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Missionaries or Mercenaries: The Royal-Backed UK Charity Accused of ‘Laundering’ the Reputation of an Oil-Rich African Autocrat

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A royal-backed UK charity, investigates LIONEL FAULL, reveals details that it has been involved in bolstering the regime that runs one of Africa’s most authoritarian and kleptocratic countries.

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Missionaries or Mercenaries: The Royal-Backed UK Charity Accused of ‘Laundering’ the Reputation of an Oil-Rich African Autocrat
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A Finance Uncovered investigation reveals details about a royal-backed UK charity accused of bolstering the regime that runs one of Africa’s most authoritarian and kleptocratic countries.

The findings centre on the City of London-registered Brazzaville Foundation, fronted by the Queen’s controversial cousin, Prince Michael of Kent, as its patron.

It was established in 2014 to tackle environmental challenges, help broker peace in Libya and raise awareness about the scourge of fake medicines in Africa – all causes about which its trustees appear to be sincere and passionate.

There is a risk that charities could be used or recruited to help give an air of legitimacy to those who have abused their power. That charities might be used to burnish the credentials of kleptocratic regimes is particularly galling to those who are impoverished because of their crimes

But some Congolese experts and opposition activists exiled in Europe have viewed the charity with suspicion, believing some of its activities to be reputation-laundering vehicles for their country’s authoritarian president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Indeed, early versions of the charity’s website – since removed – described him as its “inspiration”.

These accusations are strongly denied by the charity, which says any suggestion it is “a tool to promote President Sassou-Nguesso’s interests is factually wrong and completely unfounded”.

But Finance Uncovered’s investigation into the charity’s origins have raised new concerns.

* It was set up by Jean-Yves Ollivier, a wealthy French commodities trader who has been a friend of Sassou-Nguesso for more than 30 years;

* He established it shortly after his company received a $60m windfall from an oil deal he brokered with Sassou-Nguesso;

* Ollivier and his company provided the bulk of the charity’s initial funding, largely through invoice offsets from his personal and company expenses;

* He set it up with the help of one of Britain’s most controversial PR gurus, Lord Tim Bell, who became a trustee;

* Bell’s now disgraced and defunct PR firm Bell Pottinger also advised Sassou-Nguesso on how to win a constitutional referendum the following year that extended his grip on power; and

* Ollivier once boasted that the charity would be attractive to its members as a networking platform with other business and political figures.

Duncan Hames, policy director of Transparency International UK, said: “There is a risk that charities could be used or recruited to help give an air of legitimacy to those who have abused their power. That charities might be used to burnish the credentials of kleptocratic regimes is particularly galling to those who are impoverished because of their crimes.”

The charity says its trustees have “complied with their legal obligations and the guidance of the [UK] Charity Commission”.  Its website says it uses its “network of advisers and contacts to seek high-level support and buy-in” for its various initiatives.

The alleged plundering of Congo

Under his 35-year rule, Sassou-Nguesso’s inner circle is alleged to have siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars from the country.

As recently as April this year, the New York Times reported on a Global Witness investigation alleging that Sassou-Nguesso’s daughter, Claudia, used millions of dollars of Congolese state funds to buy a $7m luxury apartment at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City.

Yet the country is in an economic tailspin and trying to persuade the International Monetary Fund to bail out its stricken economy.

Jean-Yves Ollivier, 74, has had a long friendship with Sassou-Nguesso. It stems from the signing of the Brazzaville Protocol in Congo’s capital, a 1988 peace treaty in which both men played a part and which some regard as paving the way for Nelson Mandela’s release.

In 2014, Ollivier named the charity in recognition of the treaty. His decision came within a year of cashing in a $60m share windfall earned from helping his old friend negotiate the sale of a Congo oil block called Marine XII in 2011. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Ollivier or Sassou-Nguesso in that oil deal.

But from leaked documents, Finance Uncovered has discovered the windfall was booked in Ollivier’s company, Fort Consultancy and Development Corporation (Offshore) SAL, based in the secretive financial jurisdiction of Lebanon.

And according to the Brazzaville Foundation’s first set of published accounts, it was the now cash-rich Fort Consultancy and Ollivier which provided the new charity with all its early funding.

In total, Fort and Ollivier have provided the charity with two-thirds of its entire £1.45m income since it was formed.

Best known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite spin doctor, Bell founded Bell Pottinger in 1987. As well as corporate clients, it engaged in political work for the likes of the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, and the repressive governments of Bahrain and Egypt.

Of the almost £1m given by Fort and Ollivier, nearly half has been in the form of donations-in-kind – such as meeting and travel expenses incurred on behalf of the charity elsewhere. The other half has been actual cash transfers to the Foundation’s bank account.

According to the charity’s latest audited accounts, it disclosed a surplus income of £328,000 for the year ended April 1 2018 and employed one member of staff.

There is no suggestion of any accounting wrongdoing and the charity told Finance Uncovered it had carried out proper due diligence on the donations.

Enter Margaret Thatcher’s former PR guru

As well as being the charity’s dominant donor and founder, Ollivier is also chair of its board of trustees. In short, he is the main figure at the foundation with significant influence over its policy and purpose.

And it was Ollivier who set about recruiting similarly powerful men to his cause. In an interview with Bloomberg in 2015, he said an “added bonus” of the charity would be its networking opportunities, linking its members to business people and politicians.

Finance Uncovered has established that it was Ollivier who asked Bell Pottinger and Lord Bell (right) to play an important role.

Best known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite spin doctor, Bell founded Bell Pottinger in 1987. As well as corporate clients, it engaged in political work for the likes of the Pinochet Foundation, Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, and the repressive governments of Bahrain and Egypt.

The firm collapsed in disgrace in 2017 after it devised a potentially racially divisive campaign for the Guptas, a politically-connected business family in South Africa.

As Lord Bell became a Brazzaville Foundation trustee in 2014, Bell Pottinger was also forging a business relationship with Sassou-Nguesso.

The PR company provided polling and messaging advice to him in the run-up to a crucial referendum in 2015, which paved the way for the long-standing president to extend his grip on power.

The charity’s chief executive is Sir David Richmond, a former top British diplomat who is also an ex-Bell Pottinger consultant.

The charity confirmed that Bell Pottinger had “provided initial advice to Mr Ollivier on the options for setting up a Foundation” but said it could not comment on “other matters which have no connection to its affairs”.

Ollivier said: “The only services for which I commissioned and paid Bell Pottinger relate to the setting up of the Foundation.”

Lord Bell, who stepped down as a trustee late last year for health reasons, was unable to comment on why he joined the charity.

The Royal Connection

Separately in 2014, Ollivier also secured the services of Prince Michael as patron to give the charity added cachet. And in 2017, the charity consolidated its links with the prince by appointing his former private secretary Nicholas Chance as a trustee.

The Queen’s cousin, who separately runs his own consultancy business, would not comment on why he became patron.

But he has been active. In 2015, he and his wife, Princess Michael, were the VIPs at a successful fundraising auction in Hong Kong attended by an array of business figures – some with interests in the Congo region.

And in 2017, Prince Michael even made the difficult journey to Sassou-Nguesso’s hometown of Oyo, 250 miles from the capital Brazzaville, to help launch a new project for the charity. This was despite warnings a month before from human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, about the government’s crackdown on opposition activists.

Finance Uncovered asked Prince Michael why he travelled to Oyo, who paid his bills for the trip and whether he has ever had any business dealings in Congo as a result of his work with the charity. But his spokesman said: “There will not be any further comment.”

Finance Uncovered asked the same questions of the Foundation’s trustees and chief executive, who, via their lawyer, then declined to “expend further resources answering questions”.

The event in Oyo was to launch the Congo Basin Blue Fund, an environmental fundraising initiative that aims to attract massive investment into the Congo Basin. At the launch, the charity described the project as a “partnership” with Sassou-Nguesso.

It is not the only initiative in which the charity’s activities overlap with the Congo ruler’s interests. Four out of five of the Foundation’s projects in Africa involve him or his country.

Our work is ‘thoroughly worthwhile’

The Foundation’s chief executive Sir David Richmond, speaking through the charity’s lawyer on behalf of all its trustees, said: “All our work is aimed at meeting some of the key challenges facing the African continent. These are thoroughly worthwhile initiatives which have the potential to bring real benefit to people whether regionally or indeed throughout Africa.

“Neither [Sassou-Nguesso], his government nor any Congolese citizen has any involvement in the running of the Foundation. They are not represented on its advisory board and have never given money to the Foundation.

Image laundering efforts help sustain Sassou Nguesso’s rule, with all the corruption and human rights violations it entails. Sassou-Nguesso has now had his two chief opponents in the 2016 presidential election sentenced to 20 years of forced labour

“The Foundation’s various initiatives are its own. Some have involved or been supported by President Sassou-Nguesso and the Republic of the Congo, alongside many other African countries; some, like our work on migration in West Africa, have not.

“The Foundation and all of its trustees have always been and are committed to pursuing and maintaining the highest standards in all that it does.”

“The trustees have acted prudently in all respects and have complied with their legal obligations and the guidance of the Charity Commission.

Charlin Kinouani, a leading Congolese civil rights activist, said: “This foundation’s contribution to peace is unknown to us here in the Congo.”

Ollivier responded: “[Our] role is to keep channels of communication open rather than close them with overt criticism … to influence by quiet and persuasive dialogue not to dictate via the imposition of our own values.”

A final letter from the charity’s lawyer warned that the “Foundation will not tolerate any harm done its reputation by irresponsible journalism”.

A Congo government spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Republic of Congo is currently offering 18 new oil exploration licences. Ollivier would not comment on whether he is involved in any bidding for any of them.

To be clear: Bell Pottinger is implicated in this, for it was the October 2015 referendum that subjected Congolese citizens to Sassou Nguesso’s March 2016 reelection. It’s a particular outrage to see the British royal family so implicated.

Brett L Carter, assistant professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, and an expert on autocratic governments, said: “Sassou-Nguesso is emblematic of Africa’s kleptocrats. Congo has been among Africa’s leading oil producers for decades, yet nearly half of its citizens [are estimated to] live below the poverty line.

“Image laundering efforts help sustain Sassou Nguesso’s rule, with all the corruption and human rights violations it entails. Sassou-Nguesso has now had his two chief opponents in the 2016 presidential election sentenced to 20 years of forced labour.

“To be clear: Bell Pottinger is implicated in this, for it was the October 2015 referendum that subjected Congolese citizens to Sassou Nguesso’s March 2016 reelection.

“It’s a particular outrage to see the British royal family so implicated.”

 

Editors Note: This article originally appeared in Finance uncovered investigations on May 15th 2019

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Lionel Faull began his career as a journalist at the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa before joining the country's pre-eminent non-profit investigations team, amaBhungane, in 2011. He has been working with Finance Uncovered since January 2017, joining as a full-time senior reporter a year later. His investigative interests include following the money flows behind mega-infrastructure procurement and natural resource exploitation, as well as exposing the professional enablers of grand corruption. Lionel has worked on several award-winning team investigations, including the GuptaLeaks in 2017, the Panama Papers in 2016, and lavish state spending on then-President Jacob Zuma’s private home in 2013. He has also worked for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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