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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?

‘‘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

State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon

In this four-part series, WACHIRA MAINA explains how “state capture elites” have undermined anti-corruption efforts and why, despite decades of reforms and numerous commissions of inquiry, corruption remains an enduring element of Kenyan politics and society.

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State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon
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Corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992. With more democratisation, the government’s infirmity in fighting corruption has also grown proportionately.

The cost of corruption to Kenya is a much-debated figure, but some experts say it is up to 1 per cent of GDP per year. Corruption cases are routinely reported in the press, in the Auditor General’s reports and to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) but these are rarely fully investigated let alone resolved satisfactorily.

Commissions of inquiry, such as the Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land, and the Gicheru Commission of Inquiry into Robert Ouko’s death, have achieved little. Even where a commission proposes extensive reforms – as the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land did – these are implemented in a patchy manner, seemingly “triaged” to exonerate the powerful or to punish their enemies.

Key sectors of the economy – food, land and oil, for example – are vulnerable to periodic heists and systematic mendacity and cover-ups. Reports of investigations done by committees of Parliament, such as the Musikari Kombo list of shame, are either totally rejected or doctored before they are laid before the House, ensuring that no action is ever taken.

Prosecutions fare no better: small fish are nabbed, big fish never. Even where, uncommonly, an indictment is followed by a conviction, the stolen money is rarely recovered. In the handful of cases where monies have been returned, it is usually from lowly officials. In some exceptional cases, the bigwigs will make secret “sweetheart deals” in which they return some token assets but get to keep the greater loot. All this motion without movement is possible because corruption is deeply embedded in politics, which it both funds and subverts.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes (churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites) to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers. The Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 revealed how intimately corruption is linked to politics. Laws were amended to stop civil servants from getting involved in fund-raising activities. By 2010, however, the law was being honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Why reforms fail

Reforms come in unsustainable spurts, usually after an election, as in 2003, or in a moment of fiscal crisis, as in 2013 just before Kenya went to the market to issue its first Eurobond. In 2002, in the early phase of the Mwai Kibaki administration, there was frantic action that, for a moment, seemed to herald a fresh beginning in the fight against graft. The national mood was optimistic, exultant and supportive. One thousand procurement officers were suspended after an audit showed widespread irregularities.

Between 2003 and 2007 a raft of new laws were made, buttressing a new set of anti-corruption institutions. Commissions of inquiry and task forces were set up to investigate past scandals and propose additional reforms. These were expectant times: in a 2003 Gallup International survey of more than 67,500 people in 65 countries, Kenyans were ranked the most optimistic people in the world. This result was not a response to any of these reforms, merely the after-glow of the fall of the Daniel arap Moi autocracy. What it says, though, is that the government was riding on a huge wave of a popular “feel-good” moment and legitimacy.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes…to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers.

It didn’t last. The laws were no sooner enacted than they were ignored. Task forces and commissions completed their tasks but nothing happened. Notwithstanding the baleful effect of the Goldenberg scandal on the national economy, the commission of inquiry into the scandal, led by Justice Bosire, was irresolute in its recommendations, most of which called for further investigations. The Bosire Commission had been tasked with investigating major financial fraud in the early 1990s involving a company called Goldenberg Ltd. and the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), in which the CBK and the local banking sector made losses of over $1 billion.

The report of the Kiruki Commission (2006) on the activities of the notorious Artur Brothers never even saw the light of day. The two brothers had been involved in a series of high-profile criminal activities and security breaches in collusion with highly placed Kenyan officials, which included a raid on the premises of the Standard Media Group.

As under the Moi regime, the much-loved commissions of inquiry have proved to be exceptionally weak instruments against graft. Few real changes have come out of the more than 30 commissions of inquiry Kenya has had in a century. And yet taxpayers invest millions in these commissions, expecting a real return by way of official integrity. As one AfriCOG report notes:

The Goldenberg Commission cost Kshs 503 million of which Kshs 200 million was spent on operations and Kshs 303 million on allowances. The Ndung’u Commission cost Kshs 78 million of which Kshs 7.4 million went to operations and Kshs 70.7 million was paid out as allowances. The Kiruki Commission cost Kshs 19.97 million of which Kshs 13.37 was paid out in allowances and Kshs 6.6 million went to operations.

Yet despite all these efforts, President Kibaki failed to actually reduce corruption. Instead, barely a year into the Kibaki presidency, in 2004, the still unresolved Anglo Leasing scandal broke out. By the mid-point of President Kibaki’s first term, most Kenyans had given up hope that corruption could be meaningfully tackled. To date, that has not changed.

The widespread nature of corruption means that Kenya routinely performs very poorly in international and local measures of corruption, integrity and good governance. Since the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index was launched in 1995, Kenya has invariably been in the bottom half of the countries surveyed. Sometimes, the country records some improvement on particular indicators, such as the World Bank’s Government Effectiveness and Doing Business surveys, but generally it soon slips back to its bad ways, or just stagnates. Locally, corruption surveys by TI’s national chapter report widespread bribery. Some institutions, such as the police, land registries and county licencing services, have been reported to have been notoriously predatory.

Thus, a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic in Kenya. Mostly, the government has embraced appearances of reform, rather than the fact of reform and this is so because deep reforms would loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power and severely subvert politics as it is played in Kenya.

State capture 

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit. As defined by Catrina Godinho and Lauren Hermanus, state capture is “. . . a political-economic project whereby public and private actors collude in establishing clandestine networks that cluster around state institutions in order to accumulate unchecked power, subverting the constitutional state and social contract by operating outside of the realm of public accountability.” 

If capture is successful, “state institutions, governance, and functions are repurposed and re-engineered over time”, and the constitutional state sheds many of its substantive, but not formal, democratic features and becomes increasingly autocratic, at least in the ways in which power is exercised de facto”.

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit.

The success of state capture, therefore, rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt; arrests and indictments are often precursors of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.

Essential to state capture is the existence of a crooked, conniving and reciprocal relationship between certain types of businesses and politicians. State capture creates a two-government country: there is an elected government, and there is a shadow government, a state within a state. Capture networks radiate, web-like, from two centres: the Presidency, where the power is concentrated, and the Treasury, where money management is centralised.

Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.

This state capture perspective therefore requires us to see the state elite not as a government at all, but as a vertically integrated criminal organisation that operates in the shadow of the constitutional state. Taking that view, even political rivals are allies who co-exist uneasily, not principally, for the purpose of exercising the functions of the state in the abstract, but primarily and concretely for extracting resources for personal gain. Given its private objectives, the state, seen this way, has no interest in public purposes, such as development, education or health.

This perspective also questions the idea that the Kenyan state is recognisable as such, suggesting instead that institutions are run as noxious, corrupt, criminal fiefdoms. The government, from the presidency to the police, is privatised, with criminal elements operating under unofficial licence from civil authority. The appropriate way to think of the authorities is as organised criminals who have perverted state institutions to maximise predation.

Governance as a “front activity”

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors. As John of Salisbury wrote in Policratius:

The raven rejoices in the work of the wolf, and the unjust judge applauds the minister of injustice…in lands whose princes are infidels and companions of thieves; they hasten to embrace those whose misdeeds they observe, thus adding their own share of iniquity in the hope that they may gain for themselves some portion of the spoil.

In this sort of state, governing is really “just a front activity” and to that extent the state is only failing at being a state but is otherwise remarkably effective in achieving its objective, which is to further enrich the state capture elite.

To be able to transition capture across elections, from one regime to another – as Kenya did in 2002 and again in 2013 and 2017 – involves repurposing politics so as to limit the political agency of citizens. To do this successfully, democracy has to be reframed in purely formal and procedural terms. The political class is then able to use the democratic process, especially elections, to frustrate what Michael Johnston calls “deep democratization”. Deep democratization, as opposed to procedural democracy, is:

[The] process whereby citizens become able to defend themselves and their interests by political means. It is “democratization”, not in the sense of establishing formal democratic institutions for their own sake, but rather in the sense of broadening the range of people and groups with some say about the ways power and wealth should—and should not—be pursued, used and exchanged. 

In this way, the procedural elements of democracy are used to hollow out its substantive commitments whilst keeping the diplomatic respectability that is conferred by regular elections.

In addition to sequestering democratic concepts for private use in this way, political elites also appropriate moral language and social norms to “conventionalise” corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that removes the moral sting and opprobrium from corruption and its various forms. Corruption is “traditionalised” and reframed as gift-giving or a form of socially recognisable reciprocity.

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors.

Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some benefit or to pull strings on behalf of kin and friends of friends. Once a moral bond is accepted as legitimate, a civil servant or politician cannot refuse to profit from “juicy” postings that might benefit him and his people or fail to “spread the benefit around” to his relatives. In this way, the state capture elite syncretically amalgamates traditional practices of gift-giving and reciprocity with their own corrupt and predatory practices that are based on smash and grab and a dollop of tokenism for friends and relatives.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance. As George Steiner points out, political falsehood of this magnitude cuts language from its roots in “moral and emotional life” so that it becomes “ossified with clichés, unexamined definitions, and left-over words”. According to Steiner, this “anaesthetizing” drains “the life-force of the language” and dissolves the society’s moral and political values. Indeed, language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice cuppa tea between intimates.

Seeing corruption as a problem of state capture solves many of the persistent puzzles of anti-corruption reform in Kenya. Why do the emblematic corruption cases, such as the Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing or Eurobond scandals, never get resolved even though they never really die? Because they are not meant to be resolved; to resolve them would undo the “implicit transition bargain” of Kenyan politics that successors will not harm the interests of their predecessors. And yet, these emblematic cases cannot really be allowed to die because that would expose the capture racket. Therefore, such cases are kept interminably in the public eye, partly as evidence that “action is live” and partly as a fig leaf to keep the machinery of larceny functioning under cover.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance.

Goldenberg and other post-1992 state capture scandals marked a watershed in corruption politics, that is, “a shift from a politics of state-led control” to “a politics of competitive aggression, the principal victim of which has been the state itself”, says Dominic Burbidge. In this dispensation, politics “has become a pursuit of ever faster forms of enrichment”. These scandals challenge both the theory of democratic consolidation and the supposed “curative” effects of democracy on political corruption.

Kenya under democracy has transformed from a moderately corrupt society to a pervasively corrupt society, and corruption has moved stepwise from “petty or bureaucratic” to “grand or political” and, eventually, to state capture.

This is Part 1 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

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The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories

Large China-funded infrastructure projects in Kenya have led to an influx of Chinese male migrants, who have not just changed the landscape of the country, but who have also found love – and had children – in the most unlikely places. DAUTI KAHURA reports on the “Chikuyu” phenomenon.

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In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.

“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”

By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.

But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.

In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”

At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.

Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.

Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.

Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.

Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.

Where it all began

In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).

The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.

Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.

Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.

Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.

In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.

Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.

This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.

The Chinese invasion

The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.

Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.

Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.

Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.

Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.

Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.

Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.

“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”

At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.

“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.

The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.

“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”

The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.

Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”

Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.

Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.

The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.

Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.

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BBI and the Referendum: Another False Start?

Constitutional amendments have preceded every Kenyan election since 1992. But have these amendments brought about real change or are they merely tools that are used to entrench the status quo? DAUTI KAHURA finds out.

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As the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) comes to a close (the last town hall meeting is slated for July 28, 2019, in Nairobi County) the spotlight on the initiative has shifted to its mandate, and has been heightened up by a section of Kenyans who are already anticipating its probable outcome. This directed interest and anticipation of the process led to two widely circulated documents on social media on July 15, which the BBI team, led by its chairman, Senator Yusuf Haji, promptly denied. The documents, titled BBI Technical Team Proposals and Proposed Changes to The Constitution were declared “fake” by Senator Haji.

BBI was constituted after President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, his chief political opponent, shook hands on March 9, 2018. On May 24, 2018, BBI was gazetted and soon commenced its countrywide solicitations of public opinion.

Paul Mwangi, one of the joint secretaries to BBI (the other one is Ambassador Martin Kimani), in an interview conducted by The Elephant, said that the BBI team was shocked to see the documents, purportedly authored by BBI, being posted on the Internet. “We were surprised to see these documents. Like everyone else, the team saw them for the first time on social media. It is to be expected that as we conclude our town hall county meetings, interest in BBI’s work has risen in all quarters of the Kenyan society,” said Mwangi. “BBI hopes to wrap up its county participation on or around August 9 and, therefore, any report purporting to second-guess the committee’s work that is not from the BBI’s team is to be disregarded.”

The initiative’s terms of reference were extended to October from May, 2019, after it fell behind its schedule. Once through with the Nairobi meeting, Mwangi said the team will immediately start compiling the deliberations with the help of a team of researchers, each of whom has been assigned the nine thematic areas: corruption, ethnic antagonism and competition, devolution, divisive elections, inclusivity, lack of national ethos, safety and security, shared prosperity, responsibilities and rights. “We should be done by October 24,” he said.

I asked Mwangi whether a referendum was one of the issues that the BBI deliberated upon, to which he quickly retorted, “I don’t wish to preempt anything at this time of the process. BBI will suggest solutions and it’s these solutions that will determine whether there will be a referendum or not.”

But an inside source, who cannot be named because he is officially not authorised to speak on behalf of BBI, said: “The issue of a referendum is a foregone conclusion – the question is not if, but when the referendum will be held. That is the climax of the process.”

The source said the town hall meetings have been a process of setting the ground for an eventual referendum. “We will not go to the next general election without a constitutional change, that is why the issue of a referendum has gripped the nation, and you can see that is what currently is preoccupying Kenyans.”

The source told me Ekuru Aukot’s referendum efforts are meant to be a distraction to BBI’s own referendum project: “Whoever is funding him wants to steal the thunder from BBI, dilute and make nonsense of the BBI’s forthcoming referendum.”

But an inside source, who cannot be named because he is officially not authorised to speak on behalf of BBI, said: “The issue of a referendum is a foregone conclusion – the question is not if, but when the referendum will be held. That is the climax of the process.”

The people behind Aukot’s referendum hope to argue “why have another referendum and there is already one at hand that is actually addressing the fundamental issues in the constitution that are troubling Kenyans?’ observed the source. Nicknamed Punguza Mzigo (reduce the load) one of the biggest issues that the Aukot’s referendum wants to deal with is the issue of “over-representation”, hence, a need to reduce some of the political seats, such as MPs’ seats. Aukot is the party leader of The Third Way Alliance Party.

“Were Ekuru’s referendum to be held, he would only need the consent of 24 counties, as per the 2010 constitution. He would then take his finding to Parliament, which as currently constituted, is presumably controlled by Deputy President William Ruto’s supporters in the Jubilee Party,” said the source. “Although Aukot’s referendum issues sound right and would easily resonate with a majority of Kenyans, the proposed constitutional changes he is seeking are meant to blind Kenyans, that indeed he cares about their plight. Truth be said, those changes would be difficult to implement and in any case, they would not be implemented immediately.”

As a pointer to the coming BBI referendum, Senator James Orengo, Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi, Alego Usonga MP Samwel Atandi and Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo, faulted the Punguza Mzigo initiative and counselled the Third Way Alliance party boss to be patient and wait for BBI, which, ostensibly according to them, will deal with all the issues pertaining to Kenyans.

Said Orengo on July 21: “We are waiting for the BBI report that has all the issues of the people. The questions in Aukot’s proposal have not undergone stakeholders consultations, let’s wait for October when we will have the BBI report and thereafter a referendum that will decide on the fate of Kenyans.”

Succession politics

Since 1992, when the country returned to multiparty elections, no presidential succession has not been preceded by a constitutional change, said my source. “That is why the elephant in the living room of the BBI’s unproclaimed core mission has been the referendum. A chronological understanding of the succession politics since 1992 to date should therefore locate the real reason behind BBI’s formation, its real agenda, bearing in mind the 2022 succession political perspective and its dynamics.”

Responding to Western countries’ pressure to liberalise the monolithic Kanu party politics, President Daniel arap Moi, in December 1991, orchestrated a political process that culminated in the removal of Section 2A of the old constitution that made Kenya a de jure single party system. And although the amendment to the constitution did not immediately transform the country into a democratic polity, it allowed for the introduction of pluralistic politics. That is how FORD, before it split into two (Ford-Asili and Ford Kenya), the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) and the Kenya Social Congress (KSC), led by firebrand politician and ex-detainee, George Anyona, came into being. So, for the first time since independence, opposition parties were allowed to participate in the December 29, 1992 general election.

Faced with another election in five years, President Moi was again confronted with demands to expand the scope of the political space, as well as to institute constitutional and legal changes. Between 1992 and 1997, there were continuous demands from the opposition and civil society organisations to effect these changes, especially to level the tilted playing field. President Moi ignored these demands until a few months before the December 29, 1997 general election. Principally, to ease off the pressure that had been building and that had threatened to forestall the elections through a boycott under the clarion call of “no reforms, no elections”, he acquiesced to some minimum reforms.

Responding to Western countries’ pressure to liberalise the monolithic Kanu party politics, President Daniel arap Moi, in December 1991, orchestrated a political process that culminated in the removal of Section 2A of the old constitution that made Kenya a de jure single party system.

Inevitably, the question in 1997, as the country prepared for its second multiparty elections. was: Should we go to the elections with or without reforms? As the political temperatures gradually soared, it became imperative that the country needed some facilitative reforms.

The formation of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) allowed President Moi some breathing space, and afforded the opposition some minimum reforms to go to the elections with. Just a month before the election, in November, through the IPPG, a number of constitutional, legal and administrative changes were adopted. They included enlarging the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) to accommodate representatives from the opposition, repealing the Public Order Act (which President Moi used to harass and scuttle the oppositions’ rallies), and allowing the registration of new political parties. At that time, the Safina Party, led by Paul Muite, was registered and more fundamentally, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Act was amended to allow for more equal air time for all political parties.

Aware that the facilitative reforms had allowed President Moi to hold a largely incident-free election in which once again he trounced his opponents, civil society, led by the National Convention Executive Committee (NCEC) – which was at the forefront of demands for a new constitution, and which was opposed to piecemeal constitutional reforms – was unrelenting in its push for a new constitution. The issue of a new constitution, just like the facilitative reforms, was one that President Moi did not want to deal with and therefore kept postponing the matter.

By the late 1990s, when faced with an election that he would not participate directly in as a presidential candidate since being elected in 1978 after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, President Moi had already started planning his exit and successor. A new constitution did not feature in his plans because his hand-picked successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, went into the elections under the old constitution, fraught as it was with risks.

To deflect the NCEC’s pressure and refusing to cave in to demands for a new constitution, President Moi suspended Parliament on October 25, 2002, and announced an election timetable, all in the name of forestalling Katiba Tuitakayo, a proposed new constitution model by NCEC. Under the old constitution, the President was bestowed with the powers to dissolve Parliament and call elections at his pleasure, and once Parliament was dissolved, a general election had to take place within 90 days.

On November 4, 1999, at a press conference, the NCEC spokesperson Prof Kivutha Kibwana pointed out that, “Kanu has demonstrated that it is unwilling and therefore incapable of ushering in constitutional and democratic change in Kenya.”

The general election was held on December 27, 2002, and President Moi’s project – the candidature of Uhuru Kenyatta running on a Kanu ticket – was defeated by Mwai Kibaki, formerly of the Democratic Party, but then running under the banner of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc). The first thing that President Kibaki promised when he was sworn in at Uhuru Park on December 31, 2002 was a new constitution within a 100 days.

To fulfil his promise, Kibaki supported the continuation of the work of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), which had been constituted in November 2000 by a legal framework for reviewing the constitution. CKRC was headed by the renowned constitutional lawyer, Prof Yash Pal Ghai. After their lengthy deliberations at the Bomas of Kenya, CKRC, came up with a new draft constitution. The draft included a raft of constitutional proposals, such as a parliamentary system of government with 14 regions, and a hybrid presidential system with more or less ceremonial powers but with co-shared executive powers between the president and a prime minister. It was an experiment that borrowed from both the British (parliamentary) and the American (presidential) systems.

“But instead of presenting the Bomas Draft to Kenyans, President Kibaki gave them a ‘skunk’ in the name of the Wako Draft,” said the source. “Amos Wako was the then Attorney General and instead of giving Kenyans the draft constitution that they had helped to come up with, he bastardised the Bomas Draft and edited the old constitution to cheat Kenyans that that was the new constitution that they had debated upon.”

This Wako Draft was the basis of the Orange vs Banana referendum in 2005. The Orange proponents opposed the draft, while the Banana supporters proposed the implementation of the draft. “The outcome of that referendum had not been difficult to predict,” said the source. “Clearly, what was being presented to Kenyans was not what they had proposed to CKRC and which had been adopted at Bomas of Kenya through the National Constitutional Conference (NCC).”

The Wako Draft was rejected by a majority of Kenyans and thereafter, President Kibaki fired all his cabinet ministers. Those who were aligned to the No (Orange) movement did not return to government. “Constitutional experts have always argued that it was at this point that President Kibaki ought to have resigned from government because the referendum had essentially passed a vote of no confidence in his government,” said the source.

The critics of the Bomas Draft, mainly technical people and some political elites, argued that the draft was a mongrel kind of constitution that failed to locate state power and therefore was not bold enough to differentiate between the president and the prime minister, who wielded real power. The critics pointed out that in a politically fragile country like Kenya, this was a risky venture.

“After the government was defeated in the referendum, electioneering went into high gear and that is when the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) was formed by Raila after he was sacked as a cabinet minister,” the source said. “The electorate was being prepped to go into the 2007 election without a new constitution and clearly this was a harbinger of things to come…the ominous signs were there…as sure as night follows day, there was going to be violence.”

The Wako Draft was rejected by a majority of Kenyans and thereafter, President Kibaki fired all his cabinet ministers. Those who were aligned to the No (Orange) movement did not return to government. “Constitutional experts have always argued that it was at this point that President Kibaki ought to have resigned from government because the referendum had essentially passed a vote of no confidence in his government,” said the source.

After the devastating election of December 2007, after which violence indeed erupted, especially in the North Rift, the country was taken back to pre-2002 scenario: the country needed to have a new constitution if it was to hold the next general election in five years time.

In 2008, Ekuru Aukot become the chief executive officer (CEO) and secretary of the Committee of Experts (CoE) that was mandated to look afresh into the matter of processing a new constitution. Nzamba Kitonga became the CoE’s chair. The CoE members included, among others, the current Supreme Court of Kenya judge Njoki Ndungú, Otiende Amollo, currently the MP for Rarieda, Atsango Chesoni, Prof Frederick Ssempembwa, a Ugandan, Chaloka Beyani, a Zambian, and Prof Christina Murrey from South Africa.

“The CoE came up with the Draft Proposed Constitution of Kenya, which it rolled out for people’s comments and opinions just like BBI is doing, only that its methods were different,” said the source. It printed the Draft in thousands, placed it as inserts in the mainstream newspapers, uploaded it online and also printed booklets which were distributed to the populace.”

After reviewing the Draft as the law required, the CoE passed the document to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on constitutional review chaired by Abdikadir Mohamed. The PSC meeting held in Naivasha made a significant change: it removed the hybrid system and replaced it with a purely presidential system, the one that Kenya has now.

The PSC Draft is what was published by Wako – “and as the law required of him, he was not to tamper with the draft, as he had done in 2005 with the Bomas Draft. The Draft was taken to Parliament as is and it was passed as a consensus document.”

After reviewing the Draft as the law required, the CoE passed the document to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on constitutional review chaired by Abdikadir Mohamed. The PSC meeting held in Naivasha made a significant change: it removed the hybrid system and replaced it with a purely presidential system, the one that Kenya has now.

“With the foregoing, it is obvious that Kenya must have, at the very least, constitutional changes, if it is to face the 2022 general election” said the source. “After the 2017 general election, in which for the first time in the history of legal jurisprudence, a presidential election win was revoked by the judiciary, to be followed by a fresh presidential election, the country for a while seemed to teeter on the precipice.”

“It looks like the political elite logic has always been to play the election game of holding elections every five years, while all they do is tweak the constitution to create the impression that we have dealt with real constitutional changes. All this in the name of perpetuating themselves, putting the opposition in its place and ensuring there is no tumultuous revolt,” said the source.

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