On June 26, 2019, in a landmark verdict, the National Environment Tribunal (NET) halted the construction of Kenya’s first proposed coal-fired electricity-generating plant in Lamu, ruling that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) had failed to do an adequate environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) of the plant. Specifically, the public’s views had not been included in the ESIA study, and the ESIA itself had failed to incorporate several important environmental impacts of the proposed plant.
This judgement is a massive victory for environmental campaigns in Kenya, where too often, large political interests tend to prevail. Members of deCOALonize, the umbrella coalition group against the coal industry in Kenya that filed an appeal at NET in 2016, have had to deal with the propagation of “fake news”, intimidation, the convenient shuffling of Kenyan bureaucratic systems, and much more, which makes their win truly noteworthy. What makes this verdict even more incredible is that other environmental campaigns challenging the adequacy of the ESIA on similar, large Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, such as Save Nairobi National Park (NNP), for example, which have been branded by the government as crucial for development, have not achieved similar success.
Many researchers have questioned the need for a coal plant in the first place in Kenya when the country currently faces a power surplus. Further they argue that at the moment Kenya actually is generating a surfeit of electricity. In fact, many thermal plants in Thika and along the Athi river are currently idle. Although proponents of coal argue that more energy generation capacity is needed to meet projected demand in the future, international experts, such as Daniel Kammen from Berkeley, have shown that coal is not the cheapest technology to meet future energy needs. Very recently, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also produced an independent study questioning the economics of building a coal plant in Kenya.
Therefore the real question with these large infrastructure projects, is not development at what cost, but at what cost to whom?
The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests (such as Centum Investments and Gulf Energy Kenya, which joined forces as Amu Power, the developer of the project) who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya. These connections are reflected in the favourable terms and conditions of the power purchase agreement (PPA) between the Government of Kenya and the developers. The PPA essentially commits the government to buying electricity from the plant for the next 25 years at a favourable price (regardless of whether the electricity is used or needed). Coal is expected to arrive from South Africa to power the Lamu coal plant.
The Government of Kenya has repeatedly stressed that the Lamu plant will provide jobs for the community. However, like with the other large Chinese-financed infrastructure projects, most of the labour comes from China. The fact that most of the fishing community near the Lamu coal plant do not have a secondary education means that most of them are not qualified to be able to work at the plant, although their livelihoods will be most affected by the pollution from the plant.
The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya.
Therefore, it is unlikely that the community would have benefited from the construction of this plant.
Furthermore, most of the community around the plant already have electricity from solar PV, and therefore there is no need of electricity from the plant. Importantly, and as stated several times in the NET judgement, the community was not involved in the decision to build the coal plant in Lamu and deCOALonize members were not invited to meetings held by Amu Power; the meetings were held in locations difficult to reach by most of the community. Therefore, their interests were not represented in the siting and planning of the plant.
Interestingly, we were told by a deCOALonize organiser that a few years previously, a coal plant was slated to be sited in Kilifi. However, the county government there is powerful, and the plan was ultimately dropped. The decision to locate a coal plant in Lamu, one of Kenya’s most marginalised counties with much less political power, does not appear, in light of this, to be accidental. The community in Lamu is well aware of this and spoke about how few roads in the North-West region of Kenya are tarmacked and low literacy rates prevail. A lot of large extractive projects have been initiated in the region. In addition to the Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) and the Lamu coal plant, natural gas exploration has been underway on Pate island. (It has only recently been abandoned.)
Given all of the many obstacles the campaign has had to face, how has deCOALonize managed to be so successful?
This is the central question of this article. It is important to document victories in Kenya. Too often, we only hear stories of failure and corruption. We need to challenge these hegemonic narratives by detailing how Kenyans have been winning critical battles for change.
Now, although deCOALonize won its case in court, campaigners have cautioned that the battle against the Lamu coal plant is not over. Amu Power can conduct a new ESIA and apply for a new licence, which means a new fight will ensue. The lead lawyer for deCOALonize, Lempaa Suyianka, only a few days ago was arrested on an arguably flimsy charge, and although he was released, his phone was impounded by the police. This event does not bode well for the campaign, and members of the public must continue to be vigilant to ensure that deCOALonize members do not suffer the wrath of powerful interests embroiled in this case.
In addition, the Lamu coal plant is only one of the many mega infrastructure projects in Lamu. LAPSSET, and the building of the Lamu-Garissa-Isiolo road are still underway, and have caused a lot of damage to the region, with many farmers displaced by access roads without being granted compensation, as well as acres of mangroves in the area being cleared. The public must continue to fight for the people of Lamu to ensure that compensation is disbursed to the people affected.
Still, the deCOALonize’s recent court win has set a new precedent for environmental cases in Kenya and warrants further examination. In order to do this, we first list the strategies deCOALonize activists used, as well as the challenges the campaign faced.
deCOALonize runs a transparent campaign and uploads videos of court proceedings, documents and press reports on its website.
Kenyan scholar Nanjala Nyabola’s much-acclaimed book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, charts how social media tools such as Twitter are creating spaces for Kenyans to protest and create new narratives. deCOALonize has leveraged these tools successfully to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels.
Some activists believed that the awareness about the coal projects they had generated at the international level through sustained posts on social media, participation in climate summits and street demonstrations would lead to divestment by external organisations, which would lead to the Lamu coal plant project stalling. The Industrial and Commercial Bank (ICBC) of China has agreed to finance 75 per cent of the Lamu coal plant to the tune of $2 billion, but the Government of Kenya needed to find a backer for the remaining 25 per cent needed. deCOALonize’s campaign has been successful in influencing the African Development Bank and the Standard Bank of South African, both of which have pulled out of financing the project. However, General Electric (GE) is still considering investment in the project
In addition, deCOALonize has presented evidence to UNESCO about the impact the coal plant would have on Lamu, which is a World Heritage Site. UNESCO has also recently come out strongly against the construction of the coal plant.
Partners of the campaign also believed that awareness at the national level was important. Activists said they did this to prevent the government from shifting the construction of the coal plant to another county. They particularly focused on holding a variety of public forums, photography exhibitions, protests, and other events in Nairobi, the political centre. They were successful in getting some progressive politicians, such as Boniface Mwangi, to make stopping coal part of their political campaigns.
Furthermore, at public events organisers connected the plans for building the Lamu coal plant with the broader theme of energy justice. Ordinary Kenyans are affected by the economics of the energy sector. Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) holds a monopoly on electricity transmission through the national grid. It’s cartel-like practices of inflating electricity bills at random and giving poor services have resulted in campaigns such as #SwitchOffKPLC in 2018 that have unleashed a massive backlash against the company. Cries for energy justice have made energy a topic that people are paying close attention to, and therefore, there was hope that this would catalyse a national backlash against the Lamu coal project.
One of the major tactics the government deployed in its war against deCOALonize was misinformation to the community. High-level leaders promised the community jobs and compensation, glossing over the deleterious impacts of coal. For example, Deputy President Ruto assured the community of Lamu that the coal plant would not have any impact on their health, despite evidence to the contrary.
The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation. Save Lamu received several grants from international agencies to continue its work in fighting for the rights of the residents in Lamu affected by the building of the Lamu port and coal plant. The government claimed that the money was sent to Save Lamu to conduct terrorist activities, and ransacked their offices. The government accused Save Lamu of being involved in the 2014 massacre carried out by Al Shabaab in Mpeketoni and Pormoka in Lamu County to discredit them. It is a testament to the deep ties Save Lamu has with the community. It is still a trusted and valued organisation in the area. Save Lamu’s partnership with organisations able to provide legal representation was also crucial for it to contest these charges.
Amu Power also repeatedly stressed that it would be using the best coal technology available to reduce the environmental impacts of the coal plant. It tried to build connections with the local community by installing a water tank near the farms, among other small projects, which we witnessed first-hand when we went to Lamu.
The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation.
However, official documents collected by deCOALonize activists have indicated that Amu Power — the special purpose vehicle formed by the developers to own and operate the Lamu coal plant – was given the right to import equipment that did not meet quality standards and a waiver on the need to pay taxes on construction. This has made many activists wonder whether, despite Amu Power protestations about taking measures to reduce adverse environmental impacts, in reality equipment from old coal power plants in China was being exported to and dumped in Kenya. Indeed, when we spoke to an activist at the actual proposed site of the coal plant, we were told that although Amu Power said they were going to use cooling technology, such as “once through cooling systems”, which they tried to sell to the community as cutting edge, when in fact this was not the case. The activist told us that he knew the details about these technologies through his conversations with communities affected by coal plants in Gujarat, India.
Despite the sustained misinformation, deCOALonize has been extremely successful in making information available to the respective local communities. They did so through holding public meetings in local languages, regularly updating their website and making resources and short summaries publicly available. Members of the coalition have recorded the court proceedings, and held events that were made accessible via Facebook live, so that the community knew what was happening.
Providing a pipeline of information from the community to the courtroom: Engaging the community proactively
Importantly, local organisations, such as Save Lamu and the Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CCHRCE), have been able to channel community concerns into the courtroom and to react quickly.
For example, we learnt when were in Lamu that when the community reported that an access road was being built through their farms to connect the proposed coal plant site with that of the port without an ESIA being carried out, the representative of deCOALonize on the ground was able to feed this information to the legal team, who went to NET to get a stop order for the road. This pipeline of information proved to be extremely important as the local branch of NEMA in Mokowe town in Lamu County (where the coal plant has been slated to be built) was often kept in the dark about such constructions. Instead, for mysterious reasons, officials not based in Lamu were often responsible for making decisions that would affect Lamu. deCOALonize’s information intervention was crucial in bringing government regulators on the same page.
Save Lamu has also been able to engage the community to map natural resources in Lamu to better understand the impacts of proposed projects on different groups of people, such as the Bajun, the Sanye, the Aweer and Swahili communities, so that they can speak with one voice. CCHRCE has mapped perceptions of the community whose land is part of the mining area. They have also mapped the community resources, such as schools and hospitals, currently on the land to document the costs of razing this area.
Such engagement has been extremely useful in both communities learning about the impacts of coal as they had no experience with this fuel previously. Women in Kitui experimented with using coal to heat their sufurias and noted that it caused their sufurias to melt. Both Save Lamu and CCHRCE took community members and members of their respective County Assemblies (MCAs) to other countries, such as South Africa, so they could see for themselves the impact of coal on the site. They have created a documentary on these visits to archive this knowledge. All of this has led to a true grassroots movement against coal.
Importantly, we learned that these exchanges have allowed for the transnational sharing of resources and knowledge. For example, South African activists helped facilitate some connections between climate experts and activists from Lamu in order to bolster their case in court.
deCOALonize members have come strongly out for renewable energy as an alternative to coal.
Lobbying the government at multiple levels
President Uhuru Kenyatta gave speeches about his ambitions to move Kenya 100 per cent to renewable energy by 2020. There was hope that this would lead to the halting of plans to build the coal plant as Kenya couldn’t possibly become 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy if it still depended on coal. This hope was bolstered by the National Electrification Strategy released in 2018, which explicitly supported decentralised renewable energy technologies.
However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future. Moreover, the Kenyan energy regulator had approved the coal-fired Lamu plant.
The contradictions made by various levels of government fueled uncertainty and anxiety in the campaign. Nevertheless, deCOALonize engaged with different government officials to try and gain their support against the coal industry in Kenya. For example, their conversations with the former Minister of Environment, Judy Wakhungu, led to her opposing the proposed coal plant publicly.
The campaign also engaged with the county government because they recognised the power that the county government had in approving the allocation of land for the coal plant, as well as to putting pressure on the national government to abandon such projects.
In order to educate county government officials about the potential effects of coal mining, deCOALonize facilitated county government officials going to visit communities that lived near coal plants so that they would understand the true impacts of such projects. They tried to get the officials to understand the effect such a construction could have on tourism, an important source of income in Lamu. Importantly, Samia Omar, the Trade, Tourism, Culture and Natural Resources Executive, publicly resigned after voicing her opposition to the Lamu plant.
However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future.
When we were in Lamu, we heard from multiple independent sources that many tourists demanded their money back when they were promised pristine clear waters to snorkel in, but instead found the water in long-time snorkeling spots muddied because of all the construction in Lamu.
The engagement with the county government, plus Natural Justice and Save Lamu’s transparency and efforts to bring all government bodies on the same page, have resulted in county government officials walking out of meetings with the National Land Commission and LAPSSET when they found out that acres of land were claimed without them being notified. Thus deCOALonize’s strategy has been productive
CCHRCE has been doing great work, teaching the community how to avail of the various constitutional means at their disposal to petition the government and be heard. CCHRCE plays an important role in Kitui, imparting civic education.
Fighting for due procedure to be followed in court
This set a precedent for external costs to be considered for any large project. deCOALonize’s recent victory on June 26, 2019 has set an important precedent for the carrying out of environmental and social impact assessments for projects in East Africa.
The fight in court was not easy. The judiciary and the bureaucracy faced extensive political interference. In Kenya, the executive branch of the state has the most control over shaping patronage networks through its power of disbursing bureaucratic appointments and resources. Kenya has a long history of corruption scandals. Joe Khamisi’s explosive book, Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, details in painstaking detail the systematic pillaging of the country by people right at the top.
The advent of devolution has restructured the institutional landscape. However, efforts to “get the institutions right” have been foiled by flaws in the current legal processes, corruption, low institutional capacity, as well as the lack of cooperation of formal administrative mechanisms. Other researchers have found that devolution, instead of putting a stop to corruption, might only have led to a new mindset of “its everyone’s turn to eat”.
Activists we spoke to told us that NET is a politicised organization with its own agenda. Court files have mysteriously been misplaced. Court dates and places were changed at the last moment, making it very difficult for the organisers. This happened multiple times when the court members coming from Mombasa said at the last minute that they were indisposed. For example, on May 9, 2019, NET, without warning, postponed the much-awaited judgement. Petitioners from Lamu had spent time and money to travel to Nairobi to hear the judgement and had to wait a month to receive the judgement. The most costly incident happened when Save Lamu paid for the flights for international consultants to fly to Nairobi to testify against the plant, and the hearing was postponed at the very last moment.
In addition, since 2017, Parliament has proposed an amendment to the Environment, Management and Coordination Act (EMCA), such that even if an appeal is filed against a project in court, such a legal proceeding will not automatically halt the project, as was the case earlier. A separate appeal would need to be filed to prevent the project from proceeding. Activist Omtatah filed an objection. It is yet to see whether these amendments will go through. This meant that if Amu Power was able to raise the remaining 25 per cent of the project financing, the construction of the coal plant could go ahead. This highlights the importance of the other tactics that deCOALonize has deployed in its fight against the Lamu coal plant.
There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land. We heard a similar story about land in Kitui. On visiting some of the newly bought plots in Lamu, we saw that some of the owners had erected make-shift structures that they termed as “hotels” and “restaurants” in order to increase the amount of compensation they would receive.
This created a tension in the community, as many of the new landowners wanted the project to go through to obtain compensation. On speaking to residents of Mokowe county, we were told that in many cases there were many irregularities in the documenting of the area of affected farms by the National Land Commission to allocate appropriate compensation (as the community did not have formal land tenure), resulting in land being allocated to elites/outsiders not from the area.
There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land.
The process of allocating compensation for land in Kenya is a complicated one, and more monitoring of current processes and institutions is required. Lamu, in particular, has been subject to many land grabs in the past.
This is Kenya
In an article published in The Elephant, Keguro Macharia dissects the phrase, “This is Kenya”. He describes it as a site of “violation and exhaustion” – a tool used by the rich to perform the “gatekeeping” function of naturalising a system that marginalises the poor and a tool used by the poor to express frustration at an opaque system that repeatedly denies them anything but the most meagre of existences. In other words, “This is Kenya” draws a granite boundary between what can be fought, and possibly changed, and that which cannot. This granite box contains new more equitable realisations of Kenya from bursting through.
As we spoke to deCOALonize activists to learn about the different strategies they were using to fight coal, despite their success, we inevitably got the response: “This is Kenya”. Their use of the phrase indicated that they perceived the limits of the space in which they could mount their opposition. The interior of the bounds of “This is Kenya”, or the space in which they operated, corresponded to ensuring that mechanisms of due procedure as specified by the Constitution and the laws were followed by bureaucrats and the courts. The space outside of this, separated by “This is Kenya”, comprised one that was moulded and shaped by powerful political interests over which the activists had no control. And yet, this distinction was in many ways artificial.
We unsurprisingly learnt that the boundaries implied by “This is Kenya” belies the fact that outside politics seeps into this interior politicised bureaucracy and legal system. What is the point of documenting how a politicised bureaucracy and an imperfect legal system are actually experienced and navigated? Does this mean documenting the same tired corruption scandals?
Well, for one, in this case deCOALonize actually won this critical battle in court! We hope that by detailing how this heroic campaign managed to win, we can prevent ourselves from being boxed in by “This is Kenya”, and instead see deCOALonize’s victory in court as “This too is Kenya!”
The Rebels Within: The Politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya
12 min read. Dissent is brewing in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu strongholds, which has allowed Deputy President William Ruto to gain support in the region.
The fracas that took place in Gitui Catholic Church in Murang’a County on September 8, 2019, is a harbinger of the political battles that are going to be fought in Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region by the fractious Jubilee Party antagonists.
“The battle for the soul of the Kikuyu vote is on and what we witnessed in Murang’a was a proxy war being waged by two factional camps, split by succession politics that are intent on capturing the Kikuyu vote ahead of the 2022 general elections,” said a Central Kenya politician who requested for anonymity.
The camps are led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Samoei Ruto. Fronted by their respective protégés, the factions are known by their signature monikers – Kieleweke (it shall [soon] be evident) and Tanga Tanga (the roving group). Although President Uhuru has not come out openly to associate with the @Kieleweke group, which is being fronted by one Ngunjiri Wambugu, the flip-flopping Nyeri Town MP, his deputy, no doubt, has made it known that he is the de facto Tanga Tanga leader, a label he proudly carries.
The church lent itself as a perfect scene on a Sunday afternoon for the antagonists to outdo each other as they sought to prove to their respective masters that were ready and willing to wage a proxy battle on their behalf. As it will soon be evident, Murang’a County, sandwiched between Kiambu and Nyeri counties, is the very ground where the battle for the much-coveted Kikuyu electorate will be viciously fought.
If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor. The electorate has sniffed a one-time opportunity to prove (to its sister counties) that it too can also ascend to the highest echelons of political power and it should not be taken for granted.
The Kieleweke group, this time led by nominated MP Maina Kamanda – a man who now carries the label KYM (kanda ya moko, Kikuyu for a hatchet man) – “sneaked” into Kiharu constituency, an unacceptable political tourism into another MP’s territory without his prior notice. As Uhuru’s man on the ground, he had carried Sh1 million to be donated to the church on behalf of the president. Getting whiff of Kamanda’s meandering into his constituency, Ndindi Nyoro, the greenhorn Kiharu MP, who today is described as the “Murkomen” of Central Kenya, burst into the church to let Kamanda know that he was the sheriff in town and that others could not appear in his turf without his prior knowledge and permission.
“The ensuing kerfuffle between Nyoro and the elderly Kamanda inside the church was, as unfortunate, the proxy battles being fought elsewhere in the country by the Jubilee factional wings,” said a Mt Kenya politician who has known Kamanda for well over three decades. “We were with Kamanda in the opposition politics in the 1990s and one time I and another Central Kenya MP went to bail him out in Embu town after former President Daniel arap Moi ordered that he be locked in a police cell for his utterances.”
If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor.
The politician told me he has been calling Kamanda’s mobile phone number to no avail. “He has refused to pick my call…just as well…because I wanted to tell him that the September 8 ugly scene was beneath him. As a senior politician, he should have known better than to engage in such like shenanigans.”
But the Mt Kenya politician reserved the harshest barbs for both the Catholic Church’s leadership and the parish priest, Fr John Kibuuru. “That priest is a vagabond. For him to have allowed the politicians to desecrate the offertory was a cardinal sin to, especially us Catholics. The offertory is where we go to offer our supplications, it is a sacrosanct place – how dare he let vagabonds like him defile the holy sanctuary?”
The politician, a staunch Catholic known for his morning mass and an unfailing Sunday service attendance wherever he is, reminded me: “I have never conducted my politics inside the precincts of the church for all the 30-something years I have been in politics. The Church can bare me out…you can bare me out. If and when I want to meet the electorate, who form part of the congregation, I ask it we meet outside the church, after the priest is done with the mass. I’ve always respected the sanctity of the church.”
It was useless for Bishop John (Maria) Wainaina, of Murang’a diocese who also oversees the Kirinyaga diocese to issue a belated decree the day after, ordering politicians to keep off the church’s sanctum, said the politician. “The pulpit should not, at all times, be a place for politicians to address the electorate – the politicians have their forums to do that – and the church’s rostrum is not one of them.” The politician accused Fr Kibuuru of being partisan on the current succession politics and for letting himself be dined and wined by politicians.
“For my church, I’m sorry to say it has lost its direction: the clergy is no longer the light of the laity. For that ugly scene to have taken place in a Catholic church shows you just how lowly the Catholic church leadership in Kenya has sunk. Priests nowadays do what they feel like doing. The bishops cannot reign in on the priests because they themselves are no better.”
He added that the Catholic Church has been infiltrated by ethnic baronial politics, which has chosen to serve the interests of political power brokers. The politician said the church in general, in Kenya has ceded ground to the politician because of greed for money and power.
Gitui Catholic Church is on your way to Kangema and some of the congregants told me that Kamanda’s coming to Kiharu without notifying Nyoro was disrespectful and uncalled for. “Kamanda should know we have an MP whom we elected ourselves, he shouldn’t stomp here like it’s his area, Nyoro is young, but he is ours.” The Kiharu residents let it be known to me that “after all, Kamanda is not from here, he is from Nyandarua, if he wants to be elected, there is Nyandarua for him if Nairobi has become too hot for him to handle.”
The 36-year-old excitable Ndindi Nyoro has been riding on the crest of a popular wave since that hullabaloo with Kamanda. His electorate right now think of him as a local hero for standing up to Kamanda and for expressing his political stand – which at the moment gels with the electorate: dissatisfaction with President Uhuru’s disastrous politics.
Ndindi’s Kiambugi Mixed Secondary schoolmates remember him as a feisty young man who dreamt of one day being an important (wealthy) man. A relative of Ngenye Kariuki, Ngenye refers to Nyoro as his grandson. He campaigned for Ngenye in 1997 when he run for the same Kiharu seat, as a student. “He was very active, organising for Ngenye’s supporters to be ferried in trucks to his rallies and exclusive meetings,” said one of his schoolmates. Ngenye won the seat on a Safina ticket and Ndindi four years later transitioned to Kenyatta University. Kiambugi Mixed Secondary School later on was transformed into a boys’ only high school.
Between 2013 and 2017, Ndindi Nyoro, served as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) manager for Kiharu under Irungu Kangata. When Kangata decided to go for the senator seat, there was understandably a mutual agreement between them that Nyoro should “take over” from Kangata. Today, Nyoro has publicly identified his politics with those of Deputy President William Ruto, claiming that he is the best suited to “take over” from President Uhuru who is serving his last second term. His Kiharu constituents seem to largely agree with him…for now.
The Matiba factor
Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had. It is a “grudge” they carry against their cousins from both Kiambu and Nyeri counties, albeit surreptitiously.
The general election of November, 1979 called by a new President Moi, who had taken over from Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who had died on August 22, 1978, saw an energetic, bold and young Matiba enter the race for Kiharu, then known as Mbiri, armed to the teeth with the latest statistical data on the constituency. Fresh from being the managing director of East African Breweries Limited (EABL), Matiba waged a political battle pitted against the “mighty” Gikonyo Kiano, which Kiano, until his death in April 2003, was never to recover from.
In an era when statistics as an effective campaign tool was unheard off, Matiba came to Mbiri with data that laid bare the geographical, socio-political and economic facts of the constituency: gender composition, household incomes, number of graduates, population density, the area’s topography, voting patterns, I mean…name it. With these facts, Matiba, with military precision, combed the length and breadth of Mbiri, and floored Gikonyo, the first post-independence Minister of Trade and Commerce, in a battle royal that is the stuff of political legends.
When the son of Njindo entered the presidential race in 1992, it was not the same Matiba who, more than a decade before, had entered constituency elective politics as a corporatist, dare-devil, intelligent and sharp man. Although the presidential race was won by the incumbent Moi, Murang’a people to date believe that Matiba won that election, in which he ran alongside Ford Kenya’s Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and the Democratic Party’s Mwai Kibaki.
However, it was Kibaki’s entering the presidential race in 1992 that still rankles the Murang’a folks: Had he not run, the Kikuyu vote would not have been split and, therefore, Matiba would easily have romped home, many of them believe. It is something they will not say loudly, but it is still a chip on their shoulder after all these years.
Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had.
“The people of Murang’a County break no bones when they insist they have supported both Kiambu and Nyeri people to ascend to the presidency. But those same people have yet to reciprocate the gesture,” said a former Nairobi city councillor from Dagoretti. “This feeling of ‘abandonment and betrayal’ by their cousins, was aggravated in 2017, when the Murang’a moguls ceded control of Nairobi to a ‘lay about and nonentity’ through Uhuru’s carelessness and cowardly politics.”
The former councillor, who keeps tabs with the Rwathia Group, the influential and richest group of Kikuyu men who since independence have controlled the business and politics of Nairobi city, said the moguls seethe with anger against President Uhuru for the loss of the Nairobi County governor’s seat to Mike Mbuvi Sonko in 2017. “That is all we had asked from Uhuru, to allow us to have Nairobi, but even that he could not deliver,” confided the moguls to my councillor friend.
“The Murang’a people have smelt an opportunity and they are ready to seize it,” said the former councillor. “Uhuru is not going to be a factor insofar as 2022 succession politics are concerned: no Kikuyu voter, much less the political elite, is going to listen to him – he has done his call of duty and as it is, they are not amused with his performance,” the former councillor said.
The Raila factor
The anger against President Uhuru among the Kikuyu electorate makes Ruto seem like the only viable alternative. “It is going to take a near miracle for President Uhuru to persuade the Kikuyus to listen to him. The Kikuyu rebellion against the Kenyatta Family this time is real.”
The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming. Uhuru has overseen the systematic destruction of the Kikuyu economy – he was supposed to protect it, instead, what has he done? He has presided over its deliberate collapse. Is that not why he is sending Kamanda to us? Because he cannot dare venture into Central Kenya or anywhere near Mt Kenya region?”
The Murangá magnate said, “The Kikuyu people will frustrate Raila’s presidential efforts until he grows so old that he will not have the stamina to run. We are waiting for that Uhuru to come and tell us about the handshake. We will tell him our minds.” If by supporting Ruto, the Murangá people can attempt a stab at the presidency so be it, said the tycoon. He said that President Uhuru spent half of his presidential campaigns demonising Raila, so much so that, to now point the Kikuyu people to his direction is to really mock them. “Has Uhuru come back to the Kikuyu people to undo the damage?” he asked.
The many forays by Deputy President Ruto’s team into the heartland of the Kikuyu domain is because he has established that the people are divided and are not speaking in one voice, said a one-time senior civil servant from the Mt Kenya region. “He knows the President’s core constituency is bitter with him and because he [Uhuru] is unsure of their retribution against him, he has dilly-dallied going home. So the DP has taken advantage of this lacuna to make inroads into the region and is consistently preaching a message that entrenches their hatred for Raila Odinga.”
A poll survey conducted recently by a professional research group showed that if presidential elections were to be held today, William Ruto would win by 45 per cent countrywide, and in the Mt Kenya region, he would garner a very strong support. The poll’s sample size, significantly larger than the usual 3000 people, was picked across the 47 counties. The somewhat surprising poll results dissuaded the firm from publishing its findings and making them public. Ruto is considered an incumbent, and therefore a frontrunner, and the only person who has explicitly said he would be gunning for the presidency come 2022. His is not only a brand name, but he has name recognition across the country.
To tame the deputy’s presidential ambitions and to curtail his perceived inroads into Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region, his political nemeses in the Jubilee Party have been making his interlocutors lives’ in the region, difficult.
The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming…”
“The hauling of the Kiambu governor to court and making him spend some days in police cells over corruption charges is part of the handshake’s efforts to throttle the DP’s penetration of the area,” said the former senior civil servant. “When he was thrown into custody at the Industrial Police Station cells, Ferdinand Waititu (Kiambu Governor) was visited at night by a Jubilee Party mandarin allied to President Uhuru’s wing who mocked him by telling him ‘to now call the DP’ to bail him out.” The mandarin allegedly warned Waititu that he was going to pay for his cavorting with the Deputy President.
Governor Waititu apparently is not the first Central Kenya politician to be “punished” by the “handshake team” for not toeing the line: “The first to be tamed was the deleterious Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, who immediately after the swearing-in of President Uhuru Kenyatta for his second term in November 2017, was seen as Ruto’s point man in Central Kenya. He was slapped with an unpaid tax accumulated over the years that effectively cooled his heels,” said the former senior civil servant.
Yet, according to the senior civil servant, it was Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo, formerly known as Ann Waiguru, who had to be quickly nipped in the bud because she was thought to be running ahead of herself. Immediately after being confirmed as the Governor of Kirinyaga, after a protracted court battle filed by her opponent, former Gichugu MP and 2013 presidential contender, Martha Wangari Karua, it is alleged that Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo went around telling and whispering to anybody who cared to listen that she was primed to be Deputy President William Ruto’s running mate come 2022.
“The Kirinyaga governor was therefore seen as a possible and viable teammate of Ruto in his search for a deputy from the all-important Mt Kenya region,” said the former civil servant. “To stop forthwith that talk that apparently was interpreted as rallying the larger Mt Kenya region in the direction of the Deputy President’s team 2022, the governor was aptly reminded of the National Youth Service (NYS) mega scandal that took place in 2016 when Ann Waiguru was the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution.”
The sudden change of tune by the Kirinyaga governor is not out of step, said my source: “That today she is singing the ‘handshake tune’ is not as a result of a Damascus moment, the realisation that after all, it isn’t a good idea to be a deputy president of Kenya. It is the flexing of power of the opposing sides within the Jubilee Party at play.”
Since her change of tune regarding local and national politics, the governor has had to face the wrath of some of her constituents: Last month, when she went to open a market in Kagumo town, she was jeered by a mob that she claimed was paid to do so. Paid to do so, because it told her off over her support of “the handshake” and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
Kagumo town in Kirinyaga Central constituency is the hotbed of Kirinyaga County politics. And this is not the first time the governor was being chased away from Kagumo: When she was campaigning for the governor’s seat, she was also one time ferreted out of the town. It took the intervention of Purity Wangui Ngirici, then campaigning for the Women Representative seat, to help her navigate around Kirinyaga County.
“It is Ngirici who held Ann’s hand in a manner of speaking and showed her the ropes in Kirinyaga,” said one of Karua’s chief campaigners. “Waiguru didn’t know the nooks and crannies of the county – it was Ngirici who showed her around. Remember Ngirici was always a William Ruto person: the helicopter she was campaigning in – which was emblazoned with her name Wangui – was lent to her by Ruto.” Purity Wangui Ngirici hails from one of the two most powerful families in Mwea: Mbari ya Douglas, (the clan of Douglas) and Mbari ya Mkombozi (the clan of the saviour). She is married to Ngirici, who is the son of the late spy master James Kanyotu.
Ngirici, who is in her late 40s, is the Women’s Rep, but by and large she controls the politics of Kirinyaga: three-quarters of all the elected MCAs owe allegiance to her. To checkmate her, the governor equally nominated her loyalist MCAs to counterbalance Ngirici’s force. Ngirici has trashed the handshake and has been telling the Kirinyaga electorate that the BBI’s motive is to unload Raila onto them by creating additional executive positions.
In Ngirici, Ruto has a powerful ally in the county. It is, therefore, not improbable to imagine where Ngirici’s politics are headed: in 2022 Ann Mumbi Waiganjo will have a worthy opponent for the governor’s seat. And if all factors remain the same, it is also not too difficult to imagine whose drumbeats she will be beating: William Ruto’s.
On the peripheries of Mt Kenya region, other Ruto allies include the Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichungwá, Kandara MP Alice Wahome, Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro and Bahati MP Kimani Ngunjiri. “These are relatively young MPs (of course apart from Kimani) in age and politics. They are pragmatic enough to know where their political bread is buttered; not with Uhuru, but with Ruto…so it’s nothing personal,” said a Jubilee Party politician from Mt Kenya.
In an area where 70 per cent of the incumbent MPs are thrown out every five years, these MPs are closely reading the signs on the wall – and the signs on the wall currently in the Mt Kenya region are that William Ruto is the man to beat.
Will the New Competency-Based Curriculum Lead to Declining Educational Standards in Kenya?
8 min read. The newly rolled-out education system will not live up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system from vested business interests and international agencies with hidden agendas.
Research findings recently released by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) show that Kenyan schools are woefully unprepared to implement the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) that is set to replace the so-called 8-4-4 system. The report comes at a time when the country is grappling with issues of curriculum review and the reform process, teacher training and recruitment, the formulation and implementation of a national education policy and the implementation of CBC. The research, conducted by KNUT, looked into issues of teacher preparedness, the availability and adequacy of teaching materials, the level of engagement between teachers and parents, as well as the challenges faced by head teachers and teaching staff in implementing CBC.
KNUT concludes that the implementation of CBC has been hurriedly undertaken while the majority of teachers have not been sufficiently trained in CBC content and teaching methods. It adds that most pre-primary teachers, as well as those for grades one to three have not received any training whatsoever while those that did attend training workshops were inadequately trained by trainers and facilitators who were themselves incompetent in the delivery of the CBC approach.
The research also found that the training sessions were poorly conducted and that their effectiveness fell well below expectations, hindering the ability of teachers to design, assess, and evaluate the delivery of lessons and learners’ outcomes. The report also notes that the resources and infrastructure required for learning, assessment and capacity-building in the CBC approach—which are completely different from those in use in the current system—are non-existent or inadequate at best. Parents and other stakeholders have not been involved in the reform process nor have public awareness campaigns been conducted following the roll-out of CBC.
The CBC system and design
Formal education was introduced in Kenya during the British colonial era and between 1964 and 1985 the education cycle comprised seven years of primary school, four years of secondary school, two years of high school, and three years of university education. The 8-4-4 system of education—eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and four years of university education—was introduced in January 1985 to address concerns that the basic education previously provided lacked the necessary content to promote widespread sustainable self-employment.
The Kenyan primary school curriculum is approved for all public schools and most private schools—with the exception of international schools, which usually offer the British or American curriculum. The subjects studied at the primary level are English, Kiswahili, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Religious Education, Creative Arts, Physical Education and Life Skills. Pupils take a national examination at the end of the primary cycle with the results of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determining placement in secondary school.
In a major departure from the 8-4-4 system, the proposed CBC system was launched in 2017 and is designed to comprise two years of pre-primary education, six years of primary education, three years of junior secondary education, three years of senior secondary education and three years of university.
The Kenyan CBC is designed with the objective that at the end of each learning cycle every learner will be competent in the following seven core competency areas: communication and collaboration; critical thinking and problem-solving; imagination and creativity; citizenship; learning to learn; self-efficacy; and digital literacy.
CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems. Teaching methods include role-play, problem-solving, projects, case studies, and study visits, among other learner-centred strategies, and the teacher is expected to switch from the role of an expert to that of a facilitator who guides the learning process. Learners are expected to take responsibility for their own learning through direct exploration and experience while their teachers are expected to design effective learning activities geared towards the development of specific competencies.
Moreover, the revised curriculum requires teachers to frequently assess their students using assessment methods, such as portfolios, classroom or field observation, projects, oral presentations, self-assessments, interviews and peer assessments. Teachers are also required to change from a norm-referenced to a criterion-referenced judgment of learners’ capabilities or competencies to determine their progress. Finally, teachers are supposed to provide continuous, timely and constructive feedback to inform their students about the strengths and weaknesses of their performance since instruction and learning are reviewed and modified based on the feedback.
CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems.
It is clear, therefore, that the introduction of CBC in Kenyan schools calls for a comprehensive change in the instructional approach in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, and this requires changes in teacher training programmes in order to equip teachers (both pre-service and in-service) with the competencies that will enable them to effectively handle the challenges associated with CBC implementation in schools.
However, Kenya initiated the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum in 2017 in the absence of any research-based evidence on the effectiveness of the new system. Despite the challenges and shortcomings identified by the internal and external evaluations of the pilot study on CBC implementation, the government went ahead with the national roll-out of CBC in January 2019.
Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework. The needs assessment was not properly conducted. The summative evaluation, which was conducted in 2009, cannot be the basis for reforming the curriculum in 2018. The entire process was dominated by foreign consultants with no experience in curriculum reform in Kenya. The involvement of teachers, university lecturers, and prominent local experts was minimal.
Moreover, an illegality was committed at the time of rolling out CBC for pre-primary and Standards One to Three as there was no Sessional Paper to guide the process and, furthermore, no review of the existing education system had been undertaken by an Education Commission prior to the roll-out. Pilot testing of the curriculum was hurriedly done over a few short months and without appropriate syllabus or pupils’ books and teachers’ guides.
It must also be pointed out that the introduction of technical and vocational courses in the school curriculum is a serious mistake as the purpose of basic education is not to train students but to make them trainable. Empirical studies show that competency-based models are mainly applicable to vocational education and training due to the emphasis placed on standards of competence in occupational sectors. Competence is the possession and demonstration of knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and behaviour required to perform a given task to a described standard. The concept is therefore more useful in vocational education since the emphasis is on the ability of the student to perform a set of related tasks with a high degree of skills, and a particular competency can be broken down into its component parts through task analysis.
Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework.
The adoption of CBC in Kenya—as in some other African countries, such as Botswana, Senegal and South Africa—may be explained in part by the current tendency of some international agencies to favour such pedagogies. In most of the countries concerned, however, attempts to institutionalise child-centred pedagogy in schools and teacher-training institutions have been inconclusive and, indeed, no country in the world has successfully implemented CBC. It is therefore a disturbing development that the member countries of the East African Community have—according to Sessional Paper No. 14 of 2012—adopted a common policy of harmonising education systems and training curricula that will shift focus from the standard curriculum design to the CBC and assessment approach.
Tanzania introduced CBC in secondary schools in 2005 and in primary education in 2006. Back in 2001 the Ministry of Education and Culture had asked for education to be treated as a strategic agent in the creation of a well-educated nation. The ministry anticipated developing an education system that would enable Tanzanians to be sufficiently equipped with the knowledge needed to competently and competitively solve the development challenges facing the nation.
However, a 2012 study on the implementation of the competency-based teaching in schools in Tanzania established that CBC had not been well implemented and more efforts needed to be devoted to the development of tutors’ and principals’ understanding of the CBC approach. Other studies conducted to assess CBC implementation in Tanzania have confirmed that there is very minimal use of the CBC teaching approach in schools and that more than 80 per cent of the teachers lack a proper understanding of the approach and continue to use traditional knowledge-based teaching and learning methods, with assessment methods remaining the same as those used in assessing knowledge-based teaching and learning, while the teaching approach continues to be teacher-centred.
The role of education in the development process cannot be over-emphasised. There is substantial empirical evidence of the crucial role of education in poverty reduction, human development, job prospects for individuals and the broader social-economic development of nations. In other words, education plays a key role in the transformation of societies. Unfortunately, the impact of education in sub-Saharan African countries has been minimised because African countries have often been put under pressure to adopt unrealistic reforms by a small number of nameless and faceless experts working in international organisations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, who have a hidden agenda and normally exert their influence indirectly from behind the scenes.
Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards. It is an orderly, planned sequence in which curriculum specialists, teachers, university lecturers who have undertaken advanced academic studies in curriculum development and other local education experts—including the Ministry of Education professional staff who have extensive experience in curriculum development, implementation and evaluation—assist in conducting a needs assessment identifying a problem, finding a solution, conceptualising the required curriculum, planning and designing a reformed curriculum, pilot-testing the revised curriculum on a small scale, then implementing it nationally.
Unfortunately, the views of the Ministry of Education and the team of local consultants and foreign experts have tended to dominate decisions about the ongoing curriculum reform process. The prominent role of UNICEF—and not UNESCO—in the reform process raises fundamental questions about the agenda of the donor.
Curriculum reform is an improvement or change of the curriculum for the better. It involves the development and utilisation of the curriculum in new and unique ways that will enhance the attainment of higher levels of achievement for students. Curriculum reform is mainly concerned with changes in the content and organisation of what is taught. Many people and organisations, including teachers’ unions, professional bodies, religious organisations, students, teachers, curriculum specialists, quality assurance and standards officers, educational administrators and community leaders concerned with matters of education often seek to bring reforms to the school curriculum.
Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards.
In most African countries—and Kenya is no exception—curriculum developers are the gatekeepers who critically assess the different proposals for curriculum reform and make recommendations for the changes to be made to subject panels and academic boards. The authority for the decision to change the curriculum rests with the Academic Boards of Curriculum Development. Many educators, including those from Kenya, are now rejecting the externally-driven approach to education reform. They propose instead an interactive and participatory approach which involves—and begins with—an evaluation by classroom teachers and district education personnel. This ensures that the views of the people closest to the process of teaching and learning are taken into account.
Based on the findings of the research conducted by KNUT, it is fair to conclude that the implementation of CBC has not lived up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system not only from vested business interests and local cartels, but also from international agencies and non-governmental organisations with hidden agendas. The Ministry of Education should commission highly educated and experienced curriculum developers and evaluators to produce a high-quality curriculum which is relevant to the Kenyan child and to the needs of the country.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
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