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Visionary or False Prophet: Why Did Raila Odinga Agree to Drink from the Poisoned Chalice?

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Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments.

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Visionary or False Prophet: Why Did Raila Odinga Agree to Drink from the Poisoned Chalice?
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‘‘Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories….’’
– Amilcar Cabral

On 1 February 1979, the political world’s attention was fixated on a chartered Air France plane flight number 4721 flying from Paris to Tehran, Iran’s capital. Aboard the flight was an unlikely passenger, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was returning to his home country from a long stint in exile and who had emerged as the de facto leader of the January 1979 Iranian Revolution. Khomeini was returning to Tehran after living in forced exile for almost 15 years. First sent to Turkey, where he detested the country’s overt secularism, he moved to Iraq, where he stayed for over a decade. Saddam Hussein kicked him out on allegations of regime change. Khomeini’s last base was at the Neauphle-le-Château on the outskirts of Paris, where he arrived in 1978, barely a year before the revolution.

Raila Odinga returned from a trip to the United States on 17 November 2017, right in the middle of agitations for electoral justice. The toll of the election protests, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, had left scores injured and about 100 civilians dead, including ten children, among them a six-month-old infant.

One hundred and twenty international journalists accompanied Khomeini on the flight as insurance, fearing that if he flew alone, the plane could become a target. He had sustained Iran’s revolutionary embers by ceaselessly sending home handwritten periodicals, which saw his popularity grow both at home and abroad. When Khomeini landed in Tehran, the airport was packed with thousands of Iranians yearning to catch a glimpse of the spiritual figure who had come to symbolise his people’s struggles and their eventual victory against the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It became extremely difficult for Khomeini to leave the packed airport, prompting his handlers to resort to a change of plan more than once. Despite the pushing and shoving, Khomeini managed to make his way to central Tehran, where in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with fallen Iranians, he visited the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery – the burial site of those killed during the revolution – giving his first address to the country, signifying complete victory for Iranians.

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Raila Odinga returned from a trip to the United States on 17 November 2017, right in the middle of agitations for electoral justice. The toll of the election protests, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, had left scores injured and about 100 civilians dead, including ten children, among them a six-month-old infant. Hundreds of supporters thronged Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to receive the opposition leader. The intention was to escort Raila’s convoy to Uhuru Park, the historic grounds meant to host a much-anticipated homecoming rally at a time when opposition supporters were eager for a way forward. There was consensus within the opposition ranks that the Uhuru Kenyatta regime was illegitimate, thanks to a flawed electoral process that had resulted in the nullification of the 8 August 2017 election by the Supreme Court, followed by the 26 October 2017 vote that was boycotted by the opposition for fear of repeat irregularities courtesy of a non-reformed electoral commission.

With Uhuru’s wobbly regime in panic mode, hundreds of heavily armed security personnel were deployed at the airport and throughout downtown Nairobi. Defiant opposition supporters pushed against police guns, tear gas and water cannons, insisting that Raila had to enter Nairobi in triumphant fashion with supporters in tow. The windscreen of Raila’s bulletproof Range Rover was shot at and there were reports of several deaths and widespread injuries. The confrontation between the supporters and the police lasted throughout the day, a day that the Kenyan masses declared, like Winnie Mandela, that there was no more fear left.

Forming a human ring around Raila’s vehicle and those of his opposition colleagues, protesters pushed against charging anti-riot police for kilometres, scenes that had not been witnessed in Kenya since the mass protest “Second Liberation” rallies of the 1990s. The penultimate push was at the roundabout joining Haile Selassie Avenue and Uhuru Highway, where police unleashed the most lethal force – high-pressure water cannon sprays, unrelenting tear gas, bullet shots in the air, all of which the crowd pushed back against, refusing to yield. Upon overpowering the police once more, and emboldened by the mantra that the state can kill some of them but not all of them, the protestors proceeded towards the Uhuru Park entrance, shielding Raila’s SUV using their tired, scarred, beaten down and sweaty bodies.

Speaking emotionally atop his SUV about two hundred metres from Uhuru Park, where a portion of protestors had gathered, Raila announced Kenya’s “Third Liberation”, reiterating that the country had reached a point of no return, and repeating three times that Canaan, the metaphoric political Promised Land, was near. He castigated Uhuru Kenyatta, calling him a delinquent who had resorted to unleashing state terror on civilians.

As if entering Uhuru Park signaled the ultimate collapse of Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, the police rallied in desperation – shooting, throwing stones, deploying tear gas in a series of extrajudicial tactics that saw them succeed in dispersing the protestors. Vehicles were stoned and shot at, with tear gas canisters lobbed into some of the crowd. As Raila and his colleagues sped past, the message was clear to Kenyans watching the protest on live TV that Kenya had turned a corner. Never in the history of Kenyan resistance had the masses offered their fragile, hungry bodies as human shields in a day-long protest, walking right into imminent danger and refusing to budge. That day more than any other, Raila, who had earned a reputation for his tenacity in the liberation trenches for decades, earned the highest honour as the ultimate symbol of Kenyan resistance, a coronation of sorts as the Supreme Leader. There had been many protests before, but none resembled those that took place on that day. Protestors were willing to lay down their lives for Raila Odinga.

Speaking emotionally atop his SUV about two hundred metres from Uhuru Park, where a portion of protestors had gathered, Raila announced Kenya’s “Third Liberation”, reiterating that the country had reached a point of no return, and repeating three times that Canaan, the metaphoric political Promised Land, was near. He castigated Uhuru Kenyatta, calling him a delinquent who had resorted to unleashing state terror on civilians.

“Today I have a lot of anger,” Raila said, speaking in Kiswahili. “But first I want to thank you for coming to receive me at the airport…I am angry because of that boy called Uhuru Kenyatta. I have come back home but instead of a proper reception he is lobbing tear gas at me. Shooting at my people. Isn’t this barbaric?…Today is an important day in the political calendar of Kenya because we are announcing the Third Republic. I shall elaborate later. But today you have seen the signs, the signs of a collapsing government. Tell Uhuru goodbye.”

The anger and disappointment in Raila’s voice was palpable, making it clear that the man shared in the pain of the protestors who were desperate to reclaim their country and dignity. After the events of 17 November, everyone expected Raila to up the ante and exert more pressure on the state through the electoral justice movement, seeing that he had witnessed the sort of hardball Uhuru Kenyatta was willing to play. The masses, in standing in resolute solidarity with him, believed that Raila had the blueprint of what was shaping up into a people’s uprising against electoral authoritarianism, hoping and trusting that Raila was going to lead them towards complete liberation.

Was it naïve to have so much faith in a single individual?

On 30 January 2018, after weeks of hesitations and postponements, Raila was dramatically sworn in at Uhuru Park as the “People’s President” in a direct challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. Once again, thousands of wananchi threw caution to the wind and attended the event that had earlier been declared treasonous by the regime’s Attorney General. The event resulted in an anti-climax of sorts. Raila took the oath hurriedly before vanishing from the dais, after giving an equally rushed speech. His supposed equals within the opposition ranks were absent, possibly another red flag.

The swearing-in ceremony was followed by a crackdown on Raila’s lieutenants, which climaxed in the violent deportation of Miguna Miguna to Canada, where the lawyer had fled to in the late 1980s. Miguna, a Raila ally-turned-foe-turned-ally, bore the greatest brunt from the state response to the swearing-in.

Then all of a sudden, in the middle of the chaos, Raila appeared on the steps of Harambee House on 9 March 2018 accompanied by Uhuru Kenyatta. They shook hands, announcing what they christened as Kenya’s rebirth, as originally envisioned by their fathers. It was as if Khomeini had arrived in Tehran and in the midst of the chaos, gone forth to cut a backroom deal with the Shah in the name of giving Iran a rebirth.

****

One of the watershed moments of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, barely a year after the Shah’s overthrow, was when university students sympathetic to Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution cordoned off the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 U.S. diplomats hostage. It is widely reported that among the students was the future Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On hearing about the siege, which apparently was planned and executed without his knowledge, Khomeini instructed the students to step down. But before the message was publicised, Khomeini was advised that the majority of Iranians supported the siege, and so for the sake of courting public opinion and consolidating the revolution, Khomeini was asked to reconsider his stand against the students, and instead support them.

In that decisive moment, Khomeini listened to the people’s voice and quickly retracted his earlier rebuke. The siege lasted 444 days, ruining U.S-Iran relations to date. In retrospect, the siege became one of the factors that consolidated the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini’s grip on power, against U.S. imperialistic adventures and asserting Iran’s sovereignty.

Apart from the imminent need to consolidate the revolution, Khomeini understood that as the de facto leader of a people, there comes a time when one stops making decisions based on self-interest, but instead surrenders to the people’s aspirations, despite the high stakes and risks involved. Khomeini was taking his leadership of the revolution seriously, a measure of a man who had been preparing for that moment for ages while exiled.

To his credit, much as he had his own ideas of what he wanted Iran to look like, Khomeini withheld them until such a time when the Shah was completely out of the picture, understanding that securing the revolution from counter-revolutionaries was as significant as the revolution itself. He had revolutionary discipline, and even though he became the most powerful individual in Iran, a near deity, Khomeini maintained an austere aura, living in a modest, barely furnished apartment and refusing to take office as either President or Prime Minister. Khomeini played a religious role, despite being the man wielding ultimate state power. In that sense, he managed to secure the Islamic Revolution as its chief vanguard, opting to stay in the shadows, which made him appear disinterested in the trappings of power in the eyes of Iranians, in a sense rising above everyday politics.

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By no means did anyone expect Raila Odinga to become Khomeini, even though he had his many Khomeini-esque moments. The issue at hand is how Raila unceremoniously deserted the electoral justice movement, which raises the question of whether he fully understood the amount of trust and weight of expectations opposition supporters had placed on his shoulders. One wonders whether for Raila, it was politics as usual – looking to get ahead of the pack in complete disregard for the electoral justice brigade.

Yet, whatever the spin in Raila’s favour, there is no denying that millions of Kenyans who coalesced around the electoral justice movement – on the streets, on social media or by donating money to the cause – felt a heavy sense of personal and collective loss when Raila, without the benefit of an open and transparent negotiation process, embraced Uhuru, who Raila had described as the embodiment of the problem with Kenya’s electoral justice system.

There is debate among his supporters as to whether Raila betrayed the people who were killed and injured during the protests, despite the counter-argument that everyone who showed up to the protests did so on their own volition, with a clear understanding of the attendant risks. There are those who say Raila betrayed the people’s movement. The counter-argument is that nothing was set in stone other than the swearing in, which Raila fulfilled, and the Third Liberation, which he may be pursuing in ways only he knows best.

Yet, whatever the spin in Raila’s favour, there is no denying that millions of Kenyans who coalesced around the electoral justice movement – on the streets, on social media or by donating money to the cause – felt a heavy sense of personal and collective loss when Raila, without the benefit of an open and transparent negotiation process, embraced Uhuru, who Raila had described as the embodiment of the problem with Kenya’s electoral justice system.

It was, of course, within Raila’s right to decide whichever way he wanted to play his politics. At the end of the day, he is just a politician with personal interests and shortcomings just like any other, despite his struggle credentials. In fact, history is replete with tens of liberation struggle heroes who turned out to be huge disappointments once they assumed power, or in their pursuit of power.

Raila, therefore, in his pursuit of power, has more than once made political deals whose actual benefit to the people of Kenya and their desire for a fully democratic state remains debatable. In a sense, throughout his political career, Kenyans have placed “Baba” Raila on a pedestal as a radical ideologue, and sometimes revolutionary, but time and again, Raila has chosen to play the moderate card. There is a school of thought that believes that Raila Odinga has been nothing but a political deal maker, a political entrepreneur of sorts. Even though Raila’s history is populated with a culture of perpetual deal-making, it can be argued that none of his previous deals have proven as politically monumental as his latest one.

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In 1996, when he opted out of his late father’s FORD-Kenya after failing to wrestle the party from an almost subdued Michael Kijana Wamalwa, the party shrunk, but it didn’t die. The grand march to State House, as Wamalwa liked to put it, continued until his ascendency to the Vice Presidency in 2003. Raila shifted to the National Development Party (NDP), under which he cut a deal with President Daniel arap Moi in 1998, merging his party with Moi’s KANU in 2002 to form New KANU. Again this time round there were no major casualties since Raila’s NDP family migrated with him wholesale.

Then in 2002, at Uhuru Park, despite having made separate deals with the likes of Simeon Nyachae, Raila held Mwai Kibaki’s hand and unilaterally said “Kibaki tosha”, making the opposition’s quest for a joint presidential candidate a fait accompli. Raila was later to become a Cabinet minister, after failing to secure a proposed role of Prime Minister. Raila’s lieutenant, James Orengo, had warned against supporting Mwai Kibaki, who he considered unprincipled. It did not take long before Raila got the short end of the stick, resulting in rising political temperatures that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence after a hotly contested 2005 referendum, which saw Raila and company exit government.

It has been argued that the hurried Kibaki tosha declaration fueled ethnic strife in Kenya. Kibaki’s 2003 presidency fermented the 2007/2008 post-election violence, after which Raila entered into possibly his only structured deal as Prime Minister.

The 2007/2008 post-election violence was the genesis of the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto solidarity that assumed power in 2013 supported by Kibaki’s men. Raila described their victory as an electoral coup. The duo controversially retained power in 2017, and despite the controversies, Raila has made a deal with Uhuru Kenyatta. Looking at all this deal-making, conclusions can be drawn about whether these deals serve a bigger purpose other than seeing Raila’s personal and political star rise. In fact, an argument is made that Raila has become an eternal prisoner to these deals, since one deal heralds the next. The merger with Moi led Raila into a deal with Kibaki later in 2002, which led into a second deal with Kibaki in 2007, which then resulted in the new deal with Uhuru Kenyatta. Will there be more deals?

****

Ordinarily, the relationship between fathers and sons is complex. Therefore, one can only imagine the sort of predicament which befalls sons like Uhuru and Raila, whose fathers were political colossi in their own right. Pressure persists for them to either protect their fathers’ legacies or to carve out their own fresh ones. Alternatively, there may arise a need for the son to make peace with the father’s enemies, for the sake of perpetuating the family name, or protecting family wealth. In this highly patriarchal world of fathers and sons, it is said that the sins of the father belong to the son, suggesting that sons cannot escape their father’s shadows.

When Raila and Uhuru made peace, the one thing that was apparent as the overarching theme in their joint sparsely-worded communique was that they were deeply convinced of the need to invoke the spirits of their fathers as a way of addressing Kenya’s perennial challenges. The two sons, therefore, revisited the ghosts of rivalry between Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and the country’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Their fathers started out as friends before becoming adversaries. The sons started out as rivals, and were now seeking to become allies.

Is the fulfillment of a long-standing obligation from a son who seeks to complete his father’s original journey pushing Raila to make compromises in his quest to lead Kenya? Conversely, Raila could be his own man with his own sense of purpose; his aim could be to cast a shadow larger than his father’s by succeeding where Jaramogi couldn’t. It may also be a concoction of the two, where the son’s ambition meets his father’s unfinished business, what some may find to be an even more blinding sense of mission. On his part, Raila always insists that he is his own man, best illustrated whenever he attempts to debunk the view that he and Uhuru are products of Kenya’s political dynasties. In the end, it may not matter whether Jaramogi is an influencing factor, since Raila will be judged by his actions.

****

Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments.

In his book, Thabo Mbeki: The Rise and Fall of Africa’s Philosopher King, the Nigerian academic, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, examines what he calls the contradictions and paradoxes of Thabo Mbeki, considered one of his generation’s most important intellectual leaders in Africa. Adebajo contrasts the village boy who grew into a somewhat Black European in mannerisms with the radical Marxist who adopted conservative economic policies as South Africa’s president, and the intellectual giant who went against science in his HIV/AIDs denialism, which resulted in the premature deaths of an estimated over 350,000 South Africans. In Mbeki, Adebajo sees a young Kwame Nkrumah, a man with a vision for an Africa that holds its head high, yet who is flawed in terms of the faulty policy interventions and methods he deployed in governing his country. Quoting Kenyan scholar Professor Ali Mazrui, who famously remarked that “Nkrumah was a great Pan-Africanist but not a great Ghanaian”, Adebajo wonders whether Mbeki will be remembered as a great Pan-Africanist but not as a great South African.

Raila Odinga has always fashioned himself as a visionary. This idea that he is driven by a larger common good, like Mbeki and Nkrumah, is what has earned Raila a following, especially within the intelligentsia, including at times when he hasn’t been able to articulate his ideas and ideological standpoints with coherence. But what Raila must not have been aware of as he went about his politics of deal-making is that others even greater than him have fallen because of the bad choices they made at critical moments. For Raila, if his deal with Uhuru means he has effectively sold the country to electoral authoritarians – an unforgivable and possibly irreversible historical blunder – he may end up facing a tougher legacy predicament at home and across Africa.

Almost no one had the intellectual firepower to rival Mbeki’s within the African National Congress (ANC), and within Nelson Mandela’s and later Mbeki’s own government, where it is reported that cabinet ministers were intimidated by his brilliance. Yet, as Adebajo argues, despite his exceptionalism, Mbeki failed in many areas, including in making a connection with the South African masses who he wanted to serve. He was accused of being aloof, arrogant, and of operating within the proverbial ivory tower where he pontificated about his lofty “Africa Renaissance” aspirations.

It is under these circumstances that Mbeki committed some of his worst blunders, including creating a small group of ANC-affiliated black bourgeoisie businessmen (whom he later grew to despise) instead of adopting a broader economic intervention for the benefit of the majority black population. In the end, Mbeki was replaced by an intellectual underachiever, Jacob Zuma, who became a costly mistake for the ANC.

Raila Odinga had the masses on his side but instead he chose to cross over to Uhuru. Like Mbeki at the time of his unexpected removal from power, Raila is currently in a vulnerable position, left at the mercy of Uhuru Kenyatta’s fidelity to their deal, whose enforcement remains secret. In case something happened and Uhuru was to vacate the deal, leaving Raila exposed, it may result in the unceremonious end for Raila Odinga. Whatever the eventuality, whether he becomes President or Prime Minister or not, and whether he outperforms himself once he assumes any of these positions or not, history may remember “the handshake” on 9 March 2018 as a selfish short cut to power in exchange for forgiveness for merchants of electoral injustice against Kenyans.

By deserting the loose formation that had become the electoral justice movement and effectively exiting the opposition coalition without notice, Raila was communicating that he did not owe anyone anything, even if he had appeared to be making certain commitments to the masses along the way. At the end of the day, he seemed to suggest this was just plain old survival politics.

There are those who may argue that a lot was expected of Raila, and unfairly so. Yet there are many who for a long time believed that it was Raila’s personal responsibility – on his own behalf and on behalf of ordinary Kenyans – to ensure fundamental change happened in Kenya’s governance. The man was viewed as a messiah of sorts. Therefore, by choosing to become an everyday politician and seeking a backroom deal for himself – seeing that he went out alone in cutting a deal with Uhuru, devoid of any political structures – Raila was possibly reminding everyone, including those he may have deliberately or unintentionally led on, that he held brief for no one. People needed to stop projecting their political aspirations on him, and to allow him to be an everyday individual just like everyone else, with the leverage of making choices, including bad ones.

By deserting the loose formation that had become the electoral justice movement and effectively exiting the opposition coalition without notice, Raila was communicating that he did not owe anyone anything, even if he had appeared to be making certain commitments to the masses along the way. At the end of the day, he seemed to suggest this was just plain old survival politics.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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