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

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing

In the 1980s and 1990s parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the large scale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa and a booming local economy emerged that has since become a major source of contestation between the police and the residents.

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing
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On Tuesday 2 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare in Nairobi, hurdled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station at Juja road as they watched in horror, as two schools were set alight by police. Thick, black smoke circled up and soon blanketed the entire valley. Alongside the two schools, another thirty or so houses quickly burned down to ashes in the raging fire. People raced to quell the fire with buckets of water, but were blocked by police in their tracks. Furious shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed what residents had built over decades; businesses, schools and homes, all gone in minutes.

This criminal act of arson by police of a part of a Nairobi neighborhood took place on the third day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ Rashid. This police officer gained notoriety after being filmed executing two teenagers on a busy street in Eastleigh in broad daylight on 31 March 2017. Ironically, the raid against the local alcohol economy in Mathare under his command started exactly two years later, on Sunday 31 March 2019. In between, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, especially young and poor men, in Mathare and beyond, and with absolute impunity.

Subsequently, Rashid was free to walk into Mathare on the aforementioned Sunday while guiding a troop of police officers down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. Shockingly, the Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claimed to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses who stated that regular police and AP officers and equipment (such as a well-known land rover used by AP) were employed during the raid. Residents wondered how a full-blown war be waged on residents for days by police without the police officers in charge ‘having nothing to do with it’?

As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa

That first Sunday night of fear chaos and gunshots transpired without dead bodies, but many had lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts from trying to defend homes and properties from the pillaging police. One of us found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; a woman who has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. She lost 4000 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left in deep debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy. This went on for yet another day and night, until on Tuesday tensions between angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local alcohol economy

To understand the impact of this crackdown on people living and working in Mathare, a brief insight into the history of the alcohol economy is crucial. As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. This area was wedged in by several military and police bases, and the influx of soldiers during the war period (1940-45) attracted a growing number of women in search of work. These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their homesteads in the colonial confinements of people called ‘Native Reserves’ in the rural areas following soil erosion, population pressures and the demand for ‘hut tax’ (which had to be paid in cash to the colonial government). Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men increasingly migrated to live here—often after being chased from colonial settler farms when mechanization of farm work took hold during the late 1930s. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the nexus of urban resistance against the colonial government and formed an important node in the Kenya Land and Freedom Armies (KLFAs)—also known as ‘Mau Mau’.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Also, they soon found that the profit margins for chang’aa were much higher than for instance busaa, and soon multiple cooking sites emerged along the banks of the Mathare river. Profit margins have fallen significantly since the 1990s, following a convergence of rising food prices (especially a type of molasses called ngutu) and increasing demands for police bribes since the 2000s. Still, the local alcohol economy sustains thousands of people in Mathare directly and is fundamental to most other economic activities located here.

For example, a major shortage of firewood often plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, a neighborhood in Mathare, sells large quantities of this wood. These firewood sellers have arrangements with construction companies for frequent early morning deliveries. Old wood from scaffolding at construction sites is transported to the area in trucks so large they can barely enter the ghetto. Every day, these trucks drop off mountains of firewood intended to fuel the widespread and constant distillation of alcohol at the sites near the river. At the same time, young men in search of work hang around these businesses from sunrise to midday to help offload the bulks of firewood and chop them into smaller pieces in return for a small stipend. Suffice to say that thousands more depend indirectly on the alcohol economy in Mathare. All this provides some insight into the abrupt devastation to the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people caused by frequent crackdowns on the local alcohol economy by police.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa

After days without work and consequently food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. The few media outlets describing the protests squarely blamed ‘angry youth’ for starting the fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have spoken to many eyewitnesses who saw police officers deliberately setting the houses and schools alight. The so called ‘angry youth’ were alcohol distillers who had not earned a living for three days. These (mostly) men who make on a good day, Kshs 300 for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. These families do not have any savings to rely on when work is disrupted by state violence, and the illegal raid by police had left hundreds of families hungry for days. This provoked husbands, fathers and brothers to take to street and fight for their families, and they burned tires on the road to underscore their demand to work by blocking traffic.

As has been witnessed by several people, during the ensuing fracas one officer carelessly threw one of the burning tires into a row of make-shift houses and carpentry workshops along Juja road, all constructed of highly flammable materials. Other eyewitnesses saw police officers violently dispersed people trying to stop the fire from reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively enabling the fire to destroy several houses and properties. Teargas was lobbed at the crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water trying to rescue their homes and belongings. The teargas canisters further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to the ground.

The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police

Distraught, many slept outdoors in the cold on Tuesday night. The fire also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased insecurity. One resident recounted that, “For nights, gun shots have become our ringtone.” Another lamented, “We live in a war(zone), but nobody cares.” As Mathare endured this terror for three days and nights, residents watched in disbelief as the evening news headlines either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or apportioned the blame decidedly on them using the pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame. Mathare residents were profiled as criminals and the local alcohol economy as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa was legalized in September 2010 and is not an ‘illicit brew’. The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police. If the production is not up to standard, why not encourage or enable owners, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved production? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is.

The Culture of Policing In Mathare

Everyone living and working in Mathare is familiar with the daily routine of police visiting the distilling sites and bars where alcohol is produced and sold to solicit bribes. For each drum of kangara, the police receive at least 200 KES. Let us assume that there are seven distilling sites (we don’t disclose any specific details for security reasons) which have the capacity to process seven drums simultaneously, meaning there are 7 fires operative at each site at all times. Each drum takes three rounds to cook and each round takes 1 hour (45 minutes to distill and 15 minutes to cool). So seven sites and seven fires operating for 24 hours can process 392 drums of distilling mixture per day. For each drum, police receive Kshs 200 and the figure adds up to an average of kshs 70 000 per day and in excess of Kshs 2 million per month. This is a conservative estimate since it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who run their own alcohol operations. And the number of drums along the riverside also vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only three or four. The above calculations, though based on thorough research, only serve to give an indication of police involvement and investment in the alcohol industry in Mathare. Considering this, why then does the police initiate a raid to clamp down on the very industry that ‘feeds’ them?

A first part of the answer pertains to internal divisions within police. Police does not entail a homogenous entity, and rumors have it that Rashid and his team were eventually stopped by other police officers in the course of the week because they saw their avenues to ‘easy money’ destroyed. That, at least to some measure, explains why on Thursday the raid was abruptly halted. What’s more, crackdowns on the alcohol economy are not uncommon, despite the entanglement of police in this business. In July 2015, Mathare residents lived through a similar period of police terror which left two people dead and thousands people without work for weeks. Many believe that such attacks are often triggered by a desire of particular police units or individual officers to show, as one resident put it to us, “the ‘higher ups’ that they are doing their ‘job’ and/or deserve promotion”. This time too, many residents believe the notorious Rashid went out of his way to impress in the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai. A resident shared with us that in his view Rashid demonstrated his exceptional cruelty during the course of the raid by forcing a customer of a local bar to drink bleach while he compared bleach to chang’aa. The young punter barely survived this ordeal.

The police officer mentioned here is not the only one. Similar notorious policemen who are known to execute and torture mainly young and poor men frequently patrol most informal urban settlements in Nairobi. According to several of our fellow activists, these plain cloth police officers, called ‘killer cops’ or maspiff by some, are not part of regular police units that are locally known to be connected to specific police stations and which patrol Mathare and surrounding neighborhoods on a daily basis. They told us that these police officers operate under the direct command of the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO). Several (non-state) security groups in Mathare that work together with these police officers revealed to us that several of them also enjoy substantial support by influential business owners, for instance in Eastleigh. The exact operational and support structures of these ‘killer cops’ and how they collaborate with regular police units remain somewhat opaque to local activists and residents, but all agreed that these plain cloth police officers enjoy considerable power and are able to kill with impunity through their powerful back-up.

When considering the relative opacity of their operations, the public visibility of these police officers in Mathare (and other urban settlements) is indeed rather astounding. They are also not a recent phenomenon. Most Mathare residents above 25 years old can easily recall the cruel reign of different ‘killer cops’ as far back as the late 1990s, such as the ruthless Habel Mwareria a.k.a. ‘Tyson’ in early 2000s who was also popularly dubbed ‘the Ghost’ because he often seemed to materialize out of thin air when- and wherever problems occurred. He killed suspects without asking questions, in front of people and in broad daylight and would vanish as rapidly as he had appeared. He was later promoted to the ATPU ( Anti Terrorism Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cops’ gained new strength in popular discourse when in April and May 2017 alleged police officers calling themselves ‘Hessy’ became rapidly infamous by posting pictures on different Facebook pages, under this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date about who or what ‘Hessy’ really is. Some people claim it started with an actual police officer who was shot in the leg and while he was recovering home in the month of April 2017 he started this network of ‘Hessy’s’ on Facebook. This is substantiated to some extent by the fact that there is an infamous police officer who is nicknamed Hessy and who is known to kill mostly young male crime suspects in Kayole. Others say that one officer or a group of police officers from different police stations in Eastlands chose this name because of the reputation of this particular police officer. Others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook were not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers working in collaboration with specific ‘killer cops’. The ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages (such as Nairobi Crime Free and Dandora Crime Free) soon gained a massive following online and continue to be a topic of intense debate offline, for instance among residents in Mathare.

Local Dynamics and the Future of Chang’aa

Police violence in Mathare, such as extra-judicial killings and illegal raids on people’s livelihoods, are enabled by a combination of factors. In contrast to the knee-jerk homogenization and criminalization of ghetto residents, for instance in mainstream media in Kenya, people inside Mathare are equally divided about the use of (criminal) violence by police. Police use such local divisions inside this neighborhood to push their own agenda. For instance, they work together with residents, popularly dubbed informers or watihaji, who are paid by police for information on people, business activities and other developments locally. This explains how police were able to find the entrance to the jiko’s at the river or the places where bars are located.

However, the incentives of informers to tell on their neighbors often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge plays a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intelligence because the local turnover of police, following frequent transfers, is quite high thus limiting the time police have to understand local dynamics. As a result, local informer-networks have some power to manipulate police behavior towards their own agendas. To illustrate, sometimes ‘killer cops’ like Rashid parade a suspect throughout Mathare and when they receive calls from as little as three informers confirming the identity of the suspect, the suspect is taken to a backstreet and executed. Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern.

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

The recent raid in Mathare on the local alcohol economy stopped as suddenly as it had started and without any outcome other than destroyed livelihoods, schools and homes and injured people. Slowly, alcohol distillers went back to work on Friday and gradually the local economy picked up again. Such crackdowns have never stopped the local alcohol industry and never will. If the government wants to make the local alcohol industry safer and bring it in line with regulations, it needs to work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to improve production standards. If alcohol consumption is the problem, why not invest in rehabilitation programs and explore underlying factors that contribute to widespread cheap alcohol consumption, such as vast unemployment and extreme stress? If the government wants people to stop working in this industry all together why not develop alternatives together with them?

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

On Thursday 4 April 2019, one resident asked us: “Who is Rashid? How can he do all this, kill our young men for years, then come to destroy our work, huh? Who is he?”

“Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

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Liberty for Whom? D-Day’s African Ghosts

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the start of a war to save Western Europe from Nazi occupation. American and European leaders gathered at the scene last week to memorialise and honour those who fell, including on the German side. The US President, Donald Trump, began his tribute to them thus: “On this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.”

Undoubtedly, much of that is true. From the perspective of those in occupied Europe, it was the beginning of their liberation and the defeat of fascist tyranny. It would inaugurate, for many, an era of democratic freedom and economic prosperity that was at the time unparalleled in history.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

President Trump went on to state that “the GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier but the fate of the world.” This may be true, but the world is not just Western Europe; from the perspective of those on the African continent, the GIs were not there to shore up liberty and democracy, but rather to free countries that were themselves engaged in colonial plunder and occupation.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

But there was little that was “good” about what these same countries were doing and would continue to do to the people in Africa whose land and resources they were continuing to steal and whose people they not only oppressed but also press-ganged into their wars. More than a million Africans fought in World War II – hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the front in Europe, others to India, Burma and the Pacific islands. Few understood why they were fighting, let alone why they volunteered to do it. Many died and survivors today receive nothing of the recognition and adulation bestowed on their European and American counterparts.

Now it is probably true that a world governed by the Nazis would have been much worse for Africans than the present one, so in that sense their defeat was good for the continent. But in that case, it could also be argued that the two World Wars, which exhausted the European powers and shattered the myth of white invincibility for the returning African veterans, were also good in that they paved the way for the end of colonialism. In either case, the uncontested fact would be that these were not wars to free all people but rather to determine who would be their overlords – despite the rhetoric, they were fought less for global liberation than for global domination.

David Frum, in his brilliant piece for The Atlantic, “The Ghosts of D-Day”, notes how the memory of D-Day and the liberation of Europe have been distorted in French and American imaginations. In truth, it is not just American memories that have “become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing”. The memorials at Normandy are not so much about remembering history but rather spinning it. And within that spin, the tale of the Africans has no place – it muddies the moral waters to admit that the liberation the Allies sought did not include that of the black and brown peoples they were oppressing; that those on this continent had, and to a large extent still have, little share in the freedom that was heralded on that day.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art.

For Africans, the irony is that the tools for making concrete the memory of what the European nations were actually doing – the records and documents that tell the story of the occupation and the crimes that were committed against Africans – are, for the most part, either deliberately destroyed or safely hidden away in European vaults. Many were stolen at the end of the colonial occupation in an effort to maintain the fiction of its benevolence.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art. Yet, unlike the Germans, who have owned up to “the unforgettable rupture of civilization that [they] provoked in Europe” and to the fact that “the fallen German soldiers are resting in foreign soil not because they came as liberators to this country but as occupiers”, there has been no such admission from the Europeans with regard to their occupation of Africa. Today, they still repeat the lie that colonialism was about bringing civilization and the benefits of modernity to the primitive peoples of the continent rather than implementing a system of extraction that continues to bleed the continent to this very day.

In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, published the article, “The Case for Colonialism” (withdrawn after a public uproar and death threats), in which he argued that Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate”. He further advocated for “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. While much of this has been debunked, he is hardly the only one to go public with such views. In the same year, the former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was removed from her leadership roles after she put out a series of tweets touting the benefits of colonialism.

Rather than the selective and hagiographic portrayals we are treated to today, a better memorial for D-Day would be to return the colonial archives and to acknowledge the truth – the whole, unvarnished truth – about what was being defended on that day. For it surely was not the ideal of liberty for all. Importantly, this would include an acknowledgement and compensation for the Africans who were forced to fight and die in the wars that were not of their making.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa

The rise of a global technology industry to support financial services, known as fin-tech, has grown enormously in Africa in the last decade. Across the continent, many commentators have proclaimed fin-tech as the solution to poverty and development. Examining the case of Kenya’s celebrated fin-tech model, M-Pesa, Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere reveal a flawed system that is not an answer to poverty, despite the wild claims of some academic commentators. Quite the contrary, fin-tech offers Africa a further case study of how contemporary capitalism continues to under-develop Africa.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa
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In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology). Defined as ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, the last decade or so has seen the rise of a new global fin-tech industry, a development that is widely regarded to be positively changing the world in a variety of ways. Thanks to almost daily reports of major new investments, especially in Africa, many investment professionals are of the opinion that something akin to a new ‘gold rush’ is clearly underway. At the same time, the fin-tech model is also touted as an innovation that will greatly benefit the global poor, with enthusiastic supporters claiming that a new golden age of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is upon us.

By far the most well-known example of the fin-tech model to date is Kenya’s M-Pesa – the agent-assisted, mobile-phone-based, person-to-person payment and money transfer system. M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor. Taking inspiration from M-Pesa, many in the international development community now regard the fin-tech model as a potentially game-changing private sector-funded driver of development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology)

In the academic community the apparent combination of poverty reduction with profit generation proved to be a very seductive pro-capitalist narrative that many mainstream economists were only too willing to engage with. The most well-known academic economists examining the impact of M-Pesa are Tavneet Suri, based at MIT, and William Jack, based at Georgetown University. With extensive funding from Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya and the Gates Foundation, since 2010 Suri and Jack have produced a series of outputs extolling the benefits of M-Pesa. Suri and Jack’s generally positive findings have resulted in mainstream media attention and large numbers of citations. This has played an important part in galvanising the international development community into supporting the fin-tech model as a development and poverty reduction intervention.

In particular, their 2016 article published in the prestigious journal Science, entitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’ has played a considerable role in sparking the imagination of the international development community. This is mainly because of its sensational claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.’ According to this article, M-Pesa was not just making profits, but the evidence seemed to show it was also making an astonishing ‘bottom-up’ development and poverty reduction contribution. This poverty reduction claim, often cited in full in media articles, quickly became the centrepiece of the evidence used by many in the international development community to justify its increasingly strong support for, and investment in, the fin-tech model.

M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. As we write in a Briefing just published in the ROAPE Suri and Jack’s hugely influential signature article actually contains a surprising number of errors, omissions, poor logic, and methodological flaws. Crucial labour market evaluation parameters, such as business failure (exit) and the impact of new businesses on existing ones (displacement), were entirely over-looked. The core issue of individual over-indebtedness, which in Kenya is now approaching crisis levels and which has a clear and direct link to the operation of M-Pesa, was not even mentioned as a possible downside of the fin-tech development model. For such an important and well-financed project, the methodology was also weak, diverging from many of the standard ‘best practices’ in the impact evaluation field. The important issue of causation was also raised, but in a way that we found to be questionable at best. In many ways, therefore, Suri and Jack’s analysis appears to misrepresent and vastly over-state the development impact of M-Pesa. 

Fin-tech represents a new form of resource extractivism

One of the most disturbing aspects of Suri and Jack’s flawed analysis, however, is that they completely bypass the crucial equity and distributional issues that arise from the operation of M-Pesa and other similar fin-tech corporations. This is inexcusable because there are clear warning signs today that the fin-tech model possesses the potential to extract immense value from the poorest communities in the Global South, with potentially calamitous long-term consequences. Like the gambling, sub-prime mortgage and payday loan industries in the United States and UK that before and after the financial crisis of 2008 were able to grow rich by expertly extracting massive amounts of value from the communities of the poor, one might argue that Kenya’s poorest communities are also being drained of much of their needed collective wealth.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform (which has become ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid). This includes microloans, money transfers, grant disbursement, credit card usage, pension payments, and so on. One simply cannot escape from the fin-tech ‘net’ that is gradually being lowered on to the poor. As more and more governments and elites are brought in as allies by the fin-tech industry, this value extraction process is only likely to speed up and intensify, with cash transactions being increasingly jettisoned and ever more transactions being mediated by fin-tech organisations.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform

By the same token, given the profit motive at play, it is inevitable that a range of services and products will end up being pushed on to the poor even though they largely do not need them, are not able to productively use them, or do not have any means to repay debt associated with them. The value realised through such ‘digital mining’ techniques is then extracted from the local community and deposited into the hands of the fin-tech entity’s owner(s). However, with so many fin-tech entities backed by foreign capital from the Global North, the chances are that a large proportion of this ‘digitally mined’ value will head abroad to the world’s leading investment locations.

What we have here, therefore, is a value extraction process that contains the potential to progressively undermine the development process in local communities in the Global South. It does this in two important ways: first, it denies the local community an extremely valuable aggregate amount of local spending power, which is instead appropriated by wealthy individuals and institutions, many of which are located abroad. This renders an important endogenous growth trajectory inactive, since it is rising local demand that often provides the initial impetus for local enterprises to emerge in order to meet this demand. Second, fin-tech institutions also starve the local (re)investment cycle by siphoning value out of the community, and thus make it more difficult for local businesses to access the meaningful amounts of capital needed to establish sustainable commercial operations. Experiences in Asia with local banking from 1945 onwards, for example, show that reinvesting/recycling the bulk of locally-generated value back into the local economy has significant potential to kick-start economic growth.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries. The ‘resource’ increasingly being extracted from Africa today might no longer be a physical one – such as diamonds, gold, platinum, or silver -and the process might not require slavery, the employment of ultra-exploitative waged labour, or involve horrendous working conditions, but the eventual negative outcomes of ‘digital mining’ could very well be the extension and continuation of under-development.

M-Pesa thus provides us with a valuable case study of how contemporary platform capitalism operates in neoliberal Africa and how ‘digital mining’ might actually affect Kenya’s potential growth and development. In recent years, Safaricom (M-Pesa’s parent company) has become far and away Kenya’s largest company, now accounting for a massive 40% of the total stock market valuation on the Nairobi securities exchange. Safaricom is also famous for its spectacular profits. In 2019 it set a record by registering profits of around US$620 million, which would be an impressive result in even the richest countries of the Global North. To put this into perspective, this figure is slightly more than the Kenyan government spends on the entire healthcare system in the country. However, along with an additional bonus paid out in 2019 to shareholders amounting to around US$240 million, a large percentage of this US$620 million in profit was paid out as dividends to foreign shareholders. The main beneficiary was the majority shareholder (at 40%) of Safaricom, the UK multinational corporation Vodafone. Other beneficiaries are a variety of mainly foreign investors located in ‘tax-efficient’ locations (the Caribbean mainly) and who hold a 25% stake. The Kenyan government also holds a further 35% stake in Safaricom.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries.

This demonstrates that significant value is being created by M-Pesa based on the tiny transactions of the poor, but most of it is spirited abroad via dividend payments to foreign shareholders. This helps explain why M-Pesa has become a beacon for global investors and financial institutions all seeking their own spectacular fortunes in Africa while framing their thirst for profits as altruism. Indeed, by embedding the fin-tech model in Kenya, the international development community is complicit in the establishment of a high-tech extractivist infrastructure similar to colonial-era equivalents.

‘Digital mining’ in Kenya and the foreign appropriation of the wealth generated by those languishing at the bottom of the pyramid is a less directly brutal undertaking than the value extraction process carried out in colonial times.  However, the extractivist logic, the wealth transfer, and the determination to accumulate on the back of the poor have a similar character to colonial-era economic regimes, and similar potential to seriously damage socioeconomic development in the long-term.

Furthermore, as in colonial times, a local elite has been allowed significant freedom to manage this ‘digital mining’ on behalf of the foreign owners. As with Capitec Bank in South Africa, it is no secret that the CEO and senior management at Safaricom have been able to use the company as a vehicle through which to extract fantastic rewards for themselves, enjoying Wall Street-style levels of remuneration in recent years and with several becoming multi-millionaires as a result. However, this also provides the obvious incentive to grow Safaricom as fast as possible because in that way the personal rewards attributable to those at the top are maximised. As a result, Safaricom’s CEO and other senior management have pushed growth to the limits and are now encountering problems in several areas on account of reckless over-expansion, including with regard to the company’s wilful engagement with gambling. In addition, in the early stages of M-Pesa’s growth, certain still unidentified members of the local Kenyan elite were able to secure for themselves a sizeable shareholding in Safaricom, which they later sold off for massive capital gains. Pointedly, the impact on inequality in Kenya arising from these narrow elite enrichment mechanisms has been very significant.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall.

In short, an effective value extraction process involving ‘digital mining’ has been established in Kenya, which has been misleadingly framed by many in the international development community as contributing to ‘bottom-up’ development. This process has ensured the stratospheric enrichment of a narrow group of foreign investors, Safaricom’s own senior managers, and a section of the Kenyan elite. However, this value has effectively been appropriated from M-Pesa’s overwhelmingly poor clients via their growing bundle of tiny fin-tech-mediated financial transactions.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall. Safaricom appears to have become a classic example of the ‘cathedral in the desert’ syndrome – a vastly profitable entity that exists only by ignoring the impoverishment it is helping to create in its wake. As fin-tech spreads across Africa, it is likely we will see similar deleterious extractionist scenarios emerging.

Might we not then consider M-Pesa to be the canary in the coalmine?

Parallels with the failed microfinance revolution?

Our analysis of Suri and Jack’s hugely influential 2016 article shows that it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. One might conjecture that this has something to do with the fact that much of the funding for their work over the past decade has come from FSD Kenya and the Gates Foundation, two of the world’s leading advocates for the fin-tech model.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how the now largely discredited microfinance movement got a game-changing boost back in the 1990s thanks to a study by two high-profile World Bank economists – Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker – claiming that microfinance in Bangladesh was generating major poverty reduction benefits for women Pitt and Khandker’s work was much later shown to contain many serious errors and its conclusions were unsound. Nevertheless, Pitt and Khandker’s work more than served its immediate purpose, which was to galvanise support within and around the international development community for an intervention that the World Bank desperately wanted to see go forward on ideological grounds. We might therefore pose the obvious question here with regard to the misrepresentation of M-Pesa’s impact: are Suri and Jack the new Pitt and Khandker?

 

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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