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Phantom Surpluses and No Ink for Passports: The Human Cost of Zimbabwe’s Coup

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TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA explains why the November 2017 military coup in Zimbabwe and the ouster of Robert Mugabe failed to deliver democracy and sound financial management to a country that has yet to overcome the debilitating effects of authoritarianism and hyperinflation.

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Phantom Surpluses and No Ink for Passports: The Human Cost of Zimbabwe’s Coup
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Bukhosi is missing. BHUKOSI IS MISSING. Bukhosi is missing.”

These stabbing words are from Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s book House of Stone. The words are written firstly in italics for emphasis, then repeated boldly in capital letters to let them hit you like a sledgehammer, and then repeated again so the text slowly seeps into and clings to mind. After that, every page I open of the book, my mind begins by reading this text into every page – BHUKOSI IS MISSING.

Taken together in one thought, these words deliberately disrupt the grandiose unstable, if not simmering, surface of Zimbabwe’s slippery nation-state construction project, which is acutely unravelling. Africa’s post-colonial nation-state construction projects have often collapsed with catastrophic impact. To understand how this possibility of collapse is playing out in contemporary Zimbabwe, one has to read these words by Novuyo Tshuma over and over again because in a bold way it lays bare the torturous trajectory of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial failures or helps us to ask the question “What happened?”, as posed by the Ethiopian writer, Dinaw Mengestu in a review of House of Stone published in the New York Times on March 8, 2019.

But Novuyo Tshuma’s House of Stone does much more because the writer’s words profoundly conjure the complex and ever unwinding threads of a liberation project gone wrong: continued state brutality, disappeared dreams, mass emigration, missing bodies, torture and state impunity, the trauma of doubted belonging and citizenship, the unrested ghosts of spirits packed into unmarked graves, and the lingering quests for human dignity and justice that are now stretching to secession. Because of its commitment to subversion, to counter-hegemonic narratives, the book has no local publisher in Zimbabwe.

But for now let us turn to the ways in which Zimbabwe’s political class has been gripped by the ghosts of the coup of November 2017 that carted off long-time leader Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Currency battles

In an abrupt and highly unexpected policy move, the Minister of Finance in Zimbabwe, Professor Mthuli Ncube, announced that Zimbabwe’s multi-currency regime was over and stated that going forward, all domestic transactions must be carried out in the local currency – the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL). Through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), the minister issued Statutory Instrument 142 of 2019 (SI 142/2019), which stated that “with effect from 24th June 2019, the British pound, United States dollar, South African rand, Botswana pula and any other foreign currency whatsoever shall no longer be the legal tender alongside the Zimbabwe dollar in any transactions in Zimbabwe”.

SI 142/2019 has been buttressed by other measures by the RBZ, including the hiking of interest rates to a whopping 50 per cent in an economy where the government has been the largest borrower. The Minister of Finance’s policy was supported by the President of Zimbabwe, who stated the following:

It has always been clear that for our economy to truly take off, we need our own currency. While the multicurrency regime helped to stabilise the economy, it did not give us full control monetary policy and left us at the mercy of the US Dollar pricing which has been the root cause of inflation…As a result, yesterday we passed a Statutory Instrument to abolish the use of multiple currencies, and make the Zimbabwe dollar the sole legal tender with immediate effect (President Emerson Mnangagwa, 25th of June 2019)

SI 142/2019 effectively re-introduced the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL), taking Zimbabwe back to the dreaded days of hyperinflation, last measured in November 2008 when it was at 89.7 sextillion per cent. At the height of that madness, the Central Bank turned the printing press up and went to issue the largest ever recorded denomination of $ZWL: 100,000,000,000,000.

In an abrupt and highly unexpected policy move, the Minister of Finance in Zimbabwe, Professor Mthuli Ncube, announced that Zimbabwe’s multi-currency regime was over and stated that going forward, all domestic transactions must be carried out in the local currency – the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL).

The contradiction that was lost in this statement by the president was that the people of Zimbabwe and businesses are actually worried sick if the ruling military-nationalist class take “full control of monetary policy” and the Zimbabwe dollar becomes the “sole legal tender”. This zig-zags of monetary policy are evidence of a currency war currently raging. On the one hand, the citizen, local businesses and investors would rather store their money and do business in stable foreign currencies, while on the other hand, the government would prefer a local currency that it can easily manipulate.

These “currency battles” betray a larger complex political-economic contest at play in Zimbabwe. First, the country’s political landscape, which remains largely polarised. Second, an agrarian political economy, which collapsed, wiping off over 35 per cent of GDP. Third, the ruling party’s authoritarian rule, which puts the military and the security class at the centre of political and electoral contests. Fourth, an economy that has virtually become a South African supermarket. But beyond these structural impediments in the political economy is the way the political and military elites have captured and raided the national treasury as often as they want, which has forced the Minister of Finance to admit that he will have to issue a supplementary budget.

The President and the Minister of Finance have been very quick to boast about “month to month surpluses” since they started implementing what they have called the Transitional Stabilisation Plan (TSP). The political class has ignored that the surplus has no relation to productivity in the economy; rather, it is linked to a 2 per cent tax, a fuel duty and a directive where car importers have to pay duty and customs in foreign currency. Importantly, they do not consider the catastrophic cost of austerity or “shock economic therapy” without social protection. The policy experiments under “Austerity for Prosperity” have taken their toll on the ordinary citizen. Tendai Biti, a former Minister of Finance and Vice President of the opposition, has argued that the current political elites are committing “a slow genocide”. There is a case for such a horror summation.

Firstly, social services like health have collapsed; medical staff are routinely on strikes and politicians, including the Vice President, are routinely chartering flights to India or South Africa for medical attention. Secondly, the morbidity rate from non-communicable diseases is running riot as the cost of health is now beyond the reach of many. Thirdly, in the education sector, the drop-out and failing rates are so high that a former Deputy Minister from the ruling party charged his fellow elites with “killing a generation”. Furthermore, the country is currently experiencing extreme load shedding under which Zimbabwe has no power for up to 19 hours a day. The lack of power is a systemic issue that points to the collapse of planning, especially in the Ministry of Energy and Power and more especially in the power company that has been stripped by successive waves of senior managers and board members. And those who plan to leave Zimbabwe, like the mass exodus in the early 2000s, have to wait for a long time. The passport office can only print “5 to 10 passports a day” and some citizens are being asked to come back in 2021 (Business Day, 30 June 2019).

The ghosts of hyperinflation

Anyone going through the e-commerce platforms of E-bay, Amazon and other websites can buy the Zimbabwe Dollar Bills for a price. Some of these dollar bills have denominations that are just dizzying. On E-Bay a seller in Australia is selling a bundle of 10, 20, 50 and 100 trillion dollar denominations of the Zimbabwe Dollar (that’s $ZWL10 trillion, 20 trillion, 50 trillion and 100 trillion, respectively).

People’s savings, investments and pensions have been wiped off to almost no value. When the local currency was printed by the RBZ and inflation shot to quintillion levels, an estimated US$5billion of pensions were wiped off. In 2016, when the government introduced another surrogate currency called Bond Notes, pensions that had been saved were also lost and the government routinely raided foreign currency accounts at will. With this latest announcement, savings and pensions are also getting wiped off as inflation erodes value.

Moreover, the stability of the currency is in doubt simply because for close to two decades the political elites have used the RBZ as a looting apparatus and they have grown accustomed to periodically dipping their fingers in it. At the heart of Zimbabwe’s currency crisis is a rogue political system that has used the Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe as looting vehicles to reward patronage. The political elites have been relying on an authoritarian system of rule that can simply order the printing of money with impunity and disregard economic fundamentals.

People’s savings, investments and pensions have been wiped off to almost no value. When the local currency was printed by the RBZ and inflation shot to quintillion levels, an estimated US$5billion of pensions were wiped off.

Under Robert Mugabe, especially under the RBZ Governor Gideon Gono, inflation became unbearable and the ordinary citizens started using foreign currencies to transact. Slowly citizens are going back to storing their money in foreign currencies – money has become a commodity to be bought, stored and sold for itself without ay relationship to production. Zimbabwe is now a speculator’s paradise and each night the proceeds of the arbitration find themselves in the vaults of the political class. A minister of the government recently had a worker who fled from her house with about U$25,000 in cash.

Glowing rhetoric, grand corruption and no reforms

When the current President took over, he began an intensively orchestrated, some say British- based, serious social media blitz on Facebook and Twitter. The intention was to counter the dominance of government critics on online platforms but also to present the new President in a different light, especially considering his controversial role in Zimbabwe’s dreaded security apparatus, corruption in diamond fields in the DRC and his involvement in the collapsed ZANU PF state companies.

At the heart of Zimbabwe’s currency crisis is a rogue political system that has used the Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe as looting vehicles to reward patronage.

But critics have been quick to correctly point out the glaring disconnect between what social media handles say and what is actual government policy on the ground. It was recently disclosed that the government has signed on two lobby firms in the US to convince the US Congress to remove Zimbabwe from a targeted sanctions list so that the country can access funding from multilateral financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The US government has been able to see through this rhetoric of talking reforms and continuing on a clampdown, including ongoing arrests of civil activists for “treason”.

To fully comprehend how the political class in Zimbabwe is affecting a grand heist of public resources, one just has to focus on two institutions: the RBZ and the Ministry of Finance. Through the RBZ, the political elites, the military who’s who and government managers have been administering a very opaque system of “foreign currency allocation” often to their cronies, especially in the fuel sector. The fuel industry in Zimbabwe has fallen under the control of business elites directly linked and deeply networked either to the military or to ruling party officials such that the government has refused to liberalise the sector. A glaring example is the cartel run through Green Fuel, which is has a legally protected monopoly of selling ethanol in the market. (The businessman who owns Green Fuel is linked to the President. Here are the words of a “government advisor”:

The result is that we have spent probably US$2 billion in secret premiums on the purchase of fuel on the world market. Much of it banked externally. So while our neighbours had fuel at world market rates, we paid a premium. Fine while fuel prices on world market were at historically low prices from 2014 onwards. But the result is that we spend over US$100 million a month on bulk fuel supplies when the actual cost today should be about US$70 million (Eddie Cross, May 2019)

In a recent press statement, the ruling party’s Youth League paraded a list of “corrupt” government officials, including an ally of the President, the RBZ Governor and the party’s powerful Secretary of Administration. The accused simply dismissed the statement as a side show, and the President announced yet another Commission of Inquiry. The President proceeded to appoint the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs as the Chair of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) and the new commission includes a “retired” army senior officer. But there is also a rift running much deeper that points to lack of cohesion among the political elite and a competition “to eat” within the ruling party networks. Here are the words of a former student radical leader now turned into a political class praise singer:

We have normalised corruption and regard it as par for the course. Provincial lands officers run around like fief lords, dishing out offer letters for land in exchange for cars and private school fees, and nothing gets said. We take pride, including headlines even, that we have managed to suspend some VID officers in some nondescript town for taking bribes in exchange for licences and no-one stops to say: really? Like that is why we have been robbed blind on infrastructure tenders and sales of diamonds and such? (Tinomudaishe Chinyoka, Nehanda Radio, 2019)

In a country in which the economy has come to a standstill, business is now highly speculative and trading in favours and arbitrage have become the mainstay of the elites. This is bound to create an explosive factional war to get access to state largesse. A Member of Parliament seen as an ally of the President recently boasted that he has imported a Lamborghini at a whopping US$410,000. It was recently revealed before a Parliamentary Committee that the Ministry of Finance cannot account for about US$3billon disbursed for the Command Agriculture programme, which was run by the military and the current President in the two years preceding the coup of November 2017. This makes it possible that the taxpayer actually funded the coup of November 2017.

Every year the Auditor General diligently produces reports on copious amounts of irregular expenditures, outright fraud, related party contacts, and outsourced services. In the latest report of 2018, there are references to huge amounts siphoned for political gain and debts incurred to feed the rentier class. There is the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), the President established a Special Anti-Corruption Commission, the Chief Justice recently opened Anti-Corruption Courts and yet there are no cases of elites getting investigated, fired, and or convicted. This is a weaponised smoke and mirror game to settle factional political wars.

The crisis of militarism

In a previous opinion article, I argued that Zimbabwe’s political system is now domineered by a typical comprador class that took power forcefully on the 17th of November 2017 and this “military-nationalist class” is now in total command of state power, party structures and by implication the shambles of what remains of the economy. At the apex of Zimbabwe’s political system now sits an anti-democratic, anti-reform looting machinery composed of a powerful network of military-nationalists who are not answerable to the governed but to their own rabid accumulation whims.

The nationalist liberation movement in Zimbabwe had previously operated comfortably under a very thinly veiled authoritarianism in which “politics commanded the gun”. But the coup of the November Days in 2017 opened the floodgates for “politics that is commanded by the gun”.

However, the crisis of militarism is not only in Zimbabwe. In Sudan, the military has stepped in to protect its interests. The same has happened in Algeria, Egypt, Malawi and recently in Ethiopia. The army in politics is now the proverbial elephant in the room with the military commanders routinely commenting on political issues in a country which is not at war. The youthful and rejuvenated MDC Alliance has been talking tough, especially about political reforms that are needed in the country and this is deepening lines of potential conflict. In response, the security state apparatus has been parading robo-cop-like police uniforms to intimidate the citizens and the President has continued holding what he calls “political dialogue” that excludes the major opposition, rendering the dialogue a travesty.

The nationalist liberation movement in Zimbabwe had previously operated comfortably under a very thinly veiled authoritarianism in which “politics commanded the gun”. But the coup of the November Days in 2017 opened the floodgates for “politics that is commanded by the gun”.

***

In a recent comedy skit by Zimbabwe’s top all-female comedy team called Bus Stop TV, the cast members commonly known as Gonyeti and Maggie are engaged in a tussle in which Gonyeti is fuming that she must undo a scarf that has not brought anything to her. She engages furiously in “kududunura scarf”, which is an intelligent jibe directed at the President’s now-infamous scarf that he wears even in inappropriate weather.

Civil servants, even after two pay increases, have put the government on notice. Nurses, teachers, and banking employees have seen their incomes collapse to below US$50 a month. Pensioners are now living in penury as some of them earn an equivalent of about US$10 a month in a country which imports all the basics. With inflation estimated at 196 per cent, the country is heading for social strife. Economist Godfrey Kanyenze argued that the “Zimbabwe Dollar is dead on arrival”. The ruling class elites are engaging in open spats on social media. Factions are competing to get hold of the national treasury. The Commander of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), which carried out the coup of November 2017, has been urging “soldiers to be patient”. This betrays the uneasiness within the ranks.

There is growing discontent across the country. The literary scene has been exploding too with a direct challenge aimed at displacing choreographed historical narratives of the nation, triggering debates on nation-state construction and opening up to scrutiny (perhaps justice?) the vagaries of violence and trying to re-imagine the country. Witness the books by an all-female cast: We need New Names (NoViolet Bulwayo), These Bones Will Rise Again (Panashe Chigumadzi) and House of Stone (Novuyo Rosa Tshuma).

The political class in Zimbabwe is drunk with power and eventually the game of chance they are playing will come to an end. Given enough chances to pull the trigger in a game of Russian roulette, the drunkard will eventually hit the mark. Such is the current situation in Zimbabwe.

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Tinashe L. Chimedza is an Associate Director at the Institute of Public Affairs in Zimbabwe (IPAZIM).

Politics

The Battle Within: Uhuru’s War Against His Deputy

After joining forces with William Ruto to win the 2013 and 2017 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta now seems determined to ensure that his deputy does not ascend to the presidency in 2022. The breakdown of their alliance has all the hallmarks of betrayal, brinkmanship, deception, fraud and subterfuge.

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“Lord, protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies.”

The above quote by Voltaire is one that Deputy President William Ruto could well be spending lots of time brooding over, especially in these times of coronavirus. Since official recognition of the pandemic’s arrival in Kenya over just three months ago, Ruto’s political battles – not with his enemies, but with people he had counted as friends – have intensified. The battles that are being fought in the Jubilee Party, the party of President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, are internal and among erstwhile friends.

Coming barely 30 months after the forceful UhuRuto duo won a controversial fresh presidential election on October 26, 2017, the two political brothers looked set to finish their second term the way they started the first: as a formidable team of like-minded captains, with the lead captain passing the baton to his comrade once his term expires. But that today is a dream: the waters have been poisoned and the former buddies are no longer swimming in the same direction, leave alone swimming in the same waters. The breakdown of the alliance has all the hallmarks of betrayal, brinkmanship, deception, fraud and subterfuge.

Jubilee Party mandarins did not see the break-up coming; if they did, they all pretended they were not aware of the imploding scenario. The ruling party is now a house of two diametrically opposed camps led by their respective protagonists: President Uhuru Kenyatta, who coalesces around the Kieleweke (it shall soon be evident) camp and William Ruto, who is spearheading the Tanga Tanga (roaming) team.

“We can no longer pretend that the current war being waged against William Ruto is not from within and therefore not from friends, or people he had presumed were his political friends,” said a Ruto confidante I spoke to. “To think otherwise now would, like the proverbial ostrich, be burying our heads in the sand. It is better to be fought by your enemies, who you have fought several times before and therefore you already know to deal with them, rather than be fought by friends, who have turned the tables against you, all the while posing as your compatriots.”

“Uhuru is employing political terrorism against his number two and to be honest, it is something we had not anticipated,” said Ruto’s friend of many years. “Yes, it has taken us by surprise, the intensity and all, but we must stay and fight back, even as we devise a strategy to stem the political bloodbath. It is all about the politics of succession in 2022 and there is no hiding the fact that Ruto obviously wants the seat. If you have been a deputy president for seven years, what else would you want as a politician in that position? It is also true that once Uhuru and Ruto were sworn in for the second and final term, we started popularising our candidate immediately – it was the natural thing to do – hitting the ground running. This was misconstrued to be a campaign, but even if it were, we weren’t doing anything outside of the constitution.”

Ruto’s loyal friend said that the popularisation strategy had a context: “Prior to the presidential election in December 2002, we all were in Kanu – Uhuru, Ruto and me. We would go to [President] Moi and tell him, ‘Mzee tell us who will be our candidate so that we can start preparing the grounds early.’ And he countered by saying: ‘Nyinyi vijana wacheni mbio, siku ikifika nitawambia. Mimi nimekuwa kwa siasa miaka mingi…nataka mwendelee kuwa wafuasi kamili wa Kanu.’ (You young men, why are you in a hurry? When the day comes, I’ll let you know. I’ve been in politics for many years, I know what I’m doing. For now I want you to be steadfast in your support for Kanu.) By the time he was proposing Uhuru as the party’s candidate, it was already too late and there wasn’t enough time to campaign for our candidate.”

The Ruto ally, who also counts President Uhuru as a first-name-basis friend, believes Uhuru lost the election in 2002 to Mwai Kibaki and the opposition, because Moi took too long to name the party’s flagbearer. “We could have won that election but for Moi’s delaying tactics, which backfired and we lived to regret that bad decision. Eighteen years later, with lessons learned, we’re not about to repeat the same mistake. You cannot win a presidential election if you start campaigning six months to the election date. That is what Uhuru is doing with our candidate and in Jubilee, and we won’t let him do that.”

The coronavirus appeared just in time to help President Uhuru fight his political battles, reasoned the DP’s bosom buddy. “He is now using the pandemic to wage war against his deputy. The semi-lockdown and the curfew are strictly not about COVID-19, but about clamping down on Ruto’s forces in the party and in government.” The pandemic, he observed, has acted like godsend: It has given Uhuru space to mount a sustained onslaught on Ruto, but it has also helped the DP to ward off (at least for the time being), the “nobody-can-stop-the-reggae” force, which was also threatening to overwhelm him.

“Uhuru is maximising on the COVID-19 pandemic as much as possible because he knows his antagonist, the DP, cannot organise and mobilise for his counter-attack, which he is good at. The people have been locked down, they are restricted, they cannot move, they are scared and are caught up with survival. President Uhuru can therefore wreak havoc in Ruto’s camp with as little distraction as possible,” he added.

The coronavirus appeared just in time to help President Uhuru fight his political battles, reasoned the DP’s bosom buddy. “He is now using the pandemic to wage war against his deputy. The semi-lockdown and the curfew are strictly not about COVID-19, but about clamping down on Ruto’s forces in the party and in government.”

Uhuru is not alone; since the onset of COVID-19, some world leaders have been using the pandemic as an excuse to amass more presidential powers, extend their presidential terms indefinitely, resort to dictatorial tendencies, and quash opponents.

But unlike the last election, the president does not have the unflinching support of his own people. “Uhuru’s biggest problem is that the Kikuyus have turned their back on him,” said a friend of Uhuru who also counts Ruto as his friend. “He thought he owned them and he could do whatever he wanted with them. He also thought they would always go back to him and do his bidding. Now, they seem dead set in ignoring him completely and the fact of the matter is, as a political leader, you can do little if you cannot galvanise the support of your people. You cannot claim legitimacy, you can only impose yourself on them and that is always counter-productive.”

Because of this, said the Jubilee Party mandarin, President Uhuru’s current headache is how to de-Rutoise central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region. “He’s been trying to tell the Kikuyus that Ruto has been disloyal to him, that he wants to grab their power, that he’s not fit to ascend to the presidential seat because he’s corrupt and power hungry. But they have refused to listen to him. With each passing day, he’s getting furious with the Kikuyus’ recalcitrant stand against him. Now, he has turned to appointing Kikuyus in prominent positions, including the recent reshuffles in Parliament to appease his Kikuyu base.”

The duo’s friend told me that President Uhuru’s allegations about his deputy’s insubordination was a red herring. “What disloyalty is Uhuru is talking about? When he was busy drinking, we held fort by taking care of government business, even as we covered his social vices. Now he has the temerity to talk about disloyalty. We’re not afraid of him. The Jubilee Party/Kanu coalition agreement is illegal as per our Jubilee Party constitution and it was cobbled up to stop Ruto from vying for the presidency”.

All the president’s men

To fight Ruto, President Uhuru Kenyatta formed an advisory team that meets at State House. Part of the team comprises David Murathe, Kinuthia Mbugua, Mutahi Ngunyi and Nancy Gitau.

Murathe has for the longest time been President Uhuru’s sidekick. His father, William Gatuhi Murathe, was one of the wealthiest Kikuyus, courtesy of Uhuru’s father and the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, During Jomo’s time, the senior Murathe was the sole distributor of wines and spirits countrywide.

When David Murathe was routed out as the MP for Gatanga constituency by Peter Kenneth in 2002, his fortunes dwindled and he was even declared bankrupt at one stage. From that time, he has not left Uhuru’s side. The Tanga Tanga team describes Murathe as “Uhuru’s attack dog”. They believe that when Uhuru wants to communicate an important message, he uses Murathe. And they’ve learned to decipher his messages. Murathe is the man who has been put in charge of the advisory team’s budget.

On 6 January 2019, Murathe suddenly resigned from his post as the Jubilee Party’s vice chairman, citing conflict of interest. He said he wanted to fight Ruto and stop him from being the Jubilee Party’s sole candidate for the 2022 presidential election. On 2 March 2020, Murathe recollected his thoughts on his supposed resignation and claimed he had not really resigned because his resignation had not been accepted by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is the chairman of the party.

Kinuthia Mbugua is the State House Comptroller; he keeps President Uhuru’s diary. He served as Nakuru County governor for one term. Eagerly looking to serve for a second term, he nonetheless lost the Jubilee Party nomination to Lee Kinyanjui. He was furious, and even looked to run as an independent, but was persuaded by Uhuru to join the presidential campaign team, with a promise of a bountiful reward once the campaign was over.

The Tanga Tanga team describes Murathe as “Uhuru’s attack dog”. They believe that when Uhuru wants to communicate an important message, he uses Murathe. And they’ve learned to decipher his messages.

Mbugua, a career civil servant, hails from Nyandarua. When he was the commandant of the Administration Police (AP), he employed many youth from Nyandarua and the adjoining areas. He equipped the force with personnel and machinery and soon there were murmurs from the regular police service, which felt that the AP was being favoured and was becoming extra powerful. After the 2007/2008 post-election violence, President Mwai Kibaki and his cohorts did not trust the regular police. Mbugua’s not-so-loudly spoken brief was to reorganise a force that had always played second fiddle to the boys in blue.

Mbugua to date believes William Ruto rigged him out of a nomination when he was left to man the Jubilee Party headquarters at Pangani during the chaotic and hectic nominations. He carries the grudge like an ace up his sleeve.

Mutahi Ngunyi is a private citizen who has immersed himself in state (house) politics and has distinguished himself as a maverick, a person who can swing like a pendulum and still remain standing, without falling. In the lead-up to the 2017 election, he made Raila Odinga, the opposition coalition leader of the National Super Alliance (NASA), his punching bag, terming him a “punctured politician”, an epithet that his detractors used to describe Raila’s father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the 1970s.

After Uhuru and Ruto romped back to State House, Mutahi quickly (perhaps too quickly) identified with Ruto’s camp and decreed that Ruto will be the next president come 2022. A crafty mythmaker, he even came up with the Hustler vs Dynasty narrative to define the rivalry between Ruto and the sons of prominent Kenyan leaders, including Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Gideon Moi. He wildly claimed in a May 2019 tweet that the only person who could liberate Kikuyus was Ruto. (Mutahi has since deleted all his tweets that were singing Ruto’s praises.) Then, beginning this year, Mutahi flipped, disavowed his hustler narrative and claimed that Uhuru Kenyatta was ordained to rule Kenya.

“Mutahi Ngunyi is a gun for hire,” said a Ruto aide. “For nearly two years he worked for us. He’s a mercenary, he’s a fugitive of justice.” When I contacted Mutahi and asked him if what was being said about him was true, he responded: “Tell them it is true, whatever that means. Tell them they can also hire me!”

The aide claimed that Mutahi was presented with the National Youth Service (NYS) file by the National Intelligence Service and was asked to cooperate…or else.

The NYS file he was referring to contains details of a huge scam that was perpetrated between 2014 and 2016 when Anne Waiguru Kamotho, the current governor of Kirinyaga County, was the powerful Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary. Mutahi was one of her advisers on the youth programme that was being implemented by NYS. The scam involved the misappropriation of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money in which Mutahi was heavily implicated. At one time, he even purported to clear his name by claiming to have returned Sh12 million to the government coffers. Appearing before the Parliamentary Accounts Committee on September 20, 2016, Mutahi said he had rewired the money back to the Central Bank of Kenya. He said that the money had been “wrongly” credited to his company, The Consulting House. He further stated that he believed the money had come from an organisation that he had consulted for, not the Devolution Ministry.

Mutahi is now operating from State House and The Chancery building on Valley Road in Nairobi. The Chancery is owned by the Kenyatta family. Part of his brief is to spin favourable Kieleweke group narratives while conjuring up propaganda and disinformation on his former employer, William Ruto.

Nancy Gitau has been the resident State House adviser from the time of Mwai Kibaki. Before becoming a state aficionado, she worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). While at USAID in the 1990s, she was involved in the democracy and governance sector, which was being heavily funded by the United States and other donors. The last big project that she oversaw was a partnership between Kenya’s Parliament and the State University of New York (SUNY, Albany)’s Centre for International Development (CID), which Sam Mwale and Fred Matiangí managed. Both Mwale and Matiangí would later become civil servant bureaucrats, serving as Permanent Secretary and Cabinet Secretary, respectively.

Mutahi is now operating from State House and The Chancery building on Valley Road. The Chancery is owned by the Kenyatta family. Part of his brief is to spin favourable Kieleweke group narratives while conjuring up propaganda and disinformation on his former employer, William Ruto.

Gitau was very well-known within the civil society and the NGO sector and interacted with many of them. “Gitau was one of the architects of a report implicating Ruto in the post-election violence and so there is no love lost between her and Ruto,” said Ruto’s aide. The deputy president is still upset about Gitau singling him out. During the days when Ruto and Uhuru were facing charges related to the post-election violence of 2007/2008 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, one of Ruto’s team members said to me: “Ruto never forgives and never forgets a wrong done to him.”

Expunging Ruto’s men

The Gitau-led advisory team ostensibly meets every Sunday morning at State House and during weekdays at La Mada Hotel located in the New Muthaiga residential area in Nairobi. La Mada is the hotel that Ruto claimed in 2019 where a plot to assassinate him was being hatched by people known to President Uhuru.

One of the team’s main jobs is the expunging of Ruto’s men in the Senate, with Kithure Kindiki, the Senator of Tharaka Nithi County, being the latest casualty. Until 22 May 2020, Kindiki was the Senate’s Deputy Speaker. The first two casualties were Kipchumba Murkomen and Susan Kihika, the former Majority Leader and Chief Whip, respectively. Murkomen’s job was given to Samuel Poghisio, a politician from West Pokot, while Kihika’s went to Irungu Kangáta, the Senator of Murangá County.

“The two were removed because the president and his men didn’t have the majority in the Jubilee Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC),” said a “renegade” senator, who accused President Uhuru of “using strong-arm tactics to coerce senators to vote according to his whims”.

During the days when Ruto and Uhuru were facing charges related to the post-election violence of 2007/2008 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, one of Ruto’s team members said to me: “Ruto never forgives and never forgets a wrong done to him.”

The senator said that the Speaker of the Senate, Ken Lusaka, was allegedly approached and reminded of the “small matter” of the wheelbarrows when he was the Governor of Bungoma County.

When Lusaka was the governor of Bungoma County between 2013 and 2017, the county bought 10 wheelbarrows worth Sh1.09 million (approximately $10,000 or $1,000 per wheelbarrow) – the most expensive wheelbarrows ever sold in Kenya, where an ordinary wheelbarrow goes for around Sh5,000 ($50). When he was asked by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee what was so special about the wheelbarrows, he claimed that they were made from “stainless, non-carcinogenic material”. Some of the county officials were jailed for the scam.

Everybody knows it was illegal for the speaker to acquiesce to President Uhuru’s demand that the Senate Parliament Group meet at State House, said the senator. “The reason why nominated senators are being intimidated and threatened is simply because Uhuru doesn’t have enough senators on his side to fight his deputy.”

Senators were allegedly paid Sh2 million to vote to remove Murkomen and Kihika. “On the day the senators were summoned to State House, President Uhuru didn’t have enough senators to push his motion,” said the senator. “The Jubilee Party had only 11 senators, Kanu, three and one independently-elected senator, Charles Kibiru. If you count Raphael Tuju and President Uhuru they made 17 votes. Tuju is the secretary general of Jubilee Party. So, they were way short of the required majority of 20 votes.” The senator claimed that the president had to send helicopters to pick senators from their far-flung regions.

“Uhuru can send choppers to senators who are supposed to be in lockdown and in quarantine, but he will not send planes to rescue and send food to flood victims. That’s how much he cares for the unity of this nation,” complained the senator.

It is just a matter of time before these elite squabbles are replicated on the ground. On 20 May 2020, two charged groups in Kikuyu town faced each other: one group supported President Uhuru Kenyatta and the other supported Deputy President Ruto along with the area MP Kimani Ichung’wa. So far Kimani has been an unswerving supporter of Ruto. They yelled and shouted at each other and exchanged invectives. It was a prelude to Ruto’s visit to the constituency on that day.

“Uhuru can send choppers to senators who are supposed to be in lockdown and in quarantine, but he will not send planes to rescue and send food to flood victims. That’s how much he cares for the unity of this nation,” complained the senator.

It is hard to tell whether the two groups had been paid by their masters to grandstand. But that is neither here nor there. The Jubilee Party honchos have indicated that Ruto’s presence in the Mt Kenya region cannot just be wished away – hence the Kieleweke group’s project to defang Ruto.

I asked a Ruto confidante why his boss had gone quiet. Was the heat becoming unbearable? “This is not the time to speak. We actually advised him not to open his mouth. There’s a time that he will speak, but not now.”

The confidante also reminded me of another saying: The man who speaks little makes mistakes, but what about the man who talks a lot? He makes big mistakes.

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A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol, they triggered a discussion on whether statues and monuments of those who helped Britain extend her colonial tentacles around the world should also be removed. Hopefully, this discussion will also lead Kenyans to review their monument landscape.

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A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?
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Britain is in a froth, and sharply divided, over the desecration or removal of statues of historical figures linked to slavery and empire.

What began as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, following the appalling murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis, swiftly morphed into attacks on statues and monuments in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and other towns and cities in the UK that implicitly venerate slavers and imperialists. Some were removed from their plinths, one was thrown into a river, others were vandalised, and a Union Jack flag on the Cenotaph, the national war memorial in central London, was set on fire. In Oxford, where there have long been calls to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the wall of a college, the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement (which originated in South Africa) was given new impetus, and large street protests were held. Some statues have been removed by local authorities “for their own protection”, such as that of eighteenth century slave-owner Robert Milligan, which stood in London’s Docklands.

Images of these events blazed across the media day after day have both incensed and delighted in equal measure. The British public learned more about its dark past in 48 hours (and rising) than in decades of being taught empire-light history in school classrooms. I was one of them. All we learned of empire was the victors’ story, and Britain’s “proud” role in the abolitionist movement. No wonder all this statue-smashing has come as a shock to the system – in every sense of the word. (Similar outrage over monuments linked to racial oppression and slavery has swept the US and other nations in the wake of BLM, but it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the wider phenomenon.)

The right-wing media, the Tory government and other far-right commentators have predictably dubbed the attackers “mobs”, “thugs” and “vandals”, with Home Secretary Priti Patel (the daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants to Britain who could well have been denied entry under her hard-line regime) vowing to find and swiftly punish those responsible. (That may prove tricky since many were wearing protective masks against COVID-19.) In Tory hands, playing to the Brexit gallery, it fast became a “law and order” story. The courts were granted powers to fast-track prosecutions of demonstrators within 24 hours of an incident, “amid mounting concerns that Britain is facing a summer of disorder” (The Times, 12 June).

We are good at summers of disorder. Every dull English summer seems to require a new moral panic. In the middle of COVID lockdown, this uproar has almost come as light relief, not least to the mainstream print media, which is struggling to survive. The right-wing tabloid Daily Mail devoted its front-page lead and 7 inside pages to the story on 10 June, and the issue was still taking up the entire two-page spread of readers’ letters two days later (including an edited letter from me, calling in part for changes to the school history curriculum). At a time of COVID crisis, this was extraordinary. Every national newspaper has covered it too, with the downmarket Daily Star poking fun by giving away cut-out paper “statues” of famous people for readers to shout at if they so wished. (It’s a “free” country.)

The broadcast media has also covered the story extensively. A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated. “I absolutely relished the toppling of the [Colston] statue in Bristol. He was a really toxic symbol,” she said. (More on Colston below.)

For the prosecution, we have Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, leading the charge. “Where are the police?” cried this arch Brexiter on Twitter. “Where are you Boris? Do we have a leader?” And, next to a photograph of a graffiti-daubed statue of war-time premier Winston Churchill: “Boris Johnson is supposed to be a Churchill fan, but he says and does nothing. He is not half the man.”

A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated.

In the Telegraph (9 June), Farage accused “our craven leaders” of “failing to stand up to a Marxist mob which wants to tear down our history”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded a few days later, fuming that his hero had been dubbed a “racist”. (Boris wrote a much-derided 2014 biography of Winston Churchill, on whom he clearly models himself.) This was pretty rich coming from a man who, in his former career as a journalist, described Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared niqab-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes”, and said of colonialism in Africa: “The problem is not that we were in charge, but that we’re not in charge any more.”

I will say more about far-right white youth rage in a moment, but it takes its cue from Boris, Fa-RAGE (as I prefer to call him), and links to Brexit-related frustrations. Brexit is meant to have happened on 31 January this year, but curiously, those who voted for it seem angrier than ever.

How it all began: Slaver Edward Colston

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol on 7 June, dragged it to the harbour and threw it in, police wisely decided not to intervene. This, and police refusal to intervene in similar incidents elsewhere, is what Farage (plus fellow Brexiters and Tories) are so incensed about.

Colston, a rich merchant and MP, was venerated as a benefactor and philanthropist, with schools, a concert hall and streets named after him. (Some have been renamed.) Bristol residents had been calling for the statue’s removal for years, and had presented an 11,000-signature petition to the council. But nothing had come of asking nicely, hence some decided it was high time to sling Colston’s hook themselves. His reburial in a watery “grave” was itself laden with symbolism, since it was from this harbour that Colston’s slave ships sailed. They carried more than 100,000 West Africans to the New World between 1672 and 1689. More than 20,000 slaves died en route and were thrown overboard – something the slavers welcomed because they could claim insurance.

The Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset police, Andy Bennett, defended his force’s actions that day, telling the BBC he understood that Colston was “a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years”. He said he understood their anger, and the symbolism of the statue. He went on: “You might wonder why we didn’t intervene and why we just allowed people to put it in the docks – we made a very tactical decision, to stop people from doing the act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do, in terms of our policing tactics, was to allow it to take place.” (A furious Priti Patel reportedly gave him a dressing-down.)

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”, and has called for a “city-wide conversation” on the future of the statue (which has now been hauled out of the harbour). It may be placed in a museum, along with demonstrators’ placards taken from the scene of the “crime”. He added: “I’d like to make sure that conversation is informed by good history.” Hence he is putting together a team, including local historians, to make a study of statues, memorials, street names and the like, so that future decisions are based on “good history, good understanding”.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”

Other targeted statues of imperial, fascist or slaver figures are listed on a new website called Topple the Racists (www.toppletheracists.org). They include Lord Nelson (as in Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square), Robert Clive (of British India infamy), Scotland’s Robert Dundas (son of a man who deliberately delayed the abolition of slavery), Jan Smuts, the architect of apartheid, and Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouts movement. The latter also has links to Kenya: he is buried in a Nyeri churchyard, near a cottage in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel where he spent his final years. Baden-Powell is accused of atrocities against Zulus during his military career in South Africa, and for his flirtation with fascism. In his 1939 diary, he wrote: “Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book.” Former scouts travelled to Poole in Dorset to protect a statue of their idol, which has been placed under 24-hour protection. They cut ridiculous figures: middle-aged men in shorts, brown shirts and woggles (a device used to fasten scouts’ neckerchiefs), vowing to follow the scouting motto: “Be prepared!” Kenyan scouts have also pledged allegiance to their founder.

Far-right youth

Those ripping statues from their plinths, or “vandalising” them if removal is physically impossible, are white, black, and all shades in-between. But the racism in critics’ hysterical responses is palpable. Far-right white supremacist youths have waded in, joined by older beer-bellied men, with supporters of Tommy Robinson (a notorious far-right Islamophobic activist) and groups like Britain First vowing to “defend” and “protect” monuments from “commies” and the “unwashed”. Self-styled “Tommy Teams” rushed to scrub the graffiti off monuments, including Churchill and the Cenotaph, and stayed to “protect” them since the police were not doing so at that stage.

In some provincial towns, they also collaborated with angry older men, many with military backgrounds, to “protect” monuments, including war memorials. Posting videos of their exploits on Twitter, they spoke of protecting British heritage, and defending historical icons. Bragging of their manhood, they asked (as Farage had done) where the “real men” were.

As I write this, far-right groups from across the country had travelled to London to “protect” the monuments from BLM, which had planned more demonstrations in the city. Police boarded up major monuments to keep both BLM protesters and their opponents away; these included statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Boris Johnson called the boarding up of Churchill “absurd” and “stupid”, conveniently forgetting that he had done the same with certain monuments when he was mayor of London.

Priti Patel publicly denounced the current London mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan (a hate figure to far-right Islamophobes, Tories and Brexiters), who had ordered the protective measures. The government also hates the fact that Khan has set up a commission to review all monuments in the capital, while more than a hundred Labour councils across England have pledged to review monuments on public land. In a bizarre twist, the far-right protestors gave Heil Hitler salutes before Churchill, a man revered for fighting fascism. Having denounced supposed BLM violence, it was they who ended up getting drunk and fighting the police. The word “Eng-er-land” (their chant) is trending now. Angerland?

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection not unlike that which produced the Mods and Rockers, two rival youth groups that rioted in seaside towns in southern England in 1964, though in some ways, today’s youth alienation is worse. (One could write a whole thesis on this alone, and no doubt scholars already are.)

Throw into the mix the economic crisis which will hit the poorest, including Brexit-voting, communities, hardest. The UK is said to be heading for its worst economic depression in 300 years following COVID, and is likely to fall off a cliff once Brexit is fully implemented. The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-“woke” rhetoric of right-wing politicians and media commentators who call on “true patriots” to show their allegiance to Britain and British “values”, the failure of Brexit to deliver yet (if indeed it ever does), and the frustration of weeks of COVID lockdown: all this and more stokes the anger of particular groups. In their insecurity, Tommy’s boys – and some girls – have long clung to perceived icons of national identity. (Their Twitter profiles feature images of Churchill in particular, bulldogs and St George flags, though in fact St George wasn’t English and never set foot here).

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection…

But let’s not get too carried away with the perceived threat to society, which is how the Tories want to frame all this. Sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, identified how certain figures, groups or events periodically spark moral outrage, and are scapegoated as “evil” threats to civilised society. Cohen noted the Mods’ and Rockers’ overwhelming sense of boredom. Street clashes or the prospect of them were as thrilling then as they are now – “just simply being present in a crowd was an event…” Having studied white street gangs in the 1970s, I know that putting the boot in (and crime in general) is very exciting when you are working class, young and bored. If you can film the bovver on your phone as it happens, take selfies and tweet to the world, that’s all the more satisfying.

Turning briefly to Kenya

The imprint of empire’s boot is still visible on the monument landscape of Kenya, though there have been some notable changes down the years. The Nairobi city centre statue of Lord Delamere was removed at independence to the Delameres’ Soysambu estate, but the Vasco da Gama pillar is still a major tourist attraction at Malindi. Street names have changed: for example, Victoria Street became Tom Mboya Street. Many South Asian street names have been Africanised.

The statue of Queen Victoria that previously stood in Jeevanjee Gardens, a public park Nairobi, was beheaded by unknown vandals in 2015. I am told by A.M. Jeevanjee’s great-granddaughter, the historian, activist and writer Zarina Patel, that the county government later removed the rest of the monument, which now lies in a storeroom. “Who did it, and why remains a mystery,” she says. “Was it politically motivated? That would be understandable because Queen Victoria represented an unjust colonial power.”

However, she has concerns that one of the conditions her forefather made when handing over the gardens to the then colonial government was that the statue should never be moved. In so doing, he hoped to protect the gardens from future land grabs. In 1991, Zarina campaigned successfully against an attempted grab of the park by “the highest powers-that-be in the land”, adding, “of course they have never been identified”.

Zarina Patel welcomes the arrival of statues commemorating Dedan Kimathi and Tom Mboya, and the Mau Mau Memorial in Uhuru Park, which she hopes will set a trend. She also believes that the Nyayo monuments in Uhuru Gardens, erected by former president Daniel arap Moi, will be moved at some point.

What is her take on colonial-era monuments, and those glorifying post-independence leaders? “The statues celebrating colonists and dictators are part of Kenyan history – rather than destroying them I think they should be kept in some suburban parks or museums with explanatory texts to give them proper historical context; so that our future generations can be reminded of the battles we have fought for freedom, justice and democracy.”

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

And what do we do about tourism centred on colonial nostalgia, starting with Karen Blixen? Why is Karen the suburb still on the map of Nairobi? Why is the Norfolk Hotel (among others) still proudly branding itself as a white settler hang-out, and every safari lodge and camp in the Mara selling a Blixenesque sundowner fantasy? This type of tourism generates huge sums, but at what cost? It reinforces the notion that Kenya is one big Happy Valley playground, a safari-suited hyper-real theme park (see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) where racy white mischief can still be had, at a price. I’ve even seen Japanese tourists in pith helmets at Elsamere, Lake Naivasha, who had no idea how uncool they looked. If I find all this embarrassing, how do Kenyans feel?

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

Maybe it’s time for a national conversation – led by citizens, not government – on what Kenyans would like to see changed or removed. If the conversation is anything like the one convulsing Britain right now, be prepared for a huge row. A very healthy one.

I concur with those who see this as an unmissable opportunity to re-educate global citizens about the past. The destruction or removal of monuments from sight is not the answer; they should be moved to a dedicated museum, with educational materials (textual and audio-visual) providing deeper context. Use them for debate, alongside alternative narratives. Fill the monument landscape (if you must) with new figures who more accurately reflect your diverse societies and the best of your ideals. Then bin the current school history curriculum, and replace it with something fit for purpose in the post-post-colonial twenty-first century.

Postscript

Latest news from Bristol: a statue of the Jamaican poet, playwright and actor, Alfred Fagon, was doused with a “bleach-like substance” on the night of 12 June. It was erected in 1987, in the largely black and mixed-race area of St Pauls, on the first anniversary of his death. Fagon was the first black person to have had a statue erected in his honour in the city. One of his first plays, No Soldiers in St Pauls, explored the social tensions between the police and the black community in 1970s Bristol.

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COVID-19 Response: What Uganda and Rwanda Got Right and What Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi Didn’t

Science-based containment strategies, including nationwide surveys, significantly reduced COVID-19-related infections and fatalities in Uganda and Rwanda. In contrast, the Kenyan government turned the public health crisis into a “law and order” issue, while the leaders of Tanzania and Burundi went into denial mode.

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Across East Africa there is pattern of disparity in the implementation of COVID-19 control measures. While there is no single template for the implementation of the respective containment measures, Uganda and Rwanda have taken proactive actions ranging from lockdown to swift public health measures that are showing early signs of bearing positive fruit in the form of minimal community transmission.

Kenya, on the other hand, despite having employed partial and targeted measures, such as swift contact tracing exercises and cessation of movement coupled with a dusk-to-dawn curfew that initially slowed down the spread of virus, has hit a snag. There are emerging signs of setbacks and weaknesses due to increased community transmission that have been attributed to the disjointed and unrealistic nature of Kenya’s COVID-19 control measures.

Comparatively, Burundi and Tanzania opted for an open COVID-19 control strategy alongside questioning or downplaying the World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 guidelines. The “genie is still in the bottle” as to whether Burundi and Tanzania are on the right or wrong path because the available data and statistics are at best still very sketchy. Their only comparison for now could be Sweden and Brazil who have also opted to follow a more open strategy unlike other European and Latin American states, respectively.

Sweden went for jugular by placing emphasis on personal responsibility, which Kenyan government officials tried to sell with noticeable setbacks. In their open COVID-19 strategy, only basic WHO COVID-19 health guidelines were enforced but the lockdown did not affect businesses, which remained open.

The approaches of Burundi and Tanzania can be classified as COVID-19 denialist or comparable to the poetic phrase “dancing with death”. WHO and critics of these two countries argue that the path taken by Burundi and Tanzania puts their citizens’ and their neighbours’ lives at an alarming risk. In their desired strategy, Burundi has ended up prioritising a tense general election and Tanzania has prioritised the economy amid a global pandemic.

Initial reports reveal that states like Rwanda and Uganda that implemented nationwide lockdowns are now reaping decreasing rates of new infections “significantly from 67% rise in the first week after the lockdown to a 27% rise in the second week”. In countries that employed “partial and targeted lockdown along with effective public health measurers”, initial reports indicate that they have been “more effective at slowing down the virus”.

Across East Africa, based on available COVID-19 data, Uganda too is categorised in the second option with credit going to her near-perfect public health measurers. If the ability to slow down the rate of communal infection within a country is a measure of success in slowing down the spread of coronavirus, then Uganda and Rwanda are worthy of reaping the benefits of lockdown measures. Although it’s early to argue confidently, but going by data available after two to three months of seeking to contain COVID-19, they have within that time recorded limited cases of communal infection.

A study in the US (yet to be peer reviewed) seeking to understand how delayed enforcement of COVID-19 measures might have been a factor in the surge and spike in the cases discloses “changes of disease transmission rates in US counties from March 15 to May 3, 2020”, It shows “a significant reduction of the basic reproductive numbers in major metropolitan areas in association with social distancing and other control measures”. Further, counterfactual simulations indicate that had the required COVID-19 measures been “implemented just 1-2 weeks earlier, a substantial number of cases and deaths could have been averted”. The study underscores the “importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling” the coronavirus pandemic. The study indicates that Uganda and Rwanda’s early and swift intervention resulted in a desirable curve compared to the rest of the region.

In the case of Kenya, there was a delay in enforcing enhanced COVID-19 measures (some of which were disjointed), which resulted in a non-flattening curve due to a surge in cases. The difference between Uganda and Rwanda on one side, and Kenya on the other, is the onset of communal transmission that Kenya is now struggling to contain with minimal success.

In the case of Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, many argue that their limited foreign interactions or exposure, unlike Tanzania and Kenya, does explain at some level their slow rate of communal infections. Others point to the aspect that lockdown measures did enable Rwanda and Uganda to curtail the infection beyond certain localities where COVID-19 was first reported.

Science-based strategy

Uganda has adopted a science-based containment strategy driven by past experience of battling other pandemics. In reality, Uganda has been in disease outbreak mode since 2018, and according to WHO, with success stories in tackling Ebola, yellow fever, measles and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.

In short, Uganda didn’t wait for the first confirmed case to spring into action; the country drew on past experiences in battling previous outbreaks like Ebola and yellow fever. When the first case was confirmed, WHO credits Uganda for moving first with “placing a lot of emphasis on risk communication and community engagement to promote good health practices among members of the public”. Uganda knew well that without public understanding and ownership of the process, setback and reversals would keep mounting.

In the case of Kenya, there was a delay in enforcing enhanced COVID-19 measures (some of which were disjointed), which resulted in a non-flattening curve due to a surge in cases.

In contrast, Tanzania has within the same time criminalised COVID-19 discussion across media platforms, especially on social media. In Kenya’s case, the norm has been to lecture and dictate to the public about the dangers of the pandemic.

Before lifting the lockdown measures, Uganda, like Rwanda, opted for the science-driven route of informing the masses of the planned next phase. The government engaged 200 survey teams to conduct a rapid assessment exercise to establish the prevalence of COVID-19 among communities – a move based on derived data that sought to know it if it was right to relax some of the measures.

The Rwandan Health Ministry opted to “trust the process”. Rwanda’s decision to partially lift the lockdown was reached after a countrywide health survey across 30 per cent of health facilities in the country. Among the survey samples were 4,500 employees who had continued to work during the lockdown and others who had over time shown COVID-19-like symptoms. The survey, according to Rwanda’s Minister of Health, revealed either minimal or zero communal transmission. Therefore, it seemed wise to partially lift the lockdown.

In Kenya, the disjointed COVID-19 control measures have not been informed by any publicly known survey or large-scale mass testing. In sharp contrast, Rwanda directed hospitality businesses to keep contact details of all their customers should there be a need to trace them in case of any COVID-19 infection or exposure. Rwanda has a comprehensive COVID-19 approach that shows that political will does count when it comes to enforcing measures.

Uganda and Rwanda’s swift action in containing the spread of coronavirus has drawn attention to the remarkable gains registered by authoritarian and autocratic regimes. Some argue that the citizens of Rwanda and Uganda have little or no room to defy government-enforced directives as the price of defiance is substantially high.

Before lifting the lockdown measures, Uganda, like Rwanda, opted for the science-driven route of informing the masses of the planned next phase. The government engaged 200 survey teams to conduct a rapid assessment exercise to establish the prevalence of COVID-19 among communities…

In contrast, Kenya’s evolution of COVID-19 control measures into the province of “law and order” rather than public health resulted in public apathy, and in some instances, open defiance. Police brutality against civilians during the curfew hours (which has resulted in the death of at least 15 people) further broke the trust between the people and the government.

Kenya’s COVID-19 strategy, which has borrowed heavily from “partial and targeted” lockdown strategies, hasn’t shown the desired success. A plausible explanation could be the disjointed nature of public health measures despite successful contact tracing. The reversals emerging in Kenya also have more to do with the pushback from the population that has felt belittled or somehow lectured upon to adhere to the measures.

Kenya’s inexperience in handling pandemics points to the challenges of its political leadership and its failure to prioritise the well-being of citizens. While the Kenyan public has been castigated for its “lack of discipline”, the shaky roll-out of health measures puts into doubt the commitment of the leadership to contain the crisis.

Tanzania and Burundi have followed the “open strategy” similar to that of Sweden and Brazil. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cut a resolute posture of a COVID-19 denialist. Tanzania has placed a ban on reporting on or updating COVID-19 cases in Tanzania; the last COVID-19 update was on April 29 and by then fatalities stood at 21 people.

In comparison, Sweden, which has employed “open strategy” or “softer lockdown” of keeping schools, restaurant and business open, has produced one of the “world’s highest death rates, relative to population.” However, the Swedish government has declined to change strategy. COVID-19 fatalities stood at “6.25% per million inhabitants per day in a rolling seven-day average between May 12 and May 19” and slightly below global COVID-19 fatalities that stood at 6.6%. Sweden emerges as the “highest in Europe and just above the United Kingdom which had 5.57% death per million” (Reuters, 19 May 2020).

In contrast, Kenya’s evolution of COVID-19 control measures into the province of “law and order” rather than public health resulted in public apathy, and in some instances, open defiance. Police brutality against civilians during the curfew hours further broke the trust between the people and the government.

According to Kenya’s Health Minister, Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s fatality rate by mid-May stood at 5.6%, just below global fatality rate of 6.6% by a single percentage point, but still the highest in East Africa. (Health Ministry Press Briefing, 20 May 2020)

Despite Sweden’s open strategy, “only 7.3% of people in Stockholm had developed the antibodies needed to fight the disease by late April”, which is below the “70-80% needed to create ‘herd immunity’ in a population”, implying that Sweden, Tanzania, Brazil and Burundi’s open strategy will continue to hurt for some time.

A question that can’t be answered for now is if the open strategy will hurt more or less when compared with other nations that opted for lockdowns or targeted measures. By the end of May, Brazil, which had also opted for a sort of open strategy, “became the second country with highest COVID-19 infections behind USA”.

The perils of high-handed leadership

While there are a couple of factors fueling the surge and spike in COVID-19, one unmistakable commonality among the countries with the highest infections is that their “high-handed leaders have downplayed the severity of the crisis and embraced outlandish conspiracy theories, ensuring that outbreak is worse than it should have been”. In some countries, it is also difficult to get access to accurate and reliable data, so it is hard to ascertain if cases are rising or not. Therefore, in countries like Tanzania and Burundi, it has become difficult to assess whether fatality and infection rates are above or below the global average.

Shockingly, President Magufuli, a former chemistry and mathematics teacher, has emerged as an outright advocate for alternative approaches to the pandemic. He has told all and sundry that Tanzania will not be “ruled” by COVID-19 global politics and that the economy is “more important than the threat posed by coronavirus” (The Guardian, 19 May 2020). And he has thus resisted shutting down the economy and has gone ahead with permitting the tourism industry and schools to reopen with minimal COVID-19 prevention measures. WHO and critics of President Magufuli have suggested that his perceived COVID-19 denialism or delayed response might have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus in Tanzania.

While Tanzania has given priority to economic concerns over COVID-19 threats, Burundi has sacrificed COVID-19 threats at the altar of a tense political transition. Although Pierre Nkurunziza officially died of “cardiac arrest”, there are those who suspect his death to be due to COVID-19. His wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza of Burundi, was flown to Nairobi for COVID-19 treatment on May 30th, which fuelled rumours of a correlation.

Burundi faces uncertain times ahead. It still remains in the COVID-19 denialist club. The leadership has disregarded any UN agency’s or foreign institution’s COVID-19 concerns. Since the confirmation of COVID-19 cases in the country, the Burundian government advised the population to observe strict hygiene procedures. Yet throughout the campaigning period, none of these directives were adhered to, with even Burundi’s key government leaders calling on the masses during the election campaign not to fear COVID-19.

The late President Pierre Nkurunziza bragged that Burundi was the only country where public and religious gatherings were still happening and that God would protect Burundians. In reality, Burundi has one of the worst political climates in Africa, and within this context, the population faces serious repercussions if they publicly acknowledge suspected COVID-19 infections or deaths.

Amid COVID-19 concerns, Burundi went ahead with general electoral process including campaigning with minimal observance of social distancing, notwithstanding the risk of te spread of coronavirus. In essence, reminiscent of previous elections in Burundi, the months leading up to the vote were marked by violence among political groups competing for power.

It was during the tense general election that a WHO representative and three WHO experts coordinating COVID-19 responses were expelled from the country (Al Jazeera, 14 May 2020). And they were only a few among a long list of expelled experts that included representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

While Tanzania has given priority to economic concerns over COVID-19 threats, Burundi has sacrificed COVID-19 threats at the altar of a tense political transition. Although Pierre Nkurunziza officially died of “cardiac arrest”, there are those who suspect his death to be due to COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Burundi to find the leadership in government and the participating opposition completely entrenched in survival mode and showing little regard for the welfare of the majority of Burundians. Prior to the 2015 coup attempt, Burundi had a vibrant civil society that had mobilised some of the most vocal mass pro-democracy protests in May 2015. All these civil society organisations and the independent media have since been scuttled and most of their professionals have gone into exile.

Therefore, to expect the COVID-19 pandemic to scare or move the will of Burundi’s leadership is to expect too much. This leadership has midwifed the final phase of a five-year violent political transition that has counted at least 1,700 among the dead and another 400,000 as refugees (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 24 September, 2019). All that many can hope for is that by the time the election campaigns were kicking off, communal transmission had not set in. Any communal transmission that might have happened then might have been accelerated by the campaigning and voting process that observed no social distancing.

At the moment, Burundi’s transitional and subsequent new government priority will be to settle in after a tense and unpredictable political transition that was preceded by five years of the politics of violence and intimidation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic not showing any signs of relenting anytime soon, pressure is mounting from populations on the governments of East Africa to ease or revise COVID-19 measures. In reality, all the East African states face socio-economic challenges that make efficient containment of their populations difficult to enforce (International Center for Not-For Profit Law, 21 May 2020).

The need for political survival is driving some East African leaders to act with precision, while others exhibit a hands-off approach that points to a contemptuous attitude towards their populations. Some believe that downplaying the COVID-19 threat will vindicate them. In Uganda and Rwanda, the fear of an authoritarian state is driving compliance, while in Kenya and Tanzania, the broken social contract between the people and their government is undermining the process.

In essence, the litmus test brought by COVID-19 is how far the respective East African leaders will go to protect their people. The genie is still in the bottle.

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