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Enter the Dragon: China’s Media War in Africa

13 min read.

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries.

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Enter the Dragon: China’s Media War in Africa
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“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.” – Sun Tzu (Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher)

On New Year’s Eve 2016, President Xi Jinping of China sent a congratulatory message to the China Global Television Network (CGTN), which had rebranded and relaunched its former label, the China Central Television (CCTV).

“Tell China stories well, spread China stories as well, spread China’s voice well, let the world know a three-dimension colourful China and showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace,” extolled the president while inaugurating the channel’s newly enlarged and sophisticated production studios in Beijing.

CGTN, which is the biggest news network and production house in mainland China, sustained its operations by beaming and broadcasting news as CCTV, just like before, and therefore was not affected by the rebranding. It has continued to telecast news and make documentaries and news programmes tailored for local consumption that are sanctioned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. CGTN is the equivalent of the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), but with the clout and financial muscle that makes KBC look like one of its many news production departments.

But it is the CGTN’s operations and manoeuvres geared to cast China as a global phenomenon in the 21st century and beyond that the Central Committee is really keen to see. It would like its wings to spread worldwide so as to, “showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace”, as President Jinping mildly put it more than two years ago. Delivered as a message to a world that is undergoing tumultuous political shocks, it was a statement that camouflaged China’s real and serious global expansionist intentions as we enter the third decade of the 21st millennium.

That statement, as innocuous as it sounded, is a characteristic of Chinese foreign policy lingo that deliberately seeks to not frighten or scare its neighbours, such as India, Japan and South Korea, into alertness (military or otherwise), or to not arouse suspicious feelings (which might lead to heightened escalation of global drums of war) among fellow world economic powers, such as Germany, Japan, the United States and the militaristic Russia. Such a statement also serves to calm and reassure countries in Africa and Asia that China hopes to extract raw materials from.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

Yet, beneath the carefully crafted and worded statements by the president and the senior Central Committee members that portray China as a humble and benevolent Big Brother – whose only agenda is world peace and harmonious co-existence – is a hidden, subtle, and ruthless ambition and pursuit of global power that China hopes to use to conquer the world and re-establish China as the dominant civilisation that it once was in the centuries gone by.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

CGTN is a consolidation of six carefully picked foreign-language operations. Apart from Chinese, the channel broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. It is a convergence of print, radio, TV, and online (new media) publication. In 2009, the Chinese government had already set $6.5billion aside for CCTV’s rebranding and expansion into CGTN. In November 2018, CGTN opened a state-of-the-art bureau in Chiswick, a wealthy London suburb. That bureau is supposed to cover the length and breadth of continental Europe.

The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is the combination of railway lines (belts) and (silk) roads that are supposed to link mainland China with the rest of the world, collapsing distances for a hungry China in need of raw materials for its economic quantum leap and eventually its world political power. It is China’s latest massive agenda, which it hopes will catapult it to an economic power house that rivals every other world economic power within 25 years.

Italy, Portugal and Greece are among Europe’s rancorous democracies that have bought into the idea of OBOR. China will be building a road and railway line into Italy and with that link, create trade routes and have access to continental Europe’s goods as it taps into its engineering and technological advancement. The newly opened CGTN bureau in London, one of the biggest financial hubs in the world, will, among other things, capture and tell the story of the entry and success of OBOR in Europe.

Nairobi and news out of Africa

However, it is the CGTN’s Nairobi bureau that continues to elicit excitement and which is being closely watched (pun intended) by Western powers who once totally commanded and controlled the information flow entering and leaving the country and region. The bureau officially started broadcasting from Nairobi on January 11, 2012 as CCTV. On December 31, 2016, the bureau launched its CGTN operations and was made the biggest bureau in Africa, whose operations cover the entire continent, especially in regions that China has a keen interest in. Just around the same time, Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, signed a pact with Nation Media Group (NMG), ostensibly to trade news, but really for Xinhua, to have access to tell its stories in the largest newspaper in the region.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing.”

Other CGTN bureaus in Africa exist – in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Cairo. The other major bureau outside of Beijing and Nairobi is the Washington DC bureau. The Washington bureau gives the Chinese an opportunity to show the Americans that they can also operate on their soil. However, in terms of strategic significance, geopolitical importance and long-term plans, the Nairobi bureau far outflanks the Washington bureau.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing,” said a senior CGTN producer based in Nairobi. “It is also the best place to scoop the Western media’s presence in this region and indeed in the whole of Africa.”

The re-organisation of the state-controlled CGTN in Nairobi did not go unnoticed by the Western media based in the city. At just about the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), another state-run media conglomerate, was also expanding and moving its Nairobi operations from the central business district offices at Norfolk Towers to the quiet suburb of Riverside Drive. Its first move was to raid CGTN’s experienced staff – editors, reporters and mainly producers – and to hike their salaries and remunerations as an incentive to luring them from the heavily-funded Chinese media house, where money was the least of its problems. In its expanded offices, the BBC Nairobi bureau, which has been reporting on Kenya and the East African region for the last five decades or so, employed 300 journalists (four-fifths of whom were locals) to boost its image and presence.

“Our most important investment,” opined the Director of BBC News, Francesca Unsworth, “will be training the next generation of African reporters and producers to world class standards.”

This dramatic shift in the BBC’s policy does not surprise Gray Phombeah, who was the BBC’s Nairobi bureau chief from 2006 till 2008. When he became bureau chief, the BBC’s Nairobi office was tiny, comprising only around ten people. By the time he left in October 2008, it had expanded to more than 30 staff members, the majority of whom were Kenyan journalists. “It was during this time that the BBC broadcast for the first time the Swahili programme, Amka na BBC, from outside its London headquarters,” he says.

However, Phombeah is aware that “Africanising” the BBC bureau in Nairobi does not necessarily mean that Kenyan or African stories will be told from an African perspective and without bias. “We have to remember that the BBC World Service is Britain’s soft power, and so who controls and manages its bureaus abroad is part and parcel of that. The fact that the BBC has recognised the importance of having African journalists telling the continent’s stories is a good thing, but we must also accept the fact that only those stories that are palatable or acceptable to the British ruling class and Foreign Office mandarins get told.”

Clearly CGTN’s serious rebranding and infusion of more money by the state for its expansion and penetration into the African continent merited the BBC’s re-evaluation of its operations in Africa – whether by default or design. The BBC also “relaunched” in November 2018 to position itself as the premier global broadcaster that takes the African continent seriously.

Two decades ago, in 1998, the BBC World Service had already opened its office in Nairobi. “The BBC began by moving its operations from Johannesburg to Nairobi,” said a senior BBC editor, who is not authorised to comment on the BBC’s Africa media plans. “Several things mitigated the shift: labour issues – the trade unions in South Africa are very powerful and strong – the worrying issue of escalating xenophobia and the fact that Johannesburg oftentimes is far removed (geographically and its heartbeat) from the continental issues that are central to the rest of the African countries.”

Africa is as important to the BBC as it is to CGTN. The BBC, in a project it is calling World 2020, in which its strategic expansion plans in Africa from its Nairobi headquarters are expected to have reached their zenith, is also expanding into Asia, building networks and partnering with local radio and TV stations to create as big a BBC audience as it possibly can.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

“Today, the United Kingdom’s best known and strongest foreign policy brand is the BBC,’ said the BBC senior editor. “With the Brexit imbroglio, the UK must look outwards and reach out to countries that it has had past relations with.” (Many of these countries, it goes without saying, are former colonies.)

The Propaganda Department

CGTN currently employs 150 local journalists who work as camera personnel, studio technicians, editors and producers, but the managerial and editorial decisions remain solely in the hands of the expatriate Chinese staff.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

CGTN is not in the business of making profits, but countering what it considers to be the Western media’s distortion of the Chinese presence on the continent, said the former CGTN editor. “The major agenda for CGTN in Africa is propaganda, that is propagating China’s interests in Africa, through its own voice and medium.” To this extent, said the editor, “the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department heavily channels inexhaustible funds to CGTN as part of it global information warfare.”

But a senior assistant director of news at CGTN, a Kenyan, refutes the assertion that CGTN is an out-and-out self-censorship propaganda channel. “True the Managing Editor is Chinese, but his substantive editors are international staff, and they are anybody else but Chinese. CGTN only controls news that touch on Chinese interests and its foreign policy, its Asian neighbourhood, and major state conferences, like the just concluded One Belt, One Road International Forum that took place in Beijing last month…every other news is fair game.”

The most boring time to work for CGTN, said the director of news, is the month of March. “It’s the political season in China. That’s when the executive committee of the Communist Party meets and deliberates on issues. It also the time Parliament does the same, as it passes legislative laws deemed appropriate for the country. On these matters, nobody is better placed to handle them than the Chinese staff themselves. You easily could lose your job for ‘misreporting’ these events.” Misreporting here meaning reporting impartially and being critical, if need be.

CGTN may not be as thorough as the BBC, but by and large it is building its content for its Africa coverage, said the director of news. “China has a 100-year-long term plan for Africa and a fully-fledged news coverage of Africa is part of the plan. When CCTV started in 2012, it used to have only 30 minutes of African news. Soon, it was broadcasting the one-hour lunchtime Africa Live. Africa Live soon had two editions – the lunchtime one between 1 pm and 2 pm and the 8pm one. Now, they even have Global Business Africa, a one-hour programme dedicated to African business news daily between 9pm and 10pm.”

Other programmes include the weekend shows, Face of Africa and Talk Africa. Face of Africa, a documentary, is shown on Sundays for 30 minutes, while Talk Africa is televised on Saturdays, between 8.30pm and 9pm. Talk Africa touched on various African issues, be they economic, political or social. There is also 30 minutes of African sports reporting on Saturdays. CGTN’s goal in Africa is to eventually sell China’s brand image to every corner of the continent, said the director of news.

In this current world of media explosion and Internet influence, if you can control the information warfare globally, you have half won the battle against your adversaries, said CGTN’s former editor, who added that China has taken this dictum extremely seriously. China believes that it is only by controlling and telling its narratives through its own kaleidoscopic lenses that it will achieve its own goal and pursuit of ultimate power and influence in the world.

But more than telling its own narratives and controlling what kind of news comes from its channels, the Chinese also realised that the Western media in Africa does not report positively about the continent. “They understood there is a gap they can plug in, even as they plot on how to maximize and rationalise their presence on the vast continent,” said the CGTN news director.

“In Africa, CGTN is competing with the Americans especially, whose media presence in the continent has been waning. The Cable News Network (CNN) and the Voice of America (VOA) are the only American news media outlets that report anything on Africa and when they do, it’s not all positive. Even then, CNN has one single correspondent dedicated to the whole of Africa.” The director of news said many American journalists consider being posted to Africa as a downgrade – in their minds Africa is still this backward, backwaters continent.

In the information warfare in Africa between America and China, “America has unfortunately been losing the (propaganda) war,” said the CGTN producer. “Today, when CNN wants to report on Africa, it relies on just one leanly-staffed bureau based in South Africa, and if it needs support, it flies in one of its various correspondents, who jet in in the morning and by evening have jetted out.”

For example, when David McKenzie, the CNN reporter stationed in Johannesburg, or Nina Elbagir, the Sudan-born CNN foreign correspondent, report on Africa, it is usually about a tragedy and generally bad news. “The only time CNN reports big time on Africa is when a calamity has taken place…CNN’s model on reporting Africa has remained the same since the days of Jeff Koinange – who was also the sole reporter from Cape to Cairo, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Luanda to Lagos. Hence, with the exception of BBC, the Western media doesn’t have a major presence in Africa,” said the director of news.

Natural resources diplomacy

The decision by China to pick Nairobi as its continental operational base was a well- calibrated move and a “diplomatic coup” to bolster its grip on the country’s and the continent’s strategic extractive resource materials. China, through CGTN, views itself as a friend of Africa and enabler of its developmental progress and peacekeeping force, hence, its “favourable” reporting on its working relations with some of the countries it is directly dealing with.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

“China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in July 2017 – People’s Liberation Army (and) Navy (PLAN) – from there it coordinates its peace keeping missions in Africa,” said the CGTN producer. “Nairobi is close enough to be reporting (positively) on the Chinese force working in trouble spots such as Mali and South Sudan, helping to stabilise those countries (peacefully) without China necessarily interfering with their domestic affairs.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, China in 2017 contributed about 2,500 troops and military experts to six United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

Hence, “China’s entry into Africa – with its value-neutral ‘natural resources diplomacy’ – has outflanked the West and forced a donor retreat from democracy,” recently wrote Wachira Maina, a constitutional lawyer.

To shut its (Western media) critics, CGTN has ostensibly been reporting good news coming out of Africa, such as innovation and technological advancement in relation to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and business concerns all over Africa, said the CGTN producer. “CGTN content is heavily slanted towards their investments in Africa – mainly in infrastructure and telecommunications, light industries (solar panels and green energy), mobile telephony assembly, mobile gadgets customised for Africa, and heavy commercial vehicle assembly in South Africa.”

China’s First Auto Works (FAW), the long distance truck engines and body works, opened its first plant in Johannerberg and CGTN never ceases to report about how China is partnering with Africa to build and develop its future production plants. Until Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, entered the African market in 1998, Africa’s telecommunication industry was controlled and dominated by Western multinational corporations, such as Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia. A dozen years later, the stiff market competition triggered by Huawei and other Chinese private companies have altered the terrain completely. The cost of telecommunications equipment and rates have gone down drastically.

Five months after CGTN was inaugurated in Beijing, in May 2017, Kenya launched a $3.2 billion standard gauge railway line funded by China, linking the capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa, arguably making it the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since independence in 1963. Popularly known as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the railway line is part of the OBOR project. That railway line is supposed to run all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), passing through Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is also supposed to divert to South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The East-West media war

“Under the One Belt, One Road initiative, China is investing nearly $900 billion in what it thinks of as a trunk silk-road. One trunk is an overland network of rail, road and power grids that link China’s industrial heartland to the vast oil, natural gas and mineral resources of Central Asia and on the market of Eastern and Western Europe,” observed Wachira. “The second trunk is a maritime silk road with two branches – an Indian Ocean link to sub-Saharan Africa and a Red Sea link to North Africa and Europe where ‘maritime road and overland belt’ converge.”

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries. Either way, both have decided to use the media as soft power to endear themselves to the continent.

In China in Africa: Power, Media Perceptions and a Pan-Developing Identity, Shubi Li and Helge Ronning argue that China’s media presence in Africa has increased in the last couple of years. “The country’s major media representative, Xinhua News Agency, added five more branches in 2011.”

The authors point out that 150 journalists and 400 local staff in Nairobi dispatch 1,800 pieces of news in English every month. “Radio has been an indispensable means of transmitting soft power, especially in a continent where half of the countries have a 30 percent illiteracy rate,” says the book’s authors. “In February 2006, China Radio International (CRI) launched is first overseas FM radio station in Nairobi with a schedule of daily programmes for 19 hours in English, Kiswahili and Chinese,covering China’s economic, social and cultural development.”

But China’s penetration of the Africa media scene has not been without criticism: “China has a record of jamming transmissions that it finds unpalatable,” said an editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent, which is quoted in the book. The editorial said that China also passes this technology to its (African) friends. Said the editorial: “China’s strict control of media and the Internet is not helping when it attempts to offer media aid in Africa.”

On the other hand, observe Li and Ronning in their book, “Chinese media following instructions from the Central Propaganda Department has been educating the public about the importance of building up soft power internationally and exporting the Chinese development model.”

China’s growing global dominance in the last quarter of a century has grown significantly. Indeed, the recently concluded One Belt, One Road International Cooperation Forum in Beijing further cemented Chinese dominance as a fast-rising global superpower. The country’s media presence in Africa is its latest strategy for global supremacy.

However, unlike that of other superpowers, the Chinese model of world domination is more subtle, as observed by the great Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, who said, The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?

The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.

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The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
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It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.

Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.

And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House –  was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.

So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice.  It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.

If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.

As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.

The coming harsh winter 

It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.

Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…

Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.

There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.

It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.

The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.

Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.

As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?

Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on?  Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.

Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.

While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.

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Politics

Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence

The BBI report is not a document for building durable peace in Kenya because it ignores the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges, and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution.

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Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence
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President Uhuru Kenyatta has touted the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report as the panacea for peace that will end political and/or election-related violence in Kenya. Mr. Kenyatta has not given Kenyans his definition or understanding of peace, but his lines of argument affirm his minimalist understanding of peace or what peace studies (PS) call negative peace. Students of peace studies caricature this concept of peace as akin to peace between the proverbial happy slave and the slave master.

Overall, Mr. Kenyatta’s arguments on peace and political violence in Kenya are based on flawed premises, among them a very naïve essentialist view of ethnicity, and a tunnel vision of Kenya’s social divides. But that is a topic for another day. Rather, this commentary aims to assess whether BBI is a panacea for peace and whether it can prevent political and/or election-related violence in the future. I will comment on the BBI process and analyse who perpetrated the past political violence and why, and then evaluate BBI’s response to that political violence. The article will end with a comment on an observed and horrifying pattern of current events that negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Exclusive process

A core dictum in peace studies, which originates from Mahatma Gandhi’s moral philosophy, is the unity of processes and ends. The dictum posits that the process that is used to engender social change should be consistent with the goal. This means that if the end goal is inclusion, then the process for attaining this goal should be inclusive because an exclusive process cannot attain inclusion.

The BBI process fails this test because it started as an exclusive and opaque process driven by two men, President Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga. For example, out of the 14 members and 2 co-chairpersons who comprised the BBI task force, 9 were political affiliates of either Kenyatta or Odinga. Therefore, one can infer that the process was heavily skewed towards the interests of the two men and all the public hearings were just a ploy to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome. We can discern this predetermined outcome from the BBI report’s proposals on past political violence.

Sections on political violence

While the BBI report’s proponents tout it as the solution to past political and election-related violence, neither the 2020 edition nor the 2019 draft mentions or analyses the causes of that violence. However, there are three sections that relate to the issue: i) The section on Ethnic Antagonism and Competition (pages 4-5); ii) the section on Divisive Elections (pages 9-12); and iii) the section on Kenya National Guide on Combating Impunity (pages 43-45) in Annex A. However, the latter section deals with disobedience of the law and court orders by senior civil servants and rich Kenyans; it does not address the nexus between impunity and political violence. Therefore, I will assess the other two sections.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

Further, the report mentions divisive elections, but the section is baffling because it provides a very simplistic, almost sophomoric, comment on past elections in just two paragraphs on pages 9 and 10. It then blames “foreign models” adopted from “the democratic West” for engendering what it terms “Us versus Them” election competition, with “Us” and “Them” being based on ethnicity. It adds that “lack of inclusivity” is the “leading contributor to divisive and conflict-causing elections”, and claims that Kenyans associate “the winner-takes-all system with divisive elections”.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

From these cursory assertions, the section recommends the expansion of the Executive branch to comprise a president, a deputy president, a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers as the solution. Supposedly, an expanded executive will be “more inclusive” and will not “generate the same bitterness and tensions as we see when the fight is for the position of the President”. The surprising aspect is its reference to “the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government” as the standard.

The other paragraphs of the section on pages 10 and 12 do not deal with political violence. Rather, they deal with parliamentary representation and the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

Reading these two sections is really perplexing. Who perpetrated the past political violence in 1992/93, 1997/98, and 2007/2008, and why? Did peasants die in the Rift Valley in 1992/93 and 1997/98 because the country had no prime minister? Did the rural subaltern wake up one day and attack each other because they were ethnically different? Did the rural and urban subalterns die in 2007/2008 because of the winner-take-all system?

Analytical approach

This article applies a peace studies framework to understanding how the form of violence that occurred in Kenya in the 1990s and 2007/2008 is organised. The framework postulates that the social construction of political violence is a discursive process that is based on five pillars. First, violence organisers discursively construct boundaries of exclusion using pre-existing markers such as ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or religious identities. Second, they rally the common identity within the exclusion boundary around imminent “threats” or “dangers”. That is, they articulate threats and victimhood narratives within the constructed boundaries. Third, they target those outside the constructed boundary as the “threats” and the “enemy-other”, and they demonise and dehumanise them. Fourth, they discursively renegotiate norms of violence. And fifth, they suppress counter-hegemonic and anti-violence voices.

This social construction of violence requires moments of social uncertainty, especially political and economic crises.  Using this framework, the pattern of violence in the 1990s was pretty straightforward.

Moments of uncertainty 

Over the years during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, Kenya became a full-blown autocracy where the party, government, and civil service essentially fused into a single hierarchical structure of power under the personal control of the president. The system was opaque and centralised around the personality of the president. As a result, political practice revolved around personalities and one-on-one closed-door dealings, instead of a predictable public stand on policy issues and coherent ideological positions. The system was a spiral pyramid of patron-client relations, with the president at the apex as the chief patron. Below the president were his clients at the provincial and district levels, who functioned as patrons in the regions.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty. Some scholars have referred to this style of controlling a country as retail politics.

The system was reinforced by political intimidation and instruments of repression, including detention laws and political assassinations. Therefore, those who articulated and pursued alternative forms of organisation, especially social class mobilisation, were either intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, detained without trial, or assassinated.

When the struggle for multiparty democracy intensified in 1990/91, the Moi regime turned to these oppressive methods. Thus, the police violently repressed public protests in Nairobi and its environs, killing at least 50 young men. Some democracy proponents were detained, others run away into exile, and publications supporting pluralism were banned.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty.

However, the demand for democracy coincided with two factors. First, worsening economic performance and, thus, a decline in revenue and resources for buying loyalty. Second, a greater international concern over human rights violations, which limited the use of formal repression. The resultant political and economic crises created a moment of social uncertainty that shook the Moi regime. In turn, the regime changed its strategies for the looting of the state and enforcing informal forms of repression.

Organised political violence

The central plank of informal repression was unleashing “ethnic” militias and gangs on the innocent civilian population. At first, a group of senior government ministers and KANU politicians would hold a series of public rallies in certain geographical locations, especially in the Rift Valley. The dominant message in these rallies would be hate narratives centred on nativist thinking and autochthonous notions of identity. The narratives would disparage national citizenship and its accompanying rights and instead divide the population into two groups: natives (indigenous or locals) and guests (settlers, immigrants or outsiders). Framing the latter as threats, they would demonise and dehumanise the “guests” as the “enemy-others”. Then they would threaten violence against them. To suppress anti-violence voices, they would label natives who rejected such violence as “ethnic traitors”.

Subsequently, armed militias would attack the innocent civilian population. In some instances, the militias would be dressed in “traditional clothes” and would be carrying “traditional weapons” to disguise the killings as ethnic. Thereafter, government officials, the police, and the pliant media would portray the killings as spontaneous “ethnic clashes” or “land clashes”.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims. A few days later, an opposition politician or activist would be arrested. This was the pattern in the 1992/93 and the 1997/98 violence.

Therefore, Uhuru Kenyatta and his BBI brigade are dead wrong. The 1990s violence was not ethnic or “tribal”; it was not about ethnicity or cultural or linguistic differences. Rather, it was politically organised and the villains were senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Moi regime. Incidentally, the chairman of the BBI process, Mr. Mohamed Yusuf Haji, was the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner at the time, while another BBI member, Mr. Amos Wako, was the Attorney-General. Further, the impunity enjoyed by the implicated politicians partly contributed to the violence of 2007/08.

Actually, studies on the 2007/08 violence have noted that President Mwai Kibaki’s biggest failure was his inability to dismantle the structures of informal violence, and their supporting discursive practices, which emerged in the 1990s. Instead, these structures of extra-state violence diffused during the NARC era such that by 2007, politicians were patronising and funding urban gangs that had emerged as a result of autonomous processes of urbanisation, unemployment, and the vacuum of control in urban areas. A key consequence of this impunity was the erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions, especially security and electoral institutions. It is this mistrust that predisposed politicians and their supporters to view elections as a do-or-die zero-sum game.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims.

In other words, the 2007 election turned disastrous due to the convergence of several factors. Among these was President Kibaki’s failure to address impunity and the discursive practices of the 1990s. Another factor was the intensification of ethnic mobilisation and the generation of new hate narratives by all political formations.

Studies show that vernacular FM radio stations were some of the main propagators of the hate campaigns. For example, a Rift Valley-based vernacular FM station aired materials of a xenophobic nature against the Kikuyu, while FM stations from Central Kenya promoted a siege mentality and disparaged members of the Luo and Kalenjin communities. Studies have also documented some Central Kenya FM radio stations framing one presidential candidate as a murderer and a latter-day Idi Amin Dada.

In essence, therefore, the so-called “tribal violence” and “tribal divisions” are not a reflection of conflicts between distinct and well-organised cultural communities. Rather, they are outcomes of deliberately organised political violence. Indeed, there are reliable reports that have recommendations on these issues, including the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, the Waki report, and the Kriegler report. Similarly, the 2010 Constitution established several independent institutions to address these issues. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Kenyatta chose the BBI instead of implementing these reports or strengthening the existing independent institutions, including the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).

Not a peace document

Even though its proponents have hailed the BBI report as being the pathway to peace, it is evident that there is no linkage between the report’s recommendations and the quest for peace and an end to political violence in Kenya. The section on divisive elections proposes an expanded executive and cites the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government as the reference point. Yet that model was extremely shaky and the prime minister was always complaining.

However, this proposal is horrifying for more fundamental reasons. First, it does not address state-orchestrated violence and impunity that have been the bane of Kenya’s politics since 1990.

Second, nothing in the proposals nor the entire BBI report would stop the losing candidates from perpetrating violence.

Third, the report assumes good faith on the part of the appointing authority and presumes that the president, deputy president, prime minister, and deputy prime ministers will come from different ethnic groups. But good faith cannot be legislated, as President Kenyatta has demonstrated through his multiple actions and omissions that have violated the 2010 Constitution, and his contemptuous disregard of the current Deputy President, William Ruto, since 2018.

Fourth, the proposed expansion of the Executive is perilous as it will validate and reify ethnic boundaries because ethnicity is the assumed basis for allocating the added executive positions. A key lesson from the 2008-2013 era is that the key players in the coalition government became the chief proponents of ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, and impunity in both the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Fifth, the proposal to appoint ANY of the MPs from the majority party or coalition of parties to be prime minister and any other persons as deputy prime ministers is a recipe for factional fighting because it undermines the authority of political parties to choose their own representatives.

Sixth, the proposed structure will perpetuate the current patron-client system and codify the president’s ability to entrench patrimonial and clientilist rule. Indeed, it echoes the late Mobutu Sese Seko’s strategy in Zaire of co-opting would-be opponents, letting them feed at the state trough, rotating them in and out of office, and encouraging them to become wealthy through corruption to neutralise them. But as the collapse of Mobutu’s Zaire shows, such a strategy does not foster durable peace.

The section on ethnic antagonism and competition proposes the inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum. But it is baffling how this will stop impunity, top-down political tribalism, or stop the clients of a president from perpetrating violence when it suits them.

Also, the section recommends criminalisation of hate speech and of the use of violence before and after elections. This is equally bizarre because both hate speech and the use of violence during elections are already criminal under current laws. However, hate speech and threats of violence remain rampant in the country primarily due to impunity and selective application of the law.  Indeed, there is a horrifying pattern of political practice that outrightly negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Current observations

Keen observation of current events shows that President Uhuru Kenyatta is using the 1990s playbook. His handshake rapprochement with Raila Odinga split his Jubilee Party into two wings. Since then, his Jubilee wing has been consistently articulating threats and narratives of victimhood. They are always demonising and dehumanising the targeted “enemy-other”. They are subtly and discursively renegotiating the norms of violence, and they are blatant in their attempts to suppress alternative voices.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year. One can infer that the failure of the police and the NCIC to hold any of them to account is a dead giveaway.

Meanwhile, the president is always lecturing Kenyans about peace, praising the handshake as a precursor to peace, and accusing others of threatening peace. Four examples centred on Kenyatta and the interior ministry will illustrate these observations.

Example 1 

On 29 October 2020, The Standard and The Star quoted Kenyatta’s self-styled adviser and Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, criticising the Deputy President, William Ruto. Referring to Ruto as an “outsider” in the Mt Kenya region, he accused the deputy president of radicalising the youth in the region using the rich-poor narrative and compared the narrative to the re-invention of the outlawed Mungiki sect. Murathe’s argumentation strategy was not just articulating threats and victimhood and demonising Ruto and those who support him; he was subtly raising and justifying the spectre of state violence against the deputy president’s supporters the way previous administrations dealt with Mungiki adherents.

Example 2

On 21 October 2020, the Daily Nation quoted Uhuru Kenyatta rebuking the Abagusii people for not protecting their “son”, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i,  from insults by “outsiders”. His argumentation strategy was in reality articulating four things. First, he was constructing a boundary of exclusion around ethnic identity by classifying the population into “locals” and “outsiders”. Second, he was articulating a victimhood narrative that was portraying Matiang’I, and to an extent the “locals”, as victims of those he was demonising as “outsiders”. Third, he was privileging ethnic identity and diminishing national identity. And fourth, he was renegotiating the norms of violence so that the “locals” would use “defence of their son” as their justification if violence erupted.

Example 3 

On 13 October 2020, the media quoted Fred Matiang’i speaking in Nyamira, which he called his “home”. In his speech, he admonished “outsiders”.  While his remarks were directed at Deputy President William Ruto, he, in essence, sought to emphasise the Kisii ethnic identity over Kenyan national identity, erect a boundary of exclusion around the ethnic identity, and portray “locals” who supported those he was calling “outsiders” as ethnic traitors.

Example 4

On 4 October 2020, a group of hired youth attempted to violently disrupt a church function graced by the deputy president at Kenol in Murang’a. Instead of arresting the youth, the police violently dispersed the locals and fired tear gas canisters at innocent civilians in the church. The few violent youths whom the local people arrested confessed in front of cameras that they had been hired by well-known Kieleweke politicians from Murang’a. Further, the organisers of the event publicly claimed that some bureaucrats from the Office of the President financed the perpetrators.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year.

While the media framed the violence as a “clash between two rival groups” to create the impression of spontaneity, the police initially blamed two MPs who are not favoured by the regime. A few days later, the National Security Advisory Council (NSAC), comprising the same bureaucrats who had been mentioned as the financiers of the violence, lectured Kenyans about the government’s commitment to peace and security. The NSAC then blamed the deputy president’s political wing and revived the discarded Public Order Act to curtail his activities.

Subsequently, the police blamed politicians from “both sides”, but they never explained why no one was arrested or why the NCIC had not acted. Incidentally, a careful reading of Article 7 (1) (a) of the Rome Statute shows that the violence in Murang’a had all the elements of what would qualify as a crime against humanity.

Conclusion

The BBI report is not a document for ending political and/or election-related violence or building durable peace in Kenya. The relevant sections ignore the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution. Therefore, the only inference that one can draw is that the purpose of the BBI process is to recommend the expansion of the Executive.

Moreover, there is a pattern that shows that the president and his acolytes have borrowed from the 1990s playbook on politically-instigated violence. But they would do well to remember that the widespread use of informal violence, massacres, new wars, and genocides in the 1990s led to the development of international norms, standards, and instruments to deal with these challenges. These norms and standards include those codified in the Rome Statute, whose institutional representation is the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Therefore, under the command responsibility principle, the president, senior officials in the interior ministry and state security forces can be held to account for crimes under international law that could result from their court jesters’ hate-mongering and informal violence mobilisation.

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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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