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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 New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya

14 min read. In this second part of a three-part series, DALLE ABRAHAM argues that the new mega infrastructure investments fueled by LAPSSET are a continuation of the perverse state policies on Northern Kenya adopted by post-colonial governments.

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The New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya
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“Literary critic Tom Odhiambo regards the NFD as a metaphor of negation, a liminal space where collective ‘Kenyan’ fears and anxieties are at once deposited and from whence they emerge”- Parselelo Kantai.

It’s Marsabit late in 2013. Nomadic girls dressed in evening dresses and cultural attires do clumsy catwalks with feet unused to high heels. They strut on a makeshift runway in front of the Catholic Church hall. The occasion is a glitzy second Miss Marsabit County beauty pageant. Kenya’s foremost stand-up comedian, Walter Mongare, aka Nyambane, whose parody of the banal cadence of Kenyan officialdom has become standard comedic practice in Kenya, is the MC. (Nyambane was part of the Redykulass comedy group. In this role, he had managed to fashion a remarkable Moi parody; he could talk, walk and even look like Moi.) He cracks jokes on walking styles and tribal clichés. A curious moment passes unnoticed when he declares that “Kenya mpya iko hapa!!” The new Kenya is here.

The beauty pageant, like LAPSSET (the Lamu Port and South Sudan – Ethiopia Transport corridor) was a pitiful attempt to “open up” a closed-up region. This preposterous idea is not any different from the “metaphor of negation” that it sought to transform. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Nkem Osodi’s analogy suffices: equate Northern Kenya to Eve in the Old Testament who is blamed for man’s woes in the Garden of Eden, rescue this image of a suffering Eve and redeem it in the New Testament through Mary, elevate her as the mother of God, and tuck her away in a nice corner of heaven where she is irrelevant.

How is the metaphor of negation now the glitzy developmental jewel?

A pervasive narrative defines Northern Kenya’s relationship with Southern Kenya. Northern Kenya is viewed as a land of misery, of death and of terror where Kenya’s hardships go to school – an area of darkness, this Kenyan “apocalypse” is by some ingenious design almost always shadowed by “potential”.   But when detached from this base, the narrative alters its shape and the region transforms into a treasure trove of unexplored potential and immense opportunity waiting to be exploited.

Recall that in 1965 capital concentration was to be centred around the former “White Highlands”, as articulated in Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning. However, today the country is making a clean 180-degree about-turn. President Uhuru Kenyatta has visited Marsabit County five different times in the past six years. Foreign envoys have warmed up greatly to Northern Kenya. Just last month, twelve European Union ambassadors were in Marsabit. This new attention and the grand nature of the new mega infrastructure developmental craze seems like “Kenya” is atoning for all its past sins. The initial excitement resulting from this new attention is, however, wearing off fast.

Positive policy steps have been taken. But Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 and The Special Districts Act of 1934 repealed 63 years later in 1997 were bad policies that had created an official attitude. In this new testament, the policy environment has changed. Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 was replaced 47 years later by Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012, which was made by a special ministry for Northern Kenya Development, obvious in its intentions of affirmative action and “Releasing Our Full Potential”. These policy changes have been supported by Kenya’s Vision 2030, which lays out the country’s development blueprint on transforming the “special circumstances of previously marginalised communities” and “in this respect it offers a chance to turn history on its head”.

But have the negative attitudes towards the North been overcome?

The language of the old and new policies, when juxtaposed, are fundamentally different. But development plans, visions or policies can, on their own accord, turn “history on its head” and clean the stained slate of nationhood. Still, in their implementation, the North is witnessing the callous ways – informed by colonial perceptions and attitudes – in which development can exclude and alienate. Hidden in the folds of this grand development vision of LAPSSET is exploitation, oppression and dismissal of the North. The exclusionary tendencies bear the hallmarks of how history and tradition continue to define what and how things get done in Kenya.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland. How amazing, how great, this story of transformation was. But this idea of opening up the north is a cryptic code that has changed shape and form over the years. Spatial fixes as anywhere in the world are often wishful make-believes.

In an illustrative animated film shared by NEPAD, we are told that LAPSSET will encompass “international airports, resort cities, special economic zones, industrial parks, mineral exploration, and free trade areas which will generate and harness economic and business activities for the corridor”. LAPSSET, we learn from the video, is “an investor’s dream, backed by governments in the three countries and embedded in Kenya’s Vision 2030, a crucial de-risking step for investors” where “land acquisition and investments are secured not only by governments but also by the enthusiasm of the populations”. Viewed through this lens, “Kenya estimates that the core LAPSSET projects will generate and inject up to 2% to 3% of the GDP into the economy and 8% to 10% of the country’s GDP”.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland.

At the macro level, the vision was generous, and its beneficiaries were spread across Eastern Africa. For South Sudan, LAPSSET was projected to “consolidate the peace process in the country and build a sound foundation for sustainable growth”. For Ethiopia, “LAPSSET will enhance the current bold political and economic reforms in the country”. For the whole continent, LAPSSET will fulfill the African Union’s dream of “a peaceful, prosperous and fully integrated continent by 2063”.

This grand vision is replete with ambiguities, a pastiche of grand and micro intentions. At the macro level, Kenya wants to send a statement on the continent but at home LAPSSET is articulated as a plan to open up Northern Kenya as a way to tap the resources in the North. So far the conviction has made it look like the “opening up” of the hitherto “closed” Northern Kenya is a seamless and accepted undertaking. Even the old acronym, NFD, has been repurposed to reflect the new possibilities; Northern Frontier District (NFD) has become the New Frontier of Development, and its caustic version, the Northern Forgotten Districts, has effectively been forgotten.

This plan of “opening up” has come with some apprehension for people from Northern Kenya. Fear and economic anxiety are some of the markers of this ambivalence. The new impatience and anxieties in the region are discernible. The actual LAPSSET projects being implemented are coming to a place and a people who have certainly been waiting for and dreaming about development, hoping for all the new attention.

But when “development” began, it did so in lofty ways, not as the locals had conceived it. Instead of hospitals, classrooms, clinics and water points, fiber optic lines, international airports, oil pipelines, mineral licensing, huge electric pillions, wind power projects of reputable grandeur and plans for resort cities with world class golf courses and massive trains were erected.

Meanwhile, the leaders from the area are like antelopes caught in the headlights of an oncoming train. In the bulas scattered around Isiolo town, in little double-roomed wooden houses, there were talks of the place’s immense economic potential and of the coming opportunity, of employment, of land prices going up, of corporate social responsibility, of foreign scholarships, and of new investors coming. In neighboring Marsabit County, The Cradle carried a front-page splash of an artistic 3D impression of a future city envisioned for Moyale, which in Uhuru’s words, will be “the future Dubai”. The grandness and generosity of this vision can only be equated to Dubai, which has slowly become Africa’s developmental true north and the template of transformational ambitions. Dubai had turned “history on its head”.

Development for whom?

The gist of all these interventions lies in the intent. The “unpeopled wasteland” needed to be roped into the Kenyan political economy. These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs. This vision was not an organic one; it was not of the people and for the people. Its conception was not arrived at slowly and imperfectly. The plan to “open up” Northern Kenya was not preceded by years of activism and it was not an affirmative response to the cries of Northern Kenya’s leaders on marginalisation. Its origin lay elsewhere.

Kenya’s “new frontier of development” was radically unmoored from the reality of the Northern Frontier Districts. When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true. Its springboard was the depressive narrative of death, misery and terror that had seeped into the collective Kenyan psyche. While the thing that we were laughed at in Kenya was some kind of social dislocation, now we were being praised and made to feel important in a different interventionist way. The misery, the deaths, history itself can be supplanted by LAPSSET.

The tone of hope and conviction had a faint ring to the cavalier tones that created the old Northern Kenya’s dominant image of an “apocalypse”. In time the apocalypse and now the “utopia” spoke not of the place as it was; one simplified and flattened the place while the other elevated and embellished its complex socio-political and economic dynamics.

These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs.

The quixotic idea and process of transforming Northern Kenya into a developmental utopia happened with some level of internal conflict. The government and its agents tried to make these dreamy interventions important by downplaying the underlying issues. The technical nature of the project’s large ambition also further obscured any meaningful contributions from Northern Kenya’s leaders who spoke of land, employment, scholarships, corporate social responsibility and compensation. Sometimes, their voices were unanimous that there was no participation but in other instances the leaders spoke as people warming up to and fully acquiesced to the LAPSSET perks. They spoke in the inductive tone of “opportunity” of “potential”, and in those instances, pastoral nomadism as a lifestyle seemed a distant idea.

These inductive tones were forgotten and anger took its place, as was the case earlier this year at the Pastoralist Leadership Summit when the elected leaders resolved, amongst other things, to stop all land acquisition for LAPSSET until all community land is registered. They were a little too late. A gazette notice for LAPSSET’s land acquisition was already in circulation as they made their resolution.

An old anxiety

This developmental frenzy and its attendant worry reminds me of a past cautionary tale of Israelis wanting to buy the fertile soil around Mt. Marsabit. When I heard this in the early 2000s, I wondered why anyone would want to buy soil.

Then this rumour changed shape and became scarier. The Israelis would be given a 99-year lease to start farming in Northern Kenya. When we heard this, we were at once regaled and worried. Back then, I wondered how this mass resettlement will be undertaken, and kept asking myself where we shall all go.

But this story of Israelis, which could not be corroborated, was an inchoate articulation of a deeply ingrained fear in the psyche of the pastoralists in Kenya – that their land will be taken. An anxiety that was always within reach. Seen in history and in the present, from the 20,000 Maasais forcefully resettled twice from their ancestral land to pave way for colonial settlers in the early 20th century to the over 607 km² land acquired for the Lake Turkana wind power project, which sits on only 162 km² of the land acquired. From the oil blocks in Turkana, the mineral prospecting blocks across the North to the four military bases that sit on huge tracts of land in Isiolo and wildlife conservancies supported by well-funded NGOs, there was an encore of fear and anxieties that continue to give the Northerners sleepless nights.

LAPSSET amplified and gave currency to this old anxiety. The Errant Native movement that spoke of imperial demands and of deeply hatched plans was a deeper articulation of this old fear. The curious and distant anxiety of my childhood informed by rumours of Israelis was now an immediate fear. Land for LAPSSET, land for conservation, threats to rangelands, destroyed pasturelands. The ever-present anticipation of some kind of invasion was now turning depressive. This fear gave us enough reasons to believe that anyone who purported to improve or invest in our land was suspect. All this attention without giving the locals a chance to have their views heard was scarier than the promised joy of development “goodies”.

When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true.

LAPSSET’s initial steps and projects have revealed a wide gap between the intention and its consequences. The projects that came never compensated the communities whose land was acquired for its expansion, such as the airport in Isiolo that kicked out squatters living and farming in that area for the past 60 years. The manner in which land acquisition was being undertaken, the ugly site of extraction, the dust, the vibrations and blasts, the gaping holes in grazing lands, these consequences of development were unknown. Ridyukulass comedy turns to a question…Na hiyo ni maendeleo?  

Commitment beyond optics

Evidently, changes to whole regions like Northern Kenya come based on commitments. The problems in Northern Kenya are a result of negligence. Government interventions are almost always reactionary. Even the new capital being thrown into the region, as my friend puts it, is “superficial cosmetics” without any meaningful benefits to the people. It is called economic exploitation.

The pipeline from Lokichar drained the oil wells to the port at Lamu. The huge electric pillions traversed 400 kilometers of unelectrified lands to join the national grid at Suswa. Northern Kenya’s dissatisfactions and the only visible effort to try and reclaim and possibly reinvent the manner of the intervention has often been hijacked or met with serious rebuke. Turkana County Governor Josephat Nanok’s verbal exchange at a public function in Lodwar expressed his dissatisfaction with how the oil revenue was being manipulated. “We oppose the reduction of the [Lokichar oil] revenue percentage to be allocated to the county, which has been capped from trillions to 22 billion, and even the benefit to the community from 10% to 5% then capped to 3 billion, that’s my problem.” Nanok’s sentiments and request to Uhuru “to help us to oversee these resources and save it for the future…and if you help us do that, you will be listened to.”

The president’s reactions to Governor Nanok was illustrative of the tone that had put Northern Kenya where it had always been. “Mtu akisimama hapa aseme Uhuru ana haja na mafuta ya wengine…..ashindwe na …… shetani Mshenzi……….alafu mjinga anakuja kusema ni mimi nafanya mambo ya…..eh!   hiyo siwezi…” If someone stands up to say Uhuru has interest in other people’s oil…devil…uncouth…stupid person says I am doing…I can’t…

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya. But Nanok’s insistence for higher perks was in Uhuru’s indecorous riposte received as an atypical expectation; it went against the narrative of what the government expected from the Northerners. It was markedly different from the assurances that the government was giving to investors through LAPSSET.

More indignities are probably in the pipeline. The centre doesn’t respect these people who are now asking to be consulted. “Tuwaulize nyinyi kama nani?” is the tone of the government. This is Kenya.

Nanok’s request and the court case from the community at Sarima over the land acquisition for the Lake Turkana wind power project are demands for a certain type of visibility in Kenya. This fight for visibility is often expressed in bitter tones. The protracted legal battle is again indicative of how unrelated the projects are to people’s needs.

On the ground, the articulation on LAPSSET has taken the same tone of bitterness. What the communities in Northern Kenya want is simple recognition – that they are a people and anything to be done on their land has to be through them. It is a simple enough request; to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected and be duly compensated for any disruption in their livelihood.

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya.

The numerous cases presented at the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) speak of this need for participation. But the government’s attitude can be seen in the three-judge bench that recused itself from the ongoing case on the Lake Turkana land acquisition. The government is buying time but the people are patient, even as key witnesses are dying.

This agitation and the fight for land in Kenya is everywhere. The Maasai case in Laikipia, the MRC Pwani si Kenya campaigns and land agitations in the Rift Valley areas speak of a familiar Kenya. Parselelo Kantai, in his paper “In the grip of the vampire state”, says, “The Maasai campaign speaks of the State’s failure to institute a new constitutional order. It was born of a realisation that the State whether in its colonial or its postcolonial phase was not just unwilling to address the community’s grievances, but had an active interest in perpetuating them.”

Despair

I have been to forums on LAPSSET in which the overriding sentiments of the community reflect impatience, anxiety, fear and resignation. Protest against LAPSSET component projects is registered in one of these shades of despair. In a protest that had blocked road construction two years ago along the A2 road in Marsabit, an elder had spoken about how the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road had destroyed water pipes and denied his village members access roads to their residences, and about the excessive dust and noise at night. The village elder had told me that they had had seven meetings with the county commissioner and the district commissioner about the matter and that they were now very tired. He said, “We shall see if the government will put all of us in the same mortar and pound us.”

This same emotion is witnessed among squatter groups kicked out of the Isiolo airport. This despair is often articulated as the loss of traditional culture or heritage. Whenever I think about this despair, the image that comes to mind is that of a Maasai moran seated on a narrow path, his head bowed, his hope and pride gone, the carcasses of his dead cows strewn across the path, cows that were shot dead by the Kenyan police for “invading” private ranches.

This shooting of livestock was for a long time legal in Kenya. Before it was repealed in 1997, the Special District Act stated that “an administrative officer, police officer or tribal police officer in charge of a party or patrol may destroy or order the destruction of any cattle seized, detained or taken in charge by that party or patrol if, in the opinion of that officer, and after exercising all reasonable diligence for the safeguarding of the cattle, it would endanger the party or patrol, or any member thereof, to attempt to retain the cattle alive.”.

Who benefits?

The vision for LAPSSET comes from a specific place and history. Unless it confronts that history without wishing to turn it on “its head”, it will always be problematic. No matter how gorgeous the stories sound and how glamorous the pictures coming out of the North are, the fact remains that the primary beneficiaries of these “developments” are the elites in Nairobi. Marsabit, while sending 310MW of clean energy to Nairobi, uses diesel-powered and rationed electricity. There are all the hallmarks of exploitative development: oil from Lokichar, wind power from Marsabit, and an airport in Isiolo for miraa and meat exports.

A retired major in Isiolo, who I have had conversations with on land, the Northern Rangeland Trust’s conservancy model, and LAPSSET gets visibly angry with the idea of “opening up” the North for investors.“Who said the investors have to come from outside? Have we been taking care of these lands for others to now come in to take over without consulting us?”

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

I have been attending almost all the meetings on environmental impact assessment studies and seen how the LAPSSET vision and strategy were unfamiliar to the residents. The worries and anxieties about LAPSSET were couched in the language of despair and sometimes came out as threats. The answers the local communities received have been elusive. Questions about benefits accruing to the communities have not been adequately addressed. No one speaks about corporate social responsibility.

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

LAPSSET is an unfair construct. Its exploitative details and tendencies is structured in such a way that the communities affected won’t benefit and their expectations won’t be met. The multinational investors who arrive in this “investors’ paradise” know this very well and are known to throw a few millions shillings to the community as diversionary measures through highly publicised corporate social responsibility projects. The inchoate articulation couched in the request for “corporate social responsibility” calls for allies. Leaders, NGOs, the media, activists, policy makers and even academics need to move with the community into a more inclusive thought process, which is necessary for the conception of development of the North, a process that recognises and respects different socio-economic lifestyles.

Organised resistance

Past political resistance in Northern Kenya has been crushed by an overbearing centre and that experience continues to mark the relationship between the North and the central government. The trauma of the Shifta wars and of the Wagalla and other massacres is within living memory.

Even so, communities, when resisting this imposed development, speak about culture and heritage. But through writing complaint letters, public protests and filing their dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed manner and the back-handed dismissal of their concerns, an environment for an organised resistance is being cultivated.

Between Prof. Lonyangapuo saying, “Never ever make decisions while swinging in your armchair while seated in Nairobi” and the village elder in Marsabit invoking mortar and pestle as metaphors of state power, something needs to be registered.

That the government is investing in such mega infrastructure without a proper buy-in from the communities is a recipe for future disaster. Those investments are easy targets for expressing dissatisfaction with the government for the economic exploitation that is being undertaken in the name of development and of opening up. The fire next time is a matter of conjecture. All the elements are slowly falling into place. A time will come when the people will be angry and willing enough to face the mortar and pestle of state violence.

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‘You’re Not Welcome Here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions to Stop Migration From Africa

8 min read. Instead of addressing the root causes if illegal migration to Europe – including the exploitation of the Global South by the Global North – EU countries are evading the problem by paying off African countries to intercept the migrants before they reach European shores.

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‘You’re not welcome here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions To Stop Migration From Africa
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It is a known fact that Europe has been struggling with a serious migrant crisis in the last ten years. What is less known is that the ghost of a tremendous accusation is hovering over the plans established by the European authorities to contain the apparently unstoppable flow of immigrants. According to some sources, the funds that have been allocated to control the migratory flows have been diverted to support paramilitary forces or other nefarious organisations involved in human trafficking.

These forces allegedly act as a buffer that prevent people from reaching Europe by all means (even the most violent ones) rather than addressing the root causes of irregular migration. The European Union (EU) authorities denied all the accusations, and even suspended some of these funds, a move that has been seen by some as an admission of guilt. Although cutting the proverbial Gordian knot and finding the truth may be impossible right now, let’s try to clarify what is happening today by providing a better overview of the current scenario.

Europe and the 2015 migrant crisis

Every year, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East flee complex emergencies, natural disasters, and wars. They join the already immense river of humans who try to escape poverty and desperation by immigrating to the Old Continent. The reasons for this huge flow of humans are many, ranging from the recent political turbulence following the Arab Spring, to the evolution of the many conflict theatres and the harsh consequences of climate change.

Even if a solution could be found to stop each one of these different scenarios, it would require many years before it could bring any tangible change or impact. A lot of rhetoric ensued until a huge divide split the cacophonous political debate into two entrenched factions whose opinions cannot seem to be reconciled anytime soon. For some, these people are an invaluable resource that can rejuvenate a dying continent suffering from a chronic lack of a fresh young unspecialised workforce. For others, they are just parasites who can undermine the very roots of the Christian-based European culture, endangering the entire social fabric of a society that has based its wealth upon slavery, colonialism, and the exploitation of people for centuries.

However, an indisputable problem still had to be dealt with – the number of irregular immigrants reaching Europe was way too high to be managed. With over 2 million illegal crossings detected between 2015 and 2016, it was clear that the old containment policies were desperately failing in so many ways that they held no water whatsoever. Extremist and right wing political forces took advantage of this crisis to pull the whole continent into a populist drift, with racism and segregation running rampant to fuel hate, fear, and ancient religious rivalries. For the first time in decades, the European Union (EU) was facing the risk of having to deal with a widespread social crisis that could destabilise the entire political and economic asset. A plan that could address the different root causes of these never-ending migratory flows could hardly be imagined.

But the EU authorities had to find a rapid solution. They didn’t have the time (nor the interest) to tackle the reasons why these people were desperate and poor. Rather than caring about the lives of these masses of destitute individuals who were immigrating to Europe, they decided to stop them in their tracks before they could cross the borders. To put it bluntly, desperate and poor people from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East were still left desperate and poor – they only had to be desperate and poor somewhere else.

Turning a blind eye to the massive human crisis

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

In a nutshell, the overall plan was quite simple: the EU authorities would ask other countries to “keep the migrants away” while they turned a blind eye on the methods used to achieve this goal. In theory, they were distributing hefty amounts of money to African and Middle Eastern countries to counter “human trafficking and smuggling” by breaking their “business model” in order to “offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”. In practice, these funds often ended in the hands of unscrupulous militia forces and shady organisations that prevented the most vulnerable people from reaching the borders of the EU member states with any means necessary – including the most inhumane ones.

One of the most important steps of this plan to “contain irregular migrants” was making arrangements with Turkey and Libya to prevent refugees from reaching the Old Continent’s borders by blocking all their land or sea routes. On top of that, whenever a migrant was caught crossing the Mediterranean to the nearby Greek islands, Spain or Italy, he or she would be sent back to Turkey or Libya to be “temporarily” locked in some prison. But the scenario that originated from these pacts was less than ideal at best, and eventually forced thousands of refugees to endure months of detainment in inhumane conditions in dilapidated detention centres.

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

Several organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles have alreay denounced the “degrading” conditions suffered by the detainees in Libya. Men and women are raped, abused, and beaten on a daily basis; some have spent months or years locked up. People are exposed to contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, and often die from sickness, malnourishment, or neglect while in detention. The UNHRC went so far as to determine that the conditions in some of these detention centers may even “amount to torture”.

Despite being fully aware of the inhuman conditions faced by these migrants, the EU keeps contributing to this massive process of human exploitation in many ways. The Libyan authorities have been provided with the necessary funds and resources to intercept men, women, and children at sea. Italy donated several patrol boats to the Libyan coastguard and the training required to operate them as efficiently as possible during Operation Sophia. Even the Visegrad Group countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) provided an additional 35 million euros on top of the 10 million handed over by the EU. It comes as no surprise since their borders are constantly under the pressure of the thousands of immigrants who hope to escape poverty and find a chance for a better life.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore. One may wonder whether this choice was just the result of a somewhat short-sighted strategy that only cared about reducing the death toll of people drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Maybe it is a component of a more complex (and inhumane) plan of externalising border control to Northern African countries. A strategy to keep poor people from escaping the poor countries where they live.

The Khartoum Process

Another action taken by the EU to stem the number of people reaching their coasts and borders was establishing the so-called “Khartoum Process”. Amidst the 2015 crisis, African and European leaders met in Malta during the Valletta Summit on Migration to discuss a common plan to address the problem. After the summit was over, the EU agreed to provide the African countries who accepted to help out in the crisis with an Emergency Trust Fund that was worth billions of euros. The fund was set up “to foster stability and to contribute to better migration management, including by addressing the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration.”

Many projects eventually fell under the banner of the Emergency Trust Fund, such as the Operation Sophia mentioned above, as well as the less known but no less opaque Khartoum Process. Once again, this initiative consists of a series of financial incentives provided by the EU member states to African countries who can help in the fight against human trafficking and people smuggling. The only difference is that these funds are provided to prevent exploitation along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe. The countries involved include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore.

Sudan, in particular, has been used as a buffer zone to exert effective extraterritorial control of the migration routes used by people who want to reach Europe from across Africa. Just like Italy did with Libya, Germany started a project to train Sudanese police officers and border guards, and an intelligence centre was founded in the capital Khartoum.

So, why did the EU announced the suspension of these projects in July, some of which were halted at least since March?

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”. The funds have been, in fact, used to deploy the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the heirs of the brutal Janjaweed led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo. We already talked about the violence that the Janjaweed unleashed upon Sudanese civilians during the recent uprising, as well as the war crimes and genocide they committed in Darfur back in 2003. The RSF fighters found their own solution to stop migrants – they tortured them, forced them to pay bribes, and in some instances, even smuggled them (possibly if they paid enough).

So, in a nutshell, the EU paid smugglers to stop human smuggling and traffic – and they were fully aware of that. It was even noted that the RSF could divert resources “for repressive aims”. Just like in Libya and Turkey, Europe knew what was happening, but preferred to simply look the other way.

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”.

Even if the project is now suspended, and the EU maintains that the RSF forces have never been funded or equipped, the Sudanese police received training and significant financial resources (40 million euros). This is the same Sudanese police that brutally repressed the pro-democracy, anti-government demonstrators during the last months of protest. Once again, all the projects that fall under the Khartoum Process umbrella do not address any of the “root causes” of uncontrolled migration and human trafficking. Without going so far as to say these projects are a true travesty, it can’t be denied that right now they’re nothing but extraterritorial disguised control of the borders.

Not my brother’s keeper

Today, Europe is simply turning a blind eye to one of the largest humanitarian crisis of this century. But hoping that desperate people will bring their misfortune somewhere else is not just a cowardly policy, it is a downright cruel choice made by people with no traces of humanity. It is highly hypocritical for Western countries to claim that they want to address the “root causes” of the tremendous strife that brings so many people to leave their homelands. In fact, most of these “root causes” originate from the endless exploitation of lands and resources of the Global South that seemingly sustains the whole capitalist system. In fact, when over 37,000 people are being forced to flee their homes every day, it doesn’t look like the situation has improved in any way. Today, the developed countries host just 16 per cent of these refugees, while the vast majority of them are found in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan.

When the Roman Empire had to deal with the massive migrations that occurred during the fourth century A.C., the Emperors simply preferred to close their borders, leaving countless displaced people to die of sickness and starvation in front of their doors. Open revolt ensued, however, when those masses of destitute people became so desperate as to kill Emperor Valen, eventually causing the fall of the entire Roman Empire.

History teaches us that everything that happened once may happen again – especially if so many people are driven up the wall for so long.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election

11 min read. The Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more about a competition between the two biggest political parties, and between two bitter rivals, Raila Odinga and William Ruto. It was also a dress rehearsal for the 2022 elections, which, if this by-election is anything to go by, promises to be highly contentious.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election
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Something startled where I thought I was safest. – Walt Whitman

My Dungeons Shook – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

On Saturday 9, 2019, two days after the hotly contested Kibra by-election had taken place and the dust had settled, Raila Odinga, aka Baba, was in an ecstatic mood: he gathered around some of his closest associates that had helped him campaign to retain the Kibra seat by hook or crook for a toast-up at his Karen home.

The ODM party candidate had triumphed over an onslaught that had threatened to torpedo Raila’s iron-grip stranglehold over a constituency that had, over time, become synonymous with his name and political career. But it was a victory that been won with “blood”: Bernard Otieno Okoth, aka Imran, took 24,636 votes while his closest nemesis, McDonald Mariga Wanyama, an international footballer-turned-betting-billboard-face, had carted away 11,230 votes. Although there were no casualties, voters had been roughed up and beaten.

As one of ODM’s foot soldiers from Ololo (Kaloleni estate, off Jogoo Road in Makadara constituency) later confided in me, “There was no way those rural folks (referring to William Ruto’s gang of MPs, mainly from western Kenya, and their supporters) were going to storm our grounds. Hii tao ni yetu, tumekuwa na mzae tangu 90s, na tumepingana vita nyingi sana…hao watu walikuwa wanacheza na nare.” This is our turf and we’ve been with Raila ever since the 90s, and we’ve fought many bloody wars, those people were stoking a war and playing with fire.

As a diehard supporter of Raila Odinga, the stocky foot soldier, now in his late 30s (he is a former bantamweight boxer)m said he had not slept for three consecutive days: “Kibra ni bedroom ya mbuyu na wewe unaleta mbulu pale…utatembea buda.” Kibra is the old man’s bedroom and you want to desecrate it…you’ll pay for it.

He said in those three days, all the foot soldiers’ work was to screen all “foreigners” entering Kibra. This was evident to me because I had also been forewarned by my minders that I should now be extremely careful when going to Kibra for my journalistic work.

And that is all that mattered. The rest of other 22 contestants were neither here nor there, including ANC’s Eliud Owalo, a one-time Raila’s confidante who collected 5,275 votes.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate. In the 2017 presidential election, 18,000 people voted for Uhuru Kenyatta, the Jubilee Party’s presidential candidate. The Jubilee Party candidate Doreen Wasike got 12,000 votes. The 6,000 extra votes that increased Uhuru’s number to 18,000 came from the Nubian community resident in Kibra.

As Raila and his friends were sipping champagne on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ruto was gnashing his teeth, furious to the point where he refused to meet with the buddies he had campaigned with, according to media reports. However, his chief noisemaker, the rabblerouser Dennis Itumbi, denied that his boss was in a foul mood after the by-election.

Kibra constituency, formerly part of Langata constituency, has been a hotbed of political contests ever since Raila opted to stand in the constituency in 1992, the year the country returned to multiparty politics. Two years before that, in 1990, Raila, who had been exiled in Norway, had come back to Kenya to be part of the “Young Turks” who agitated and pushed for political reforms. He had stood in what was then known as Kibera constituency in the first multiparty general election and from then on Kibera became his enclave. That is why, in the run-up to the by-election, Raila “privatised” the constituency and called it his bedroom, in a (desperate) effort to rally around his troops to vote for Imran and to affirm to his current biggest political rival, William S Ruto, that Kibra was impenetrable to the latter’s political whims.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate.

That is why the Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more of a competition between the two biggest political parties, the ruling party Jubilee and ODM, and between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Imran and Mariga were just pawns in a much bigger and wider plot linked to the 2022 presidential succession political chess game in which the two have staked their ambitions and claim.

Three weeks to the by-election, I met with one of Ruto’s bosom buddies who was coordinating the campaign behind the scenes. “If we wrestle the Kibra seat from the kitendawili (riddles) man, we’ll have completely changed the political map of not only Nairobi County, but of the country,” he had said to me. “We will configure national politics and consign Raila to a corner. And then relish to face him in 2022.”

The Ruto man told me that in the lead-up to 2022, their chief tactic is to draw Raila into a two-horse race, in which case, “I can assure you, we’ll pulverise the enigma [one of the monikers used to describe Raila] once and for all”.

It understandable, hence, for Ruto to have taken the defeat personally and Raila to have gloated – but for how long?

In many ways, the by-election was a curtain raiser, a preamble and a showdown of what to expect in 2022, the year Kenyans once again go to the polls to elect a new president. The violence witnessed in Kibra will be multiplied at the national level. The money that was thrown at the electorate in little Kibra will seem like cash for an afternoon picnic as the chief contestants in 2022 open their war chests to woo an even hungrier electorate, ready to settle scores and be manipulated. The shadow line-ups that we saw falling respectively behind the protagonists will be reshaped many times over before 2022.

The by-election was also about the “big boys” (Raila and Ruto) settling scores and about cementing the burial rites of the already dead NASA (National Super Alliance), the fledgling and motley coalition that brought together Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula, and Musalia Mudavadi. In addition, it was about the extension of the supremacy battles being fought between the Jubilee Party wing of President Uhuru Kenyatta and its rival that is being led by his deputy – in essence, the trooping of colours between #Kieleweke group and the #Tanga Tanga brigade.

Could this by-election also have signalled the death knell of the Jubilee Party as currently constituted?

The Ken Okoth factor

The by-election was a function of several variables, including what can be referred to as the Ken Okoth factor. Okoth, who died from colon cancer at the age of 41, was the Kibra MP when he succumbed to the killer disease on July 26, 2019.

Okoth was elected in 2013 in the newly created Kibra constituency, which was hived off from the larger Langata constituency to Raila’s chagrin. (This is a public secret.) Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand. He was suave, well-spoken and a terribly likeable man.

When he became the MP, he charted an even more independent path: he decided he was not going to be anybody’s protégé. So he cultivated his political friendships across party divisions. As a man who understood the power of education (he was the recipient of a sound education from Starehe Boys’ Centre, where he was educated on a full bursary), he invested heavily in education in Kibra. A good secondary education, like he used to say, had saved him from the clutches of poverty.

Okoth built eight secondary schools in Kibra and expanded many of the primary schools to have a secondary school wing. He rightly argued that since many Kibra parents could not afford to take their children to boarding schools, he would lighten their burden by constructing local secondary schools. He also gave out lots of bursaries to parents who struggled with fees. Any pupil who got 350 points or more in his or her KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam got full bursary to transition to high school.

Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand.

Juliet Atellah, a Kibra resident from Gatwekera village in Sarang’ombe and a double maths and statistics major from the University of Nairobi can attest to this. “When Okoth become MP, he told us education was the key to success. He implored us to work hard in school as he also worked hard to ensure Kibra youth interested in education benefitted from a bursary.” It is something that Okoth continually preached till his death.

Okoth, also, through his Jubilee Party networks, tapped into the National Youth Service (NYS) resources to create some employment opportunities for the youth of Kibra. This cross-cutting political parties’ engagement would land him into trouble with ODM mandarins who accused and suspected him of cavorting with the enemy. “By opting to work with Jubilee Party functionaries, Okoth looked at the bigger picture: what mattered most, according to him, was how best to improve the quality of lives of Kibrans. If the help would come from his presumed ‘political antagonists’ so be it,” said a friend of the late MP.

He relegated the work of managing the bursaries through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) to his brother Imran. Little wonder then that his brother clinched the ODM ticket, but not without loud grievances. According to my sources within the ODM party, Peter Orero (popularly known as mwalimu), the Principal of Dagoretti High School, and also the former principal of Upper Hill High School, had won the ticket, but to stem the fallout that was going to befall the party as it faced its greatest onslaught from Ruto, a man who was staking his all to capture the seat, Raila opted to hand the ticket to the former CDF manager.

Disgruntled followers

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s. The people of Kibra know their politics well. This is courtesy of Raila Odinga, who for a long time championed the political struggle for equity and social justice in the country. As their MP, Raila encouraged Kibra voters to fight for their rights and to demand no less than his rightful representation.

But the burden of the “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru Kenyatta had reared its ugly head and it was evident that Raila struggled when campaigning in his former constituency. “With the handshake, Raila commercialised the struggle,” said a politician who has known him since the multiparty struggles of the 90s. “The handshake had confused his base, angering many and disillusioning a great deal of people who had stood with him all the way. Until, the death of Okoth, Raila had not stepped in Kibra to explain the handshake. Instead, when he shook Uhuru’s hand, he headed to Kondele in Kisumu to appease his other equally fanatical base, 300 kilometres away.”

The politician said that Kibra people have yet to enjoy the handshake’s dividends. “Many of the youths who were shot at by police when defending Raila were from Kibra, yet the handshake projects have all been taken to Kisumu. Although the Kibra electorate is still fanatically loyal to Raila, they were also passing a subtle message to him – it about time you re-evaluated your politics with us.”

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s.

Hence, it was not lost to keen observers that for the first time since Raila began campaigning in Kibra in 1992, he had been forced to solicit for votes beyond Kamukunji in Sarang’ombe ward. “For the first time,” said a resident of Sarang’ombe, “Raila had been forced to campaign in Bukhungu in Makina, Laini Saba, and Joseph Kange’the in Woodley.” As the area MP, Raila would campaign only in Kamukunji grounds and with that he would seal his victory and close that chapter. The rest of the voters would fall in place.

Sarang’ombe ward has the largest number of voters, largely comprising Luos and Luhyas. The Luos are concentrated in Kisumu Ndogo village, while the Luhyas are to be found in Soweto and Bombolulu villages. There are about 6,000 registered Luhya voters in both the villages, while there could be about 20,000 Luos in Kisumu Ndogo. The other large concentrations of Luhyas are located in Lindi and Makina. Hence the reason why Raila went to campaign in Makina. He also campaigned in Woodley on Joseph Kange’the Road, because it has a large population of Kikuyu voters.

New alliances and 2022 politics

If campaigning on “virgin” territory was not too much of a stretch, Raila had to enlist the support of seven governors: Alfred Mutua of Machakos, Ann Mumbi Kamotho (previously known as Ann Waiguru) of Kirinyaga, Charity Ngilu of Kitui, Kivutha Kibwana of Makueni, James Ongwae of Kisii, John Nyagarama of Nyamira and Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega. “Ruto with his loads of money was piling pressure on Raila and he wasn’t going to take any chances,” explained one of Raila’s associates.

So, on October 30, 2019, nominated MP Maina Kamanda, Kigumo MP, Ruth Mwaniki and David Murathe (President Uhuru Kenyatta’s hatchet man) met with Raila to ostensibly pledge the Kikuyu electorate’s and President Uhuru’s support for the ODM candidate Bernard Otieno Okoth aka Imran. At the meeting, Mwaniki hinted that McDonald Mariga Wanyama, the Jubilee Party candidate, had been forced on the party leadership and President Uhuru: “I don’t know why some leaders [referring to Deputy President William Ruto] in Jubilee dragged Mariga into the race.”

In the spirit of the handshake, Kamanda said he would rally the Kikuyu voter to throw his lot with Imran: “When you see me here, know that President Uhuru Kenyatta is here.”

On the previous day, the former Starehe MP had told the Kikuyus in Kibra, “On November 7, please come out in large numbers to vote for Imran. Imran’s victory will be a big win for the unity of this country.” He was referring to the now mercurial political handshake that President Uhuru and Raila cemented on March 9, 2018. The handshake between the two bitterest rivals gave birth to the Building the Bridges Initiative (BBI). The acronym has been baptised many things, the latest one being Beba Baba Ikulu. Take Raila to State House.

On that same day (October 30), Raila had separately met with Kikuyu and Kisii opinion shapers from Kibra at his office in Upper Hill, before descending to Kibra again in the evening, three days after he had held a rally there on October 27, a Sunday. This same day, as Raila met with the respective community leaders, he confided in a mutual friend who he had lunch with at Nairobi Club that Ruto was breathing down his neck, and giving him a run for his money in his erstwhile constituency that he had represented for a quarter of a century.

During the time that Raila stood in Kibra, the Luhya community had also stood with him. They voted for him to the last man, “but when Okoth died, the Luhya nationalists in Kibra and elsewhere thought ‘it was their time to eat’”, a Luhya politician who stood as a senator in western Kenya said. “The Luhya felt the time was ripe to get paid for standing with Raila all these years since 1992.” The politician reminded me that even when Michael Wamalwa died in August, 2004, the Luhyas remained strong supporters of Raila.

Feeding on this Luhya nationalism, Ruto and his band of Luhya MPs from western Kenya landed in Kibra, and hoped to hype this reigning scepticism to maximum effect. So when Bernard Shinali, the MP for Ikolomani, was caught by the hawk-eyed ODM foot soldiers dishing out money to potential voters in Kisumu Ndogo three days before voting day, he, like the former Kakamega Senator, Bonny Khalwale, wanted to prove to their boss Ruto that they were ready to deliver the Kibra Luhya vote to him. The other Luhya MP from western who would be deployed to Kibra was Benjamin Washiali of Mumias and Didmus Barasa MP of Kimilili.

In all probability the Kibra by-election offered Kenyans a trailer of how the 2022 presidential elections will be and how they will will be fought. Will that election be a contest between Raila and Ruto? If the parading of the troops from both sides is anything to go by, the sneak preview of the troops’ formation promises many shifting alliances.

Wavinya Ndeti, the former MP for Kathiani and a governor candidate for Machakos County in 2017 on a Wiper Democratic Movement (WPM) ticket – but nonetheless aligned to Raila – allegedly moaned loudly, after seeing Mutua in Kibra. Had Raila dumped her by inviting the Machakos governor into his “bedroom?” Kalonzo Musyoka, one of the four NASA co-principals is mum, but when he said he would be supporting the Ford Kenya candidate Ramadhan Butichi, he invited opprobrium from ODM mandarins. My friends in ODM hinted to me that Kivutha is the man to checkmate Kalonzo. What about Musalia Mudavadi, the other NASA co-principal principal? Is Oparanya being propped up to replace him?

The fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta has not made any comment on the by-election, and has not appeared anywhere near Kibra to campaign for the Jubilee Party candidate speaks volumes about whether indeed Mariga was a Jubilee Party candidate, I told a close associate of the deputy president that Ruto and Mariga had camped at State House for two days to get the president’s audience. It was only on the second day that Ruto showcased Mariga to the president, who fitted Mariga’s football head with a Jubilee cap. “That is all true,” agreed the associate, “but the president is a grown up, how do you force anything onto a grown up?”

What is clear, however, is that as 2022 fast approaches, the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s “political bedroom”. Now, as pundits, political analysts, and the media try to explain what this political drama will mean for the future of Kenya’s politics, the central question that Kenyans need to ask is what role they will play in shaping a prosperous future.

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