Kalenjin, Maasai, Luo and Bantu ethnicities

Although political unity has been a slippery path for Luyias, their most astounding success has occurred outside politics. The Abaluyia United Football Club (AFC Leopards) was formed in 1964. All teams under the sub-tribal banners agreed to merge and form one team. You can be sure everything was smooth until the Maragolis opted to remain autonomous by keeping their Maragoli United Football Club. Still, the club remains the only veritable symbol of Luyia unity where leading personalities have always sought to be elected chairman or patron. Player unity on the pitch helped it to succeed in the East African region.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically. They actually came from different directions and met within the boundaries of the so-called Western Province. Since they do not trace their lineage to one ancestor, like the Gikuyu with Mumbi or the Luos with Ramogi as their patriarch, it was arguably a convergence for convenience.

The Bukusu and Maragolis are undoubtedly great achievers among the Luyia sub-nations. Compared to other Luyia sub-nations, they know how to position themselves politically. Whereas Bukusus consider themselves warriors, Maragolis carry themselves as the elites of Luyialand who were the first to “see the light” when others were still in darkness. The two communities are also perceived to be haughty and domineering, a trait that repels both Maragolis and Bukusus from other Luyias. They have nowadays morphed into two great, conjoined siblings and none is ready to let go.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically.

Indeed none is ready to be seen as subordinate to the other. They both have produced Vice Presidents in Kijana Wamalwa and Musalia Mudavadi, and in community leaders Masinde Muliro and Moses Mudavadi, and it appears as if they are always on a permanent ‘check-mate alert mode’. The recognition of Muliro in the naming of the biggest university in Luyialand located in Kakamega the headquarters of Luyias was perceived to be a scoop of sorts for the Bukusus. In addition, the biggest public park that convenes political rallies – Muliro Gardens – ‘the biggest Oluyia’ was also named after the great son of Bukusuland.

After all these years of push and pull based on historical and post-independent seeds of discord, it is clear that the elusive Luyia unity is still a long shot.

My friend James Wasike says, “as long as the Maragoli are always on standby to throw a spanner in the Bukusu works and vice-versa, Luyia unity will still remain a mirage”. Alternatively, as long as the Bukusu still harbour the Kaimosi grudge, where they were looked down upon by the Maragoli who are in any case their historical competitors, the Luyia nation will not be able to truly say: ‘I am my brother’s keeper’.

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Bethuel Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

SportPesa: It’s Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya’s Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

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SportPesa: It's Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya's Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse
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Today, The Guardian publishes an investigation we have carried out with them into Kenya’s biggest betting company, SportPesa. With its name emblazoned on the shirts of Premier League club Everton FC and a Formula One racing team, SportPesa is Kenya’s most powerful gambling firm – operating in a sector that sucks $2bn from Kenyans every year.

Its shareholders include Bulgarian businessmen, one of whom, Guerassim Nikolov, has a background in casinos and about whom historic concerns were raised in the Bulgarian media, which he vehemently denies. Its corporate structure is opaque. Our reporter, Lionel Faull, worked with Bivol, the Bulgarian investigative website, and The Guardian, to examine the inner workings of SportPesa. That piece is here.

Lionel also dug into the effect the gambling epidemic is having on Kenya’s youth. Here he reports on how one student activist became a victim of gambling addiction but who is now spearheading a campaign to bring about meaningful regulation. The activist also wants to see there is proper treatment for the hundreds of thousands of young addicted Kenyans who need help after having been lured into betting away money they can ill afford to lose.

As part of their lucrative five-year deal with SportPesa, Everton played a pre-season match in Kenya this month

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

A year later I prepared to travel to Nairobi to research a story about SportPesa. We at Finance Uncovered were interested in its stunning success. Founded and run by politically connected Bulgarian businessmen in Nairobi in 2014, it is now the biggest of Kenya’s mushrooming sports betting companies. And as we report with the Guardian today, so successful has it been exploiting the gambling craze in Kenya it has opened a European headquarters in the UK.

While investigating, I was struck by the almost total lack of any comprehensive data about the wider industry in Kenya and its millions of punters.

Sure, multiple news articles celebrated the rags-to-riches tales of jackpot winners, some of whom just as suddenly revert to rags. Others narrated horrifying individual anecdotes of gambling addiction, depression and suicide.

The gambling regulatory authority’s online presence amounted to a single sub-page of the interior ministry’s website and there was seemingly no organisation offering tailored counselling to problem gamblers.

It was as if a vast, silent vacuum had settled in the gaps between the sports betting billboards which peered down on Nairobi’s scurrying pedestrians.
Finally, someone referred me to a gambling awareness website which was run on a volunteer basis by Nelson Bwire, a 24-year old economics student at Kenyatta University.

“A way of life”

I took the highway north out of the city to Bwire’s campus, past the football stadium that had recently welcomed English side Hull City FC for a SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match against Kenya’s top club team, Gor Mahia.

As we strolled along the university’s shrub-lined walkways, Bwire told me how he became addicted to sports betting.

It was 2013 and he was fresh out of high school, hanging out with mates and killing time on PlayStation.

One of them boasted how he had won money on a football match and showed Bwire how he could send cash via the ubiquitous mobile money platform M-Pesa to a website called JustBet, the only online sports betting platform in Kenya at the time.

“On my very first bet I put in KShs200 (£1.50) and won KShs4,800 (£35),” Bwire recalls. “I bet on four teams to win. I’ll never forget them. It was Swansea, Stoke, Arsenal and West Brom.”

The win was both a blessing and a curse: “It got me thinking this could be a way of life. It was a good experience, it seemed like fun. You could watch your team playing, and actually earn money doing it.”

“You want to become rich, doing nothing. You want shortcuts in life, and that’s your shortcut.

“As I continued betting, everything increased. The amount of bets, the amount of money, the amount of time. With friends, on my phone, with the room-mates I was living with. Most of us used to bet.

“After about a year and a half, I began to realise that none of us had money because the money we had, it goes to betting.”

Bwire estimated that over the 18-month period he was an avid gambler, he spent around KShs100,000 (£750) on football bets. To put this spending in context, his annual course tuition fee in 2015 was between KShs100,000-120,000 (£750-£900).

“The money I was betting with came from previous wins, pocket money from my parents, and other side jobs I was doing,” he explained.

“Loan sharks”

By late 2015, Bwire recalled that many sports betting companies had burst onto the scene, including SportPesa, and were advertising “vigorously” across Kenya. They were also active in and around the university, handing out flyers on campus and in the neighbouring estates where students live.

“I started to read stories in the media about people committing suicide, people gambling their fees, their rent money. And you also see the kind of life that gambling is sucking out of you. You are waking up and all you are planning is to bet. Whatever winnings you have in your betting account, you don’t even consider taking it out. You use it to bet again. It reached the point that I just called it quits.”

He also noticed how gambling was taking over other students’ lives. “You would go into the computer labs to do some research, or finish an assignment, and you would see screen after screen where students were just browsing sports betting sites,” he said.

“Students were borrowing money from loan sharks at predatory interest rates to fund their habit, and handing over their laptops or their national identity cards as collateral.”

Problem gambling

In 2016 Bwire initiated a campus-wide survey to gauge the extent of gambling among his fellow students.

It found that half of male students and one-third of females surveyed bet more than once a week; and that nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of problem gambling behaviour. [see sidebar].

He later wrote a proposal to the university about how to tackle problem gambling on campus and launched a gambling awareness campaign working closely with student counsellors.

Nelson Bwire (second right) with fellow gambling addiction awareness activists and student counsellors, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya (July 2018).

“Gambling is not something that I would want to see banned. No, I don’t take that hard line. But I think people should be aware of the risks and take responsible decisions,” Bwire said.

Soon to be an economics graduate, Bwire mused: “Right now Africa is growing, yes. But gambling problems will suppress African growth. The capital flight of gambling winnings that are going from Kenya to other places, that money should be in people’s hands. It should be in entrepreneurs’ hands. It should be in students’ hands.”

Shifting ground

Exactly a year after speaking to Bwire, I took the same road out of Nairobi, past the same stadium preparing to host another SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match, this time featuring Everton FC.

A hundred and fifty kilometres beyond the capital, deep in the countryside, SportPesa’s blue-and-white branding is plastered all over humble general shops in small roadside villages.

While SportPesa is the biggest player in Kenya, there are several others such as Betin, Premier Bet, 1X Bet and the UK-based Betway, which sponsors West Ham United in the English Premier League.

Huge billboards for betting companies greet you as you drive into bigger towns.

The inside sports pages of the newspaper I bought are filled with betting adverts, giving the day’s odds on matches from minor leagues in faraway countries.

But, after half a decade making billions in a largely unregulated environment, the ground is shifting underneath the betting industry’s feet.

A Gaming Bill has been introduced to Parliament that would overhaul a regulatory framework that was originally drafted in 1966.

Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister with a bulldog reputation, has given betting companies a month to settle their tax bills.

Citing a statistic that half a million Kenyan youth have been blacklisted for borrowing money they cannot repay, debt which Matiang’i attributed mostly to the betting craze, he declared: “This is a sector we must regulate.”

Last week, Matiang’i made good his threat when the betting regulator suspended 27 betting firms’ operating licences – including SportPesa – for alleged non-payment of taxes.

Safaricom, the mobile phone company which processes most of the mobile money transactions used to bet, was ordered to withhold their services to the blacklisted companies, and punters were given 48 hours to withdraw their money from their betting e-wallets.

The directives are thought to affect the majority of Kenya’s 12-million betting account holders, interrupting the flow of an estimated $2bn annually from their pockets to the industry.

SportPesa and others have protested vehemently, publishing their most recent tax compliance certificates in the press. SportPesa also pointed to a court order it obtained allowing it to continue operating pending finalisation of a dispute over payment of a percentage of punters’ winnings in tax.

Responding to suggestions about the rise of problem gambling in Kenya, the company told The Guardian it was a socially responsible business that placed a priority on local sports and community work.

In the midst of this febrile atmosphere, I give Bwire a call to find out how he’s doing and what he thinks of the clampdown.

Bwire has now left Kenyatta University, his graduation ceremony is later this month.

He continues to run his gambling awareness campaign on a part-time voluntary basis, but since we last spoke, his ambitions have grown: he is now preparing for it to go national.

He has registered a company, the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, and held a series of meetings with the betting regulator, urging them to introduce a countrywide gambling awareness campaign programme.

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

He is also partnering with a UK software company, Betban, to offer betting website blocking technology to universities; and approached one of Kenya’s largest nationwide network of counselling centres to introduce gambling addiction counselling.

But he is sceptical of the regulator’s motives for the crackdown: “If they were doing this in good faith, you might see some gambling addiction centres, some clinics, even just a little awareness created … they are just doing that for the tax.”

Bwire is echoing other commentators who see the directives as a thinly-disguised tax shakedown targeting the industry on behalf of the Kenyan revenue authorities and treasury who are under pressure to close a widening fiscal gap.

At a traditional wedding last weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta referred to the crackdown explicitly. He said: “The firms should stop threats that they will move to court. The government must get its share [of tax] to fund activities that are beneficial to this country.”

This may not impress SportPesa’s owners, one of whom – as we report with the Guardian today – has been a major financier and fundraiser for Kenyatta’s Jubilee party.

“Those in the betting companies are our friends,” Kenyatta reportedly said, “But we have to agree that the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments.”

But Bwire believes taxation is not going to dampen the public appetite for gambling, because “addicted gamblers will still gamble”.

He challenges the government to take a holistic approach, including addiction awareness and counselling.

“In this game of betting, they can’t only be a referee. People get injured in this game, and so there needs to be awareness about that, and doctors available too.”

Last year a new government body was set up, the Sports, Arts and Social Development Fund, to oversee the allocation of taxes specifically raised from betting.

Gambling taxes have reportedly already swelled the fund to around Shs15bn (more than £100m). By law, this money must be allocated to national sports teams, cultural facilities and the government’s universal healthcare pledges, as well as to unspecified “government strategic interventions”.

The fund took months to become operational due to political wrangling over who would control it.

In a country that many have argued is a kleptocracy, it remains to be seen whether any additional tax the government squeezes from the betting companies will fund gambling addiction awareness or rehabilitation – or instead disappears down the Nairobi drain.

Student gambling

In 2016, a few years after Kenya’s largely unregulated mobile phone-enabled sports betting craze took off, Bwire and his fellow students produced the first dedicated survey of betting among the youth.

They polled 373 students at Kenyatta University, roughly 0.5% of the university student population (78,000).

Although the sample size was relatively small, in the absence of comprehensive data about Kenya’s betting craze, it represents an important contribution to the public’s understanding of its prevalence.

Some key findings were:

* Nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of being at risk of problem gambling behaviour:
– 50% said they needed to gamble with increasing amounts of money;
– 30% said they were preoccupied with betting;
– 20% said they gambled the day after a loss in order to recoup it;
– 20% reported making repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop, or cut back, on gambling; and
– 3% said they had committed an illegal act to finance gambling.

* Most respondents said they started gambling aged 18-19.

* 68% of male respondents and 47% females said they gambled weekly, or more than once a week

* 7% of male respondents & 2% of females reported gambling daily

* Two-thirds of respondents spend up to KShs1,000 (£7.50) per month, one-quarter said they spend up to KShs5,000 (£40); and 5% of respondents said they spent more than KShs5,000 on gambling per month.

* 72% of all respondents saw gambling/betting as a way to make money; 40% said they saw it as a source of fun.

* 70% of respondents had gambled in the preceding year.

Read the report here.

These statistics broadly mirrored the headline findings of an often-quoted 2017 survey by GeoPoll on the leisure and spending habits of sub-Saharan African youth, which found that 76% of Kenyan respondents – the highest in the continent — had tried gambling.

Kenyans also spent the most money, about $50 (£40) monthly, mostly on football bets. The majority placed a bet once a week.

 

This is article was first published by Finance Uncovered.

* Edited by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya  

Proponents of wildlife conservancies in Northern Kenya argue that they provide a win-win situation for both conservation and pastoralist communities. However, the current push to establish more conservancies in the region may backfire and lead to more conflict.

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya
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Kenya’s Vision 2030, which identified Isiolo as a strategic location in the hydrocarbon economy of the region, combined with the 2010 Constitution, which led to the devolution of power and resources, have thrust Isiolo County, a once sleepy and neglected former garrison town, into the El Dorado of Kenya’s future development.

However, Isiolo’s potential, if not judiciously managed, could turn the county into the future axis of natural resource-based conflict, especially in the large-scale irregularly acquired land by private corporations and individuals under the guise of community wildlife conservation. The consequences of what happens in Isiolo will likely spill over into other parts of Northern Kenya and Northern Rift Valley.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya”, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country. The reasoning was that the former would benefit from the trickle-down effect of the government’s investment in the latter. Isiolo was considered a low potential area, and thus received limited government investment. The community’s livelihood was based around livestock, which successive post-independence administrations considered economically unviable and antiquated compared to agriculture. This meant that the region received limited state support.

Parallel to limited investment, the post-colonial state continued with the colonial government’s policy of mediating its relations with Isiolo and the broader North Eastern region through the lens of security. If the British colonial administration used Northern Kenya and Isiolo as a buffer zone against Italians who were attempting to colonise Ethiopia and the French who were colonising Djibouti, the post-colonial state viewed Isiolo as a place where demands for secession, banditry and cattle rustling were rampant. This has made Isiolo one of the few counties with the most military schools and military barracks in the country. The military is also one of the largest landowners in Isiolo.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country.

Vision 2030, Kenya’s development plan for making Kenya a middle-income country (MIC) by 2030, is perhaps the closest the state came to rectifying the problems created by Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. Vision 2030’s economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum and sustaining the same until 2030. If the core of Sessional Paper No 10 is centralised planning, thus creating a center and a periphery, Vision 2030 calls for decentralisation, thus blurring the distinction between peripheries and the centre. In fact, it aims to turn previously marginalised areas like Isiolo into centres of development.

Some of the major Vision 2030 projects of the economic pillar are either based in Isiolo or pass through the county. These projects include 6,500 acres of land at Kipsing Gap, which is about 20 kilometres west of Isiolo town and sandwiched between Katim and OlDonyoDegishi Hill, where a multi-billion shilling resort city will be based. Parts of the LAPSSET pipeline passes through the county, and the town is also where the Isiolo International Airport has been built. These projects are at different stages of being implemented.

When they finally take off, these projects will undoubtedly spur positive economic growth and improve peoples’ lives. Attention generated by these projects has also attracted “entrepreneurs” of all stripes with land as their primary key resource. Excision of huge chunks of land pose an existential threat to the pastoralist communities’ primary source of livelihood, which is already buffeted by multiple challenges, including climate change, agro-pastoralist conflict, and the ever-decreasing water and pasture because of demographic pressures.

One of the big players in land excision debates are the private wildlife conservancies. The entity behind wildlife conservancies is the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), which manages 39 conservancies that cover an area of 42,000 square kilometers across the country, mostly in Northern and coastal Kenya.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”. This was evident during the Laikipia conflict in 2017 that pitted the mostly Samburu and Pokot herders against mostly white, private ranchers (popularly known as Kenyan Cowboys or KCs).

During the conflict, the government and in turn the media described the pastoralists as “barbarians at the gate of civilization”, who only understand the language of brute force. As a result, the killing of livestock – the pastoralists’ livelihood – by the security agencies elicited less sympathy than the killing of wildlife killed by the pastoralists, sometimes in self defence.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”.

Since tourism earns Kenya huge amounts of foreign exchange, it tends to be privileged over human life and pastoralists’ livelihoods.  For instance, during the 2017 clash involving pastoralists and wildlife conservancies in Laikipia, over 300 cattle were killed by the security agencies, and this act did not generate any condemnation.

Collective destruction of the pastoralist economy has historical precedent: The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found that the Kenyan army killed and confiscated livestock belonging to civilians in Northern Kenya. The shooting, especially of camels, was a particular strategy employed by the army as it was believed that camels were used by the Shifta to transport guns and other supplies. The Commission also revealed that it was common for soldiers and government officers to invade villages and confiscate cattle, sheep, camels and goats. The owners of such livestock were never told what happened to their livestock, nor were they ever compensated for their losses.

But the discovery of natural resources has suddenly changed the state’s engagement calculus with Northern Kenya, with the government making a beeline for the region, as demonstrated in the expansion of some of the often-neglected infrastructure. There is a sense that being among the least populated region, and being strategically close to the key borders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, the North has plenty of “free” land to be exploited.

But this courtship is anchored on a deterministic and reductionist single narrative: the free market. There is a belief that if the markets are opened in the region, all its problems will go away.

This narrative is problematic.  First, it assumes that the moment the region is linked to other parts of Kenya, it will automatically “develop”. Second, the creation of Northern Kenya in the image of the rest of Kenya at the very minimum denies the people the agency to determine what development means to them. Third, we need to be circumspect regarding the pervasive business language that assumes that the problem with public services is inefficiency and that technology is the answer. This techno fallacy and big data syndrome dehistoricises and decontextualises problems, and is ultimately bound to fail. Fourth, the market, while it can be efficient in allocating economic goods and services, is terrible as the arbiter of social services. Unleashing market forces onto the region will destroy the collective social fabric that has held these people together even in bad times.

Often unaccounted for in this framing is the pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya, which have been trading amongst themselves and with their counterparts across all the borders without government support. The mutually reinforcing twin issues of insecurity and a fragile ecosystem have engendered the communities’ remarkably innovative resilience instincts.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm – underwritten by well-heeled intergenerational wildlife conservation untouchable “royals” and marketed by a well-choreographed sleek PR machine – pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex. Kuki Gallmann, whose life is immortalised in the movie I Dreamed of Africa is cast as a noble White Saviour, keeping the wildlife and pastoralists safe.

Northern Rangeland Trust and the Lewa model

Isiolo has three national game reserves: the Shaba Game Reserve (256 square kilometres), Buffalo Springs (131 square kilometres) and BisanAdi (150 square kilometres). All of these areas block or restrict human habitation and grazing. On top of the game reserves, there are a number of conservancies in Isiolo: Biliqo-Bulesa, which covers 3784.82 square kilometres and was established in 2007, Nakuprat-Gotu, which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 719.92 square kilometres, Leparua which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 328.35 square kilometres, and Nasuulu which was established in 2011 and covers 346.01 square kilometres. These are significant chunks of land being administered by a corporation.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm, pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex.

According to NRT, conservancies are community-led wildlife conservation initiatives that provide a win-win situation for wildlife conservation and for pastoralists. The lack of transparency and adequate information regarding the manner in which these conservancies are established and managed adds to the anxiety of pastoralist communities. Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

Lewa conservancy, which covers 62,000 acres and is a home to a wide variety of wildlife, including rare and endangered black rhinos, zebras and Sitatungas, as well as the “Big Five” wildlife animals.  Lewa’s value addition is held up as an aspirational model for other private wildlife conservancies.

However, the use of Lewa as a model for the future of Isiolo misses the dynamics inside Isiolo and for that matter elsewhere in the North. Laikipia County, where Lewa is located, doesn’t have nearly as many pastoralists as Isiolo does, which made the excision of such a huge tract of land possible. Additionally, the pastoral communities in Isiolo are diverse. Also not discussed when holding Lewa as a model is the failure of efforts at replicating Lewa inside Laikipia. For instance, establishment of a conservancy in OldoNyiro led to the community losing their land, forcing them to graze their livestock by the roadside because all the land has been fenced off.

Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

At the heart of the establishment of the conservancies is the argument of return on investment: having “community” wildlife conservancies will allow pastoralists to have a stable income. But there is no conservancy that can guarantee the pastoralist the same kind of return that they can get from their livestock.

NRT has ambitions of establishing conservancies not just in Isiolo but across the Northern region. They already have some conservancies in Samburu County and plans are at an advanced stage to establish more conservancies in Marsabit County.

Devolution of power and resources to the county was designed as an antidote to centralised decision-making in Nairobi, which resulted in unbalanced and unequal economic development. What the framers of the constitution did not envisage, however, was the quality of representation that will shepherd devolution at the county level. The disparity between counties with good leaders and those with poor leaders is well documented.

But Isiolo’s land grab did not happen in a vacuum; it has been facilitated by poor leadership. The establishment of wildlife conservancies in Isiolo is a shot across the bow for other counties, such as Marsabit County. If they are not stopped, we could be walking into land-related conflicts with our eyes wide open.

The large-scale land grab in Isiolo by NRT will adversely impact the pastoralists’ livelihood, and generate new conflicts in an area blighted by incessant conflict. This will erode the potential Isiolo would have gained from devolution, Vision 2030 and its proximity to Ethiopia, which has the potential to increase cross-border trade.

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Building Bridges or Walls? BBI Charades Masquerading as ‘Public Consultations’

AKOKO AKECH examines whether the “handshake” between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, which resulted in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), is truly a people-driven participatory process or merely a tool for the Kenyan political elite to consolidate their power.

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It finally docked on our shores, the shores of the Nam Lolwe, on the 6th of June 2019. Unlike the old steamer, MV Alestes, it blew no loud horn to announce its arrival at the port of Kisumu to tell all within the vicinity to steer clear of the waterway and berth. Rather, it glided smoothly into Kisumu City at the end of a financial year, when government departments hurry to close the books. It creeped up on the residents of the city, stealthily like a crocodile. The 35th of the expected 47 Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) “public consultation” meetings was upon us.

“I got a call from the County Commissioners about a month ago. Something like this cannot be done through an open invitation. The whole of Kisumu would have been here,” said a young man with a chuckle, his face beaming with mischief, the smirk of someone proud of his high connections and who had been let into a well-kept siri-kali. We were queuing for tea and snacks at the Acacia hotel, Kisumu’s high-end hotel where the BBI commissioners were holding a “consultation” meeting on how to build a new Kenya.

I, too, would have missed the meeting, had I not seen in good time a WhatsApp message from a friend who’s a Kisumu government insider. The message had been sent in the wee hours of the morning that Thursday. In keeping with the rising personality cults of Kenya’s county governors, and their penchant for frivolous publicity, the e-invitation card I got bore Professor Anyang’ Nyongo’s picture, smiling, donning a white shirt and a red necktie, and holding a jacket flung over his left shoulder, held tenderly by his index finger. Warwakou duto! (All are welcome!), said the e-card.

As we sat down for tea and snacks, a clergyman wearing a white flowing robe and a red scalp cap (signifying his high position in the one of the many African-instituted Christian churches in Western Kenya) said, “I wouldn’t have known who sent me the money. I got am M-Pesa transfer of 2,028 shillings from a Samuel Otieno but I couldn’t tell who that is until the lady spoke.”

That lady he was referring to was an amiable and handsome woman dressed in a white, loose-fitting linen suit who had spoken towards the end of the meeting, shortly before the closing prayer – the ubiquitous Christian prayer that has become mandatory at public events, which always reminds one that many Kenyans, especially state and public officers, are yet to come to terms with the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, even with the shortest of its articles, Article 8, that states that “there shall be no State religion”. She told the officially invited participants that “if you check your phones, M-pesa imeingia [the Sh2000 transport refund] plus Sh28 ya kuitoa. Usikuje kama ulikua na Fuliza, the money has been chewed.”

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship. But there is nothing transparent or charming about its process of public consultations. Unlike the recent commissions, whose meetings and deliberations were widely publicised, the BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

BBI has neither a known physical address nor a web page. Nor an expressly parliament-sanctioned legal existence and a budget line. It has an email address only. It works mostly as a sad reminder that despite its enormous constitutional powers, the Kenyan Parliament is yet to exercise effective control over the Office of the President, especially over the conduct of the provincial administration in midwifing political transitions such as the BBI and its latest women-only “popular movement” wing, Team Embrace.

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship…The BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event – with all its attendant display of anxieties over the security of the VIP and crowd control – and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel, but with neither the benefits of a skilled moderator nor an appropriate teaching methodology of getting the best out of the competing and conflicting views of the representative of the various groups present at the meeting.

It was an eerily odd public event. Like a typical District or Provincial Commissioner-organised event, it drew in government officials and civil servants, including the starched khaki, big silver button, crimson red epaulets, and stick-wielding types, such as high-ranking police officers and provincial administrators, who patrolled the corridors of the hotel. While the presence of baton-wielding Administration Police officers at an open-field public event, in jungle-green camouflage uniforms, standing strategically in front of a crowd of spectators, and policing the imaginary wall between the seated and sheltered elite and the sweating crowd conveyed a sense of security and control, the conspicuous presence of the AP officers armed with the G-3 rifles or AK-47 rifles sent a chill down one’s spine. It evoked anxiety and fear rather than security and safety, which were amplified by the antics of an order-obsessed deputy county commander who wore a chocolate brown suit and stood like a sentry at the entrance of the second door to the conference room, alternately keeping an eye on the goings-on along the corridor and in the conference room.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event…and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel…

Unlike a typical NGO forum, there were has no hand-written sign up sheets; the organisers simply ticked off the names of the participants on a printed list of invited participants, each sheet bearing the names of only the invited participants from each of the sub-counties of Kisumu County. Luckily, the uninvited (those not vetted by the Provincial Administration) could also walk into the meeting and listen to the proceeding, without signing up.

But like a typical NGO or government event, the meeting was adorned with big banners, which, despite promising dialogue or debate, served more to mark the boundary between the powerful commissioners’ high table and the jam-packed seminar room than to remind the commissioners of their vision and mission. Pleasantly, a female Kenyan sign language interpreter was hard at work, diligently translating the proceedings of the meeting.

The commissioners took turns to frame the problem, to ask questions, and to offer solutions and ways-forward, slicing up their audience into several categories: geographical, generational, gender, political, minority, and disability, soliciting from each participant, a solution for the evils bedeviling Kenya but barely giving the participants a chance to compose their thoughts or debate many contentious views vying for attention.

Nearly all the participants – except the governor, a Member of Parliament (Oduma Awour) and a former Member of Parliament (Prof Ayiecho Olweny) – were given less than three minutes to talk about items on the 9-item agenda, which prompted Father Samuel of the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission to say, “If the we want BBI to succeed, we need to allow people to freely express themselves, not shut down.” But the Commission did not heed to his plea. “We know what has happened, we need the solution. This is not the right forum for venting,” Prof. Oloo Adams responded curtly.

Except for Dr Florence Omosa’s very brief experiment with the Socratic approach, which questioned, teased out the inconsistencies and tested the appropriateness of a solutions offered by the participants, most of the commissioners found a ready-made formula for the classification of problems bedeviling Kenya by categorising them into neat labels: gender, age, geography, and social exclusion (including disability). Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion. Diversity, when in the hands of the securocrats and the commissioners, was reduced to a convenient tool of bureaucracy, generating more controversies than debate.

In a welcome break with the previous briskly sessions, Dr Omosa intoned politely and firmly, “Why do we fight during elections? We don’t trust each other, what should we do so that life goes on? What must happen so that we don’t have so many baby Pendos? Give me specific recommendations.”

Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion.

Not satisfied with the quick, not-well-thought-out responses, Dr Omosa observed, “I know, it’s not meant to be a dialogue, but I must ask you, how can the elders be the solution [to divisive elections], yet they champion exclusive ethnic leadership?” She was responding to a participant’s suggestion that a greater role for community elders in the management of elections is the solution to the tensions Kenyans experience in general elections. “Disband the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission],” opined another participant.

Instead of a facilitating dialogue and debate, the meeting became a forum for contentious hard line views: “Kenya should go for a parliamentary system of government,” said one participant. “The constitution of Kenya has turned Kenya into a killing field,” asserted another. “Bring back the death sentence; let the murderers be locked without bail.” “Arrest and lock up the corrupt without bail,” Prof. Ayiecho Olweny, a former Member of Parliament, pleaded passionately. “We want “Luo kit gi Timbegi” brought back to in our curriculum,” said one participant. “Send the children back home to learn Dholuo,” said another. Ms Grace Jowi Jobita from Muhoroni, paraphrasing the Bible, stated, “If it is your eye that’s causing you a problem, my first recommendation is, let them be castrated, second, let them be castrated, and third, let them be castrated.”

There was also a call to “review the social ethics and education curriculum” in order to address the dearth of ethics among Kenyan youth and the rising cases of violence against women, including rampant cases of rape and defilement. “Amend the Chief’s Act. Our society is yearning for the past order, and is uncomfortable with the recent changes,” said retired Paramount Chief Paul Odero.

Mr Mathews Owili, the Kisumu County’s deputy governor, concurred with Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o that Kenya needs a parliamentary system of government, but also asked, “If the Prime Minister can be compelled by law to form a government that reflects the face of Kenya, can the Prime Minister be compelled to treat all Kenyans as equals?”

Struck by the repeated demands for more laws that would ensure diversity in public appointments, especially at the top levels of Kenya’s state power, Senator Amos Wako, the former long-serving Attorney General, pointed out, “The law already provides for that…the constitution makes reference to the face of Kenya in more than 22 Articles. What I want is, how can we ensure that the law, the constitution is respected by whomever?”

“The problem may not be Chapter Six [on leadership and integrity], but the law to enable, enforce the chapter. Perhaps the law enacted to enable this chapter does not reflect the letter and the spirit of the constitution of Kenya, 2010,” added Senator Wako.

However, BBI commissioners stuck to their nine-point agenda, briskly running through each item on their tick-off list, even when the more discerning participants, such as Senator Amos Wako, sensed that the problem might not be more laws, as some were suggesting, but a more complicated political process i.e. the lack of good laws and constitutionalism.

Anxious that this meeting might not yield much, Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative, like past initiatives such as the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The TJRC report is silent on or whitewashes some critical aspects of Kenya’s evil past. For example, Volume 11 of the TJRC report airbrushes the 1969 Kisumu massacre out of Kenya’s register of post-independence political massacres. The BBI too looks like yet another lost opportunity to revisit Kenya’s evil past and exorcise the ghosts that haunt Kenya’s post-independence politics.

Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative…yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The BBI’s is a lost cause because it embodies the worst carry-overs from the undemocratic provincial administration’s coercive and manipulative tendencies while pretending to promote progressive and inclusive practices. The BBI seems yet another lost opportunity because the elite have set its course, and are championing narrow, selfish and convenient political causes that hardly go deep enough into the roots of the knotty questions of justice many Kenyans yearn for, and which were not given a fair hearing at the Kisumu forum.

Boniface Akach, a Kondele-based front-line human rights activist, who only learnt of the BBI meeting accidentally while attending a “solidarity” meeting at the same hotel, wrote the following on his Facebook account: “The on-going public participation exercise by BBI is a mockery, a waste of public resources and a rubber-stamping exercise. How can such a public exercise be taken to the Acacia Hotel, a five-star rated hotel, despite other more conducive and accessible spaces being available? The invite-only event is so restricted, with NIS and Police all over. The mobilisation across sub-counties is so well designed apart from Kisumu Central (wajuaji). Mobilisation was strictly done by the Kisumu County Commissioner. But we are not surprised, we all know that the aim the referendum is meant to settle scores as it creates opportunity for recycled, rejected political friends.”

Perhaps, as Akach points out, the perfunctory public consultation meetings, like the one held in Kisumu County, are merely an alibi for a pre-determined political course and cause. In Kisumu, there was a clear divide between the demands made by the ODM elite, on the one hand, and popular demands by the people of Kisumu County, on the other.

According to Kisumu County Governor Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o and the ODM branch leaders, what’s at stake is a referendum to turn Kenya into a proper parliamentary system of government. However, to others, it’s the unfinished business of political violence and justice for the victims of political violence.

“We want inclusivity in compensation. We lost lives in 2007 and again in 2017. Some people were compensated, but not people from this region. We need inclusive compensation for people like baby Pendo,” said Victor Nyasaya. A representative of the National IDP network also expressed a similar concern. “The 2007 IDPs in Kisumu were paid only three thousand shillings, unlike those from Nakuru who were paid ten thousand shillings,” he lamented.

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum. It was a charade. Melania Jackie, representing the youth, lamented, “We were are not involved in the process of formulating public policies. Not the Universal Health Care, not the Huduma Number, we were only given deadlines. No civic education. We don’t have a youth on the BBI high table, even a token of representation.

“Na tuna ambiwa hii sio baraza,” Mitchelle Otieno lamented on Facebook, adding that “the BBI team ought to have held the meeting in Kondele and not Acacia hotel. We lost lives in Kondele, Nyalenda, Manyatta, and not Acacia.”

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum.

Orengo Ben Wamaya, who represented Bunge la Mwananchi at the meeting, thundered, “Public participation is never done in a five-star hotel.”

If the TJRC report offers the residents of Kisumu an official amnesia for the 1969 massacre in exchange for the recognition of the years of economic marginalisation which followed it, then what will the BBI report yield? Will it offer restorative justice or compensations for lost life, limb and property to the recent victims of political violence? Who will foot the bill? The perpetrators and the principal beneficiaries of political violence now occupying high offices or the Kenyan taxpayers yet again? Will it be sufficient and equitable? Will there be yet another opportunity for a trade-off between some measures of restorative justice and political support for a new political coalition, like the Uhuruto 2013 bargain? Will it offer retributive justice? Will it recommend memorialisation of the victims of past political evils or yet again endorse a tacit collective amnesia and unofficial amnesty for the perpetrators and principal beneficiaries of the past political evils?

Who decides?

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