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Agriculture, the Millennial Side Hustle: The Story of ‘Telephone Farmers’

10 min read. In the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to make farming “sexy” and lucrative. Mainstream media narratives have showcased farming as a “cool” profession that millennials can engage in either part-time or on a full time basis and still keep their urban lives. But are the technical as well technological tools that are now widespread in this industry enough to make agriculture a lucrative business, or are ‘remote farmers’ likely to be headed for heartbreak? 

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Agriculture, the Millennial Side Hustle: The Story of ‘Telephone Farmers’
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Victor Rago 23, is a tall lanky fellow, who every inch looks like an IT geek. He is not far from that description: he will be graduating with honours from the University of Nairobi on September 6, 2019, with a degree in industrial and analytical chemistry. His pastime is crunching numbers, and, as he told me, is looking to enter into the word of global financial trading.

But Rago has another pastime, a more lucrative one –farming. “I’ve been farming potatoes in Narok County on a one-acre plot of land,” said Rago. “I cracked the numbers and realized I could be making some tidy sum of surplus cash from the hired piece of land, after I’ve deducted all my expenses.”Rago’s rented potato plot is in Erongitok, five kilometres from Narok town.

“I rent my one-acre land at between Ksh40,000-50,000 per year. When the season is excellent, I’ll reap sack of potatoes every three months, in a good year. It’s a profitable undertaking provided you do your math well,” said the science student. “When its harvest time, I don’t have to go looking for buyers – they will come with their Mitsubishi Fuso trucks straight to the farm and collect the potatoes at the source.” That, he observed, saves him and his buyers from the crafty middlemen and potato crop brokers. “They are a necessary nuisance, but a menace, nonetheless.” This is the one time he must physically be at the farm. “Harvest time happens to be the busiest period, so you don’t want to leave all that work to your employee, or even hired hands. These people are human beings and they are prone to temptations.”

Rago told me the black alluvial soil, the flat land and the sunshine weather in Erongitok is good for potato crop cultivation. “The rains are also dependable, although they can be erratic, but just good enough to grow my potatoes.” His expenses include: hiring a farmhand, equipping him a feature phone (‘mulikamwizi’) and erecting a makeshift structure at the farm for his farmhand to live in during the season. “Labour is cheap, the farmhands are paid between KSh2000–3000, depending on the size of the land and what crop he is looking after. I pay mine KSh2000.”

Ever the ambitious university student, Rago, who has dreams of pursuing a master degree in analytical chemistry, has come to define your archetypal millennial “farmer”: adventure-seeking, entrepreneurial, a little ‘bougie’, techy-savvy, a terribly young man, who when talking about his farming, makes it sound like such a sexy undertaking. Telephone farming may not have started with the millennial, but this generation has sexed-up traditional farming as we know it.

“Modern day farming is today a social enterprise engagement that is being done by (college) students and young corporate types from the confines of their lecture halls and offices,” said Rago. “The friend who introduced and interested me in this side hustle is a financial consultant with an office in Nairobi CBD, who has been farming hay and potatoes on a large scale in Erongitok.” Rago said his friend was now even thinking of diversifying his telephone farming into keeping livestock – cows, goats and sheep. “Ërongitok and Ntulele(an area just before you reach Narok town from Nairobi city), are good for livestock keeping because there’s a lot of fodder and expansive land for the animals to graze,” Rago’s said his friend.

Rago has come to define your archetypal millennial “farmer”: adventure-seeking, entrepreneurial, a little ‘bougie’, techy-savvy, a terribly young man, who, when talking about his farming, makes it sound like such a sexy undertaking.

According to Rago, his friend told him that traditional farming as practised by our parents is waning – with the advancement in technology– you need not always be physically present at the farm. “Just invest in the right technological tools and personnel and you can engage in farming activities from wherever you are.’” In the coming years, the next big money to be made in this country is in the food production, said Rago’s friend. “But in the meantime, what’s wrong in making hay while the sun shines?”

Rago told me he has never thought of himself strictly as a farmer, “I wouldn’t say farming is my passion – it is not – but as an up and coming social entrepreneur, I’m always looking for opportunities to make a fast buck: this potato farming has been affording me some extra cash, while at the same time contributing to the country’s food production. I would like to think of myself as a patriotic Kenyan who’s playing his dutiful role as a food producer.”

Unlike Rago, Susan Wanjiku 32, has a full-time job, working for a local NGO in Nairobi. Wanjiku took me to her farm in Kamulu, 25 km east of Nairobi’s CBD. From Kamulu, a fast-growing trading centre, we rode a boda boda that took us eight kilometres, deep into the farmland area, which borders Ukambani on the northern side. “I grow watermelons on my half an acre plot. As you might be aware, watermelon is a succulent fruit that does not need lots of water. So, apart from investing in irrigation drips, the black cotton soil is good because, when it rains, the soils become water-logged, hence, can retain moisture and water for as long as the dry spell persists.”

“I consider my farming as an extra-curricular activity: it pre-occupies me over the weekend and any other time when I’m not going to the office,” said Wanjiku, who considers herself a millennial in every sense of the word. “I grew up in the rural area and my parents were subsistence farmers. Today when I tell them that I’m a farmer who doesn’t need to tend to the farm personally, they really get amused.”

Wanjiku says that farming is a good income earner that supplements her wages. “These December holidays, I’ll be going to Kikambala beach, thanks to my fruit farming.”This is her fourth year growing watermelons, “and I can tell you that watermelon farmers cannot satiate the market – the fruit is one of the most popular among the fruit-thirsty Kenyans – if only I could find more land to grow them,” she mused.

Wanjiku lives in South B and she can afford to visit her farm every so often, especially on weekends and when she gets a day or two away from the office.“Mobile telephony is the greatest thing that happened in this millennium, all I need to do is pick up my phone, call my farm-worker to get updates or pass information on what I need done on the farm, without interrupting my day-to-day work.”

Wanjiku, who is employed as a personal secretary, says she has a passion for farming: “I love everything to do with the earth and what germinates from it, I love the soil, I like the fact that when I visit my farm, I wear my gumboots and wade in the muddy clay soil.” When you get it right farming is very profitable. To this end, every Saturday, she never misses her Saturday Nation newspaper pullout – Seeds of Gold – that chronicles, farming “success” stories that have been apparently glamourized and hyped modern-day agriculture; from breeding exotic goats for milk production, to urban farming done on rooftops. She reads the magazine, aptly, on her excursions to the farm every Saturday morning.

“But what really gave me the impetus to pursue my passion in farming are the seminars that I’ve been attending at the Latia Resource Centre Farm,” said Wanjiku. “The 60-acre demonstration farm in Isinya in Kajiado County, has a big lecture room, fully equipped with chairs and an erasure board and runs short courses for “urban” farmers and people who would like to invest in agri-business.”

“I love everything to do with the earth and what germinates from it, I love the soil, I like the fact that when I visit my farm, I wear my gumboots and wade in the muddy clay soil.”

The farm, which grows different types of crops, some grown organically – from carrots to cucumbers, from lemons to lettuce and from potatoes to tomatoes, has the latest demonstration farming techniques and information on technology-driven agriculture. When I visited the farm recently, the farm had just installed state-of-the-art greenhouses from The Netherlands. It was also host to some South African farmers from Orange Free State province.

For Anthony Namodi, remote farming came to him by default: “I inherited a two-acre farm from my parents, part of a larger farm that they had been farming in Nzoia scheme in Kakamega County.”The 34-year-old dairy farming consultant, based in Nakuru, said he decided to continue growing maize, which his parents had been doing for ages. “I couldn’t go wrong with maize farming because, I understood all the motions of growing the crop. I was walking a well-worn path. The one challenge that I faced though, was that I was going to be a telephone farmer, since I wasn’t available to look after the farm myself,” said Namodi.

So, using his smartphone, Namodi goes through the motions of telephone farming, by giving instructions to his workers on how he wants the farm tended every new season. “Once my supervisor alerts me on the impending rain, I begin putting together resources for tilling the land with a tractor, buying the required amount of fertilizer and the necessary amount of seed, then send the money to him. It is really telephone farming, because my supervisor must also spend considerable time on the phone, as we discuss back and forth on the farming process.”

Four years into telephone farming, Namodi points out that this type of farming has its own challenges. “Since most of the time you’re not there to oversee your own farming, a telephone farmer has always to cross his fingers and pray that his instructions are followed to the letter.” Many times, workers have a way of ignoring instructions given by the owner of the farm, observes Namodi. They presume they know better since they are ‘on the ground’ and therefore they know what ought to be done. It is always a big tussle, especially for someone like me, who is an agriculturalist, and knowledgeable in the dynamics of farming techniques.”

Frequently, many farm workers want to cut corners, says Namodi, which ends up compromising quality. “If, for example, you send them money to buy a dozen bags of fertilizer and a specific type of seed, they will shortchange you on the number of fertilizer bags –meaning they will buy less bags and compromise on the quality of the seed – by buying an inferior prototype.” The dairy farming consultant said it is always a constant struggle to ensure that his instructions are properly adhered to and the workers are not stealing from him. “I came to realize that my workers always inflate prices of farm inputs because I’m not there to ascertain those prices. Every time I have the time to be on the ground, I always negotiate better prices for my farming inputs.”

Namodi’s three biggest challenges in telephone farming are therefore: cost, uncertainty of whether his instructions have been implemented properly, and quality control. “This is not to say that I’m not eternally grateful for the invention of the smart mobile phone. My workers will always take pictures of the farm, to capture and record the progress for me on WhatsApp, as they keep me abreast of what’s happening to the farm constantly. I don’t have to be present to remit their payments or indeed any payments that maybe needed urgently.” Technology has made farming as a real-time activity, he added.

Namodi concluded his telephone farming has been a mixed bag of success: “I usually harvest 15 bags of maize per acre, for which I sell KSh2000 per bag. But I must warn profitability depends on the season – if for some reason, there wasn’t enough rain, the harvest suffers. That notwithstanding, I will tell you without a doubt, farming is the business of the future.”

Yet, telephone farming is not a preserve of the odd adventurer millennial. George Mukoya, 64, has been engaging in remote farming for 20 years, since 1999. A consultant in the energy sector, Mukoya is a farmer by choice and has been farming his six-acre farm in Ndalu scheme through the telephone for those many years. “I farm maize and beans.I’m amused by these young people who wonder how telephone farming used to take place before the advent of the mobile phone. In 1999, mobile phone was still a novelty in Kenya, a preserve of the plutocrats, I don’t remember any of my friends owning a mobile phone.”

Namodi’s three biggest challenges in telephone farming are therefore: cost, uncertainty of whether his instructions have been implemented properly, and quality control.

Mukoya said in those pre-mobile phone days, he conducted his remote farming by writing letters to his workers, sending someone to the farm and travelling by himself to supervise the farming process. “There was indeed a lot of pre-planning.” When he compares those days and now, Mukoya, who got the “farming bug” from his uncle, today truly appreciates where he has come from with his remote farming: “farming can now be done in real-time by the smartphone, it is amazing how technology can alter our livelihoods and lifestyles for the better.”

With the smartphone technology, Mukoya says he can check on the weather patterns, research on the latest types of seeds, and get real-time updates from his farm workers. The telephone farming for him has been profitable, but of course, just like any other engagement run remotely, it has had its challenges. “The biggest challenge is of course trust issues from your workers: they will cheat and steal from you, all the time.” Therefore the two times that he must ensure he is present at the farm is during the sowing and harvesting time.

For the millennial who may falsely believe that telephone farming is their “invention” because mobile telephony happened in their time, they would be shocked to learn that remote farming preceded their generation.

As far back as in the mid-1980s – when the term millennial had not even been coined – Samuel Onsango, now fully retired, was already engaging in telephone farming. Then a full-time employee of the British American Tobacco (BAT) company, the company contracted him to be running their tobacco farms in Migori and Sirare, in Migori County, then referred to as South Nyanza.

“It was my duty to organize the farmers, ensure they have been supplied with all the farm inputs that they need, prepare their farms in good time during the sowing period and most importantly, always remit their payments on time without delay. All this, I did on my own time, not on the company’s time,” said the 74-year-old Osango. “I travelled a lot then. Every other weekend, I was on the move, to check on the farmers, to ensure they were maintaining the strict quality control demanded of them by the contracting company.”

The telephone farming for him has been profitable, but of course, just like any other engagement run remotely, it has had it challenges. “The biggest challenge is of course trust issues from your workers: they will cheat and steal from you, all the time.”

This was telephone farming by any other name, said Onsango, because I ran the farms from Nairobi, which then was seen as very far away. The best means to travel then to Migoriwas by the overnight bus. Onsango said every trip he made to Migori and Sirare had to be accounted for and add value – both to him and the farmers. And as long as everybody played their roles and delivered results, everyone was happy.

The success of Onsango’s tobacco remote farming did not go unnoticed: “Word got around to East African Breweries Limited (EABL), that I was the force behind the successfully organized tobacco farms of South Nyanza,” said the retired cigarette maker. “Soon the beer company contracted me to be overseeing their barley and wheat farms of Narok. I used the same techniques I employed to handle the tobacco farmers: visit them regularly, listen to their demands, inspect the farms, deliver farm inputs on time, as I also paid them on time.

As Onsango managed BAT and EABL farms, from Nairobi, he reckoned he could also manage his own remote farming. In the late 1980s, he bought a 100-acres in Cherangani scheme in Kitale and was soon planting maize. “It was enjoyable and an adrenaline-driven activity as long as I was young and energetic,” said the mzee. “You can only do so much telephone farming. In 2000, I retired from everything.”

 

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Wajinga Nation: The Rising Popularity of Protest Music in Kenya

11 min read. King Kaka’s controversial new song on the state of the Kenyan nation reflects the thoughts of an increasingly disillusioned youthful population that is cynically being manipulated and marginalised by both church and state.

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Wajinga Nation: The Rising Popularity of Protest Music in Kenya
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In December 2019, Kennedy Ombima, better known by his stage name King Kaka, released a new song called Wajinga Nyinyi (You Fools) that caused ripples nationwide. This incredibly popular song not only sought to speak truth to power, but also highlighted the state of the nation – how it has been captured by endemic corruption, inept governance and noxious ethnic politics. Wanjinga Nyinyi was not only bravely rendered, it trended for days, took the country by storm, and excited a deeply frustrated citizenry.

Since its release, it has spawned similar protest songs, with other artists releasing renditions of the song. Although other artists, such as Eric Wainana of Nchi ya kitu kidogo fame (A country of petty corruption), Charles Njagua aka Jaguar of Kigeugeu (hypocrisy), (the artist is today the Jubilee Party MP for Kamukunji constituency in Nairobi County), Gidi Gidi of the Unbwogable (Unbeatable) beat, among others, released popular “protest” songs a while ago, there was something different about Wanjinga Nyinyi that caught the attention of Kenyans, especially the youth.

The song highlighted the Jubilee government’s multiple failures, empty promises and its “mortgaging” the country to China through reckless borrowing. Why did this song cause so much hue and cry, yet King Kaka did not speak about anything that we did not know already? What made this song so attention-grabbing and catchy?

First, the song captured a raft of issues that have sadly become a defining feature of the our politics: theft, tribal politics, incompetent leadership, bad religion, bad church, rogue clergy, indecent public behaviour, lack of role models, lack of integrity, youth unemployment, drug and substance abuse, a compromised and ineffective judiciary, poor treatment of teachers and hospital staff, among other ills.

The song highlighted the Jubilee government’s multiple failures, empty promises and its “mortgaging” the country to China through reckless borrowing.

Secondly, and more importantly, the song did not just rap away these issues, but it sought to directly engage Kenyans by calling them out for their apparent foolishness and squarely putting the blame on them. The song blamed Kenyans for perpetually voting in bad leaders based on tribal bigotry and money.

Third, the song urged Kenyans to elect competent leaders so that they can hold them to account through exercising their power of the ballot.

Fourthly, because the song was delivered in the language of the youth and by appropriating simple but popular narratives, it struck a chord and affected the conscience of Kenyan youth, the most disenfranchised and restless constituency.

“I think the song stirred not just our minds, but also our conscience and made us look really foolish,” said Willis Odhiambo, a Nakuru County youth. “The leaders we elect through the politics of manipulation and ‘mtu wetu’ syndrome (the politics of our man) display a condescending attitude towards us the electorate as soon as they have been sworn in. They will then go on a looting spree so I think the song was a call out to all our elected leaders that it is no longer business as usual.”

Odhiambo also said that the song was a wake-up call to the powers that be that “vitu kwa ground ni different” (on the ground, things are different). “The song is a passionate appeal to my generation to vote properly if we are to effect the desired change we so badly need.”

Another youth, Grace Naliaka, said the song called for a non-violent youth revolution, “one that calls us to take our civic duties, to soul search on our future that has been stolen by the old geezers. This song pierced both our personal and collective conscience and for the first time, I thought very seriously about my civic duties. So for me, the song was about us the youth to see beyond tribe and elect leaders of integrity. We must refuse to whine and rap away our frustrations, but take control of our destiny by changing how we vote and who we vote for.”

Naliaka observed that the independence generation had messed up the future of the millennials. “By belting out the lyrics, King Kaka had read the riot act to the inept corrupt-ridden Jubilee government.”

I think the song was not just about speaking truth to power; it also called for deep introspection. Given that the Kenyan electoral psychology and sociology is a study in ethnic mobilisation, the lyrics pricked Kenyans where it mattered most.

In the book It’s Our Time to Eat by Michela Wrong, Kenyan politics is characterised as the politics of tribe and belly politics through primitive accumulation of wealth, and by the looting of public coffers. As such, during every election cycle, the electorate goes out to elect leaders based on a tribal matrix.

The status of Kenyan youth, like many youth on the African continent, raises huge concerns for those who care about this large and significant constituency that happens to wield tremendous voting power. Africa is a young continent with a teeming youthful – but deeply frustrated and unemployed – population. Nearly 80 per cent of Kenya’s more than 40 million people are under the age of 35. Yet, a significant majority of the youth in Kenya operate in a hostile environment, where the dominant issues they grapple with include, but are not limited to, unemployment, poverty, unequal opportunities (economic and/or otherwise), ethnic bigotry, marginalisation, HIV/AIDS, drugs and substance abuse, mental health issues, crime and violence.

Coupled with the crippling unemployment is the fact that the average young person in Kenya is a victim of a gerontocratic economy and polity, where the tendency by the government is to give most public jobs to retirees and political cronies. King Kaka derides both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Parliament about this apparent gerontocracy when he says “youth ni Moody at 90 and Gikonyo at 80”.

Moody Awori, a veteran politician born in 1927 who served as Kenya’s ninth Vice President from 2003 to 2009, was recently appointed at the age of 91 to serve on the board of the Sports, Arts and Social Development Fund. He and others like Karuthi Gikonyo and many others who are in their sunset years keep being re-appointed to plump public jobs. The appointment of former Othaya MP Mary Wambui, 69, to chair the National Employment Authority, for example, angered many Kenyan youth, even though a court annulled her appointment on the grounds that she was not qualified for the job.

Decisions on pubic matters that affect youth are therefore made by people who are out of touch with the realities of young people in the 21st century. At best, the political elite pay lip service to the youth question, but more often than not, they tend to treat the youth as outsiders in the decision making process, as a group on permanent hold, waiting to be leaders of tomorrow – a tomorrow that has turned out to be a mirage. And if that tomorrow comes, it only does for the old and the frail, and the already very wealthy.

Coupled with the crippling unemployment is the fact that the average young person in Kenya is a victim of a gerontocratic economy and polity, where the tendency by the government is to give most public jobs to retirees and political cronies.

In the political arena, the youth are, at worst, treated as objects to be manipulated and used or, at best, as junior partners. Often, decisions affecting them are made in their absence; their job is only to comply. The youth’s inability to access power at the centre has led to their exclusion and marginalisation. Because of this exclusion, there is a general sense of hopelessness, restlessness and uneasiness, leading to increased vulnerability.

The Jubilee Party government rode to power in 2013 with a promise to create millions of jobs for the youth. Seven years later, the poor youth have realised they have been played, that their role is to be coerced and manipulated by political henchmen.

The youth are not only perceived as malleable and vulnerable to ethnic machinations, but sadly, also to religious manipulation. It is a public secret that some Kenyan youth have been lured to join religion-inspired terror groups such as Al Shabaab. Their recruitment into these terror groups is often the result of unaddressed historical injustices and grievances, as well as the marginalisation of the youth and victimisation by the security agencies. In a situation where the youth feel neglected and unwanted, religious radicalisation becomes the norm and finds its niche among a terrorised lot that has been denied opportunities.

Politicians eating the youth’s future

According to Godwin Murunga, a, Kenyan historian working for CODESRIA in Dakar, Senegal, the framing of the youth as a risky category is “problematic” because there is compelling evidence of the potential of youth to innovate outside of the state. Murunga says that Kenyan youth operate in an environment full of disparities, where progress and regression alternate in unpredictable ways. He says while there are certain segments of Kenyan society that benefit from the limited economic prosperity enjoyed in Kenya and East Africa, especially in the last one or so decades, these benefits are unevenly distributed.

Even as the Kenyan state has excluded the youth from governance and decision-making platforms, the political elites have continued to treat the youth and the general populace with arrogance and disdain. This is not surprising at all, given that the history of Kenya is one of pork-barrel politics, where the youth are suspended in time – they are told that they are the leaders of tomorrow, not of today. Hence money and resources meant for youth is squandered or redirected elsewhere.

These elites thrive on intimidation and threats to scare away anyone pointing a finger at them. The threat by Governor Anne Mumbi Waiguru to sue King Kaka is the latest example. (In his song, King Kaka wondered why Waiguru was still in office, given that she had presided over the loss of millions of shillings meant for the National Youth Service (NYS) when she was the Devolution Cabinet Secretary.

Tracy Namunyak from Kajiado County points out that state officials thrive in discrediting harassing, intimidating, silencing and issuing threats to their critics. Namunyak says Kenyans could be angry with Waiguru because “she ate our future”.

Rogue clerics who steal from the mouths of babes

Not only are youth manipulated by the political class, they are also manipulated by religious leaders. King Kaka criticises the Kenyan church and its clergy who wield tremendous power in this country and who seek to influence not just government policy, but also the citizenry through subtle coercion and threats of fire and brimstone in hell. The clergy, just like the political elite, is deeply condescending towards the Kenyan public and the youth.

Apostle James Maina Ng’ang’a of Neno Evangelism, who is the epitome of a (Pentecostal) cleric gone rogue, is mentioned in Kaka’s lyrics. His arrogance, sense of entitlement, abusive language, and condescending attitude towards women and youth mirror how politicians treat Kenyans. The artist criticises the clergy and its apparent love of money and equates its greed to that of the political class.

Ng’ang’a is brash, rude and reckless. Just like the Kenyan politician, he treats his huge followers with callousness and disdain. Just like the politicians, religious leaders treat Kenyans with madharau (contempt). Ng’anga once asked a church member why she wore cheap sneakers and scolded another for her inability to raise Sh6,000 for her children’s school fees. In one of his latest outbursts, he equated King Kaka to a tout.

A rogue pastor who mirrors Ng’ang’a is Gilbert Deya, who claims to have 36,000 followers in the UK. Deya established the Gilbert Deya Ministries International in 1997. His organisation claims that Deya is able to help infertile, post-menopausal women to conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and special prayers. These outrageous claims turned out to be a child-trafficking racket.

In 2006, Deya was arrested in Edinburgh, Scotland (where he had moved to in a bid to hide from Interpol) on charges of kidnapping and trafficking of children. He protested his innocence, claiming that the miracles that God performed through him were beyond human understanding and that no man can explain them except God. When he was extradited to Kenya, he was detained for nine months at Kamiti Maximum Prison and then released in May 2018 on a Sh10 million bond.

King Kaka criticises the Kenyan church and its clergy who wield tremendous power in this country and who seek to influence not just government policy, but also the citizenry through subtle coercion and threats of fire and brimstone in hell.

Self-proclaimed Prophet David Edward Owuor, who tells his followers that he is two in one (Elijah and Moses), could rightly be described as Kenya’s spiritual president. Prophet Owuor is a man who loves pomp and power. He is authoritative and has cultivated a personality cult and mystique about him.

More importantly, he is condescending to other Kenyans, be they clergy or otherwise. He is a master of spiritual and emotional manipulation; he often threatens his followers with eternal damnation, death, earthquakes and floods. Prophet Owuor demands absolute adoration from his followers and has created a religious-political personality cult around himself. Any contrary opinion or critic of the mightiest of the mightiest attracts curses, death threats, road accidents and severe illnesses like cancer.

The clergy no longer speaks the language of social justice, of the poor and vulnerable. Religious leaders, just like politicians, treat the youth the same way politicians do. It would seem use-and-dump is their stated policy.

Patriarchy and bedroom politics  

In a conservative country like Kenya, political and religious power is the preserve of men. Threats of violence – political, physical and verbal – are not uncommon in the Kenyan public sphere.

For Ng’ang’a, politics is his bedroom, where he has power over the youth and their mothers. He appropriates the patriarchal language of the Bible, colonialism and toxic masculinity. Women’s bodies are sexualised and sex is used to sanctify men’s control over women’s bodies.

By stating to King Kaka that “your mother is my girlfriend”, Ng’ang’a sees women’s place as not just being in the kitchen, but also in his bedroom. If they are not in the kitchen or in the bedroom, then they are in his church, being exorcised of demons and spirit-husbands, who presumably rape women in Ng’ang’a’s fantasies. Even in the underworld, male demons inhibit women bodies, raping them at will, while Ng’ang’a rapes them of their dignity through his toxic theologies of demonic deliverance.

The female body is a site of abuse where toxic theologies are constructed. Women’s bodies are sites of violence, patriarchal control and surveillance. Women’s body parts have also been used by Kenyan politicians and men to insult and abuse others. Nearly a decade since the promulgation of the new Kenyan constitution of 2010, MPs are yet to pass the two-thirds gender rule.

By stating to King Kaka that “your mother is my girlfriend”, Ng’ang’a sees women’s place as not just being in the kitchen, but also in his bedroom. If they are not in the kitchen or in the bedroom, then they are in his church, being exorcised of demons and spirit-husbands, who presumably rape women in Ng’ang’a’s fantasies.

In today’s Kenya, religion has become indistinguishable from politics. In the last two general elections, we have witnessed tremendous cooption of the Kenyan clergy by the political class. The class fundraises colossal amounts of money for churches to win legitimation and respectability, while compromising the very clergy by stifling their voice.

Deputy President William Ruto, who has variously proclaimed himself to be a born again Christian, has caused quite a stir through his frequent church fund-raising activities, where he has donated humungous amounts of money to different churches. In many such events and during electioneering periods, politicians scramble for prayers and votes, mostly in churches. Images of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy being prayed for and anointed with special oil in churches have become the norm in Kenyan political, religious and social scenes.

The rise of protest music among youth

While the youth are being marginalised in the political arena and in church circles, they have turned to reclaiming the creative and performing arts to protest their exclusion. Through the power of hip-hop lyrics, contemporary songs and poetic music, the youth are seeking not just to contest their marginalisation, but to also challenge, educate, mobilise and organise – to hold the political class and government functionaries, as well as religious leaders, to account through popular entertainment and dramatised narratives.

Protest music has long been recognised as an art form used by the youth to not only fight for their rights and existence, but also to reclaim their voices and to directly appeal to the people’s conscience. Robert Kyalunganyi, aka Bobi Wine, the MP for Kyaddondo East constituency in Kampala, Uganda, has used his talents as a musician to propel himself right into the centre of Ugandan politics. Today, the long-serving President Yoweri Museveni has to contend with Bobi’s soaring popularity in politics and across social circles in Uganda. He has proved to be an irritating itch to Museveni.

While the youth are being marginalised in the political arena and in church circles, they have turned to reclaiming the creative and performing arts to protest their exclusion…and to also challenge, educate, mobilise and organise…

Bobi Wine has done this by giving the youth a practical medium and a new space to express disaffection with the current status quo in Uganda’s political establishment. He offers a critique of power using a language that is accessible, simple and appealing to the youth constituency.

Popular music has the ability to not just prick the powers that be, but also to awaken the consciousness of the citizenry. The youth are carving out spaces for civic engagement outside of the state and church. They have been using social media as spaces for political and social mobilisation.

As the church and government aficionados’ minds remain colonial and static, the youth are moving ahead to recreate and reclaim spaces for themselves. The church, stuck in its colonial framework, is no longer out to save souls and fight for the vulnerable. It doesn’t speak the language of the downtrodden. Today it speaks the language of the oppressor and brutal governments. It is part and parcel of the predatory political class.

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The War on Corruption: What Singapore Got Right

15 min read. Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption, while Kenya’s failure to eliminate graft is the result of a half-hearted anti-corruption crusade that is politically weaponised and applied selectively.

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The War on Corruption: What Singapore Got Right
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Experts on the study of corruption distinguish between political corruption and bureaucratic corruption. Political corruption involves vote-rigging, registration of unqualified voters, falsification of voter registers and election results, selling and buying of votes, and wiretapping the phones of political opponents. All this is aimed at helping politicians capture and/or maintain political power. With particular reference to Kenya, political corruption also involves instigation of “ethnic” violence in opposition regions by incumbent political parties in order to scatter voters and minimise their turnout on election day.

Bureaucratic corruption, on the other hand, is used by political leaders and civil servants – the bureaucrats – to extract extralegal incomes for themselves, their relatives, and associates. This involves extraction of bribes and rents in the distribution of public goods and services, theft of public resources, embezzlement of funds from state coffers, nepotism, and the granting of patronage to cronies and relatives, illegal taxation by bureaucrats with benefits accruing to them and their associates, capricious and selective enforcement of state laws and statutes in order to generate benefits for the bureaucrat, and differential treatment of private enterprises with the expectation of kickbacks from the favourably treated enterprises.

There are four categories of bureaucratic corruption in the literature on the subject, according to John Mukum Mbaku, an expert on the subject. The first is cost-reducing corruption, which involves actions by civil servants to reduce the regulation-induced costs of an enterprise below their normal rates. An example here is the illegal reduction of a private firm’s tax obligations to the government and exemption of a business from compliance with certain rules and regulations. In this way, a firm’s transaction costs are reduced and the finances thus saved are shared out between the bureaucrat and the firm owner.

The second type of corruption is cost-enhancing corruption. This occurs in situations where governments place controls on the prices of foodstuffs, which normally leads to hoarding and severe food shortages. Herein, civil servants who control government food stocks extract rents from potential consumers by charging them prices that approximate free market prices. Another way is the extraction of bribes by civil servants from entrepreneurs seeking for licences, including import/export, and investment licences. Yet another is where civil servants simply use the state’s coercive power at their disposal to appropriate private property for their own use, for instance through illegal taxation. In Kenya, the public procurement domain is the arena in which cost-enhancing corruption has been most pervasive. This is the situation in which public officials extract rents from their control of the public procurement process. They do so by demanding kickbacks from tender awardees and by inflating the same and skimming off the excess.

The third type of corruption is benefit-enhancing corruption. Herein civil servants may permit more public benefits such as bursary funds to public schools, or development resources to a particular region, to accrue to an individual or group than is legally permitted. Recipients of such benefits then share them with the bureaucrat on the basis of a prearranged formula. This type of corruption is quite pervasive in Africa and many other developing societies because it is relatively easy to execute and not so easy to detect.

The fourth and final type of corruption is benefit-reducing corruption. This is where bureaucrats simply appropriate for their own private use public benefits that are intended for other private citizens. One example of this is a civil servant manager of a pension fund who can delay the transmission of retirement benefits to pensioners, deposit such funds in a high interest-earning bank account, and subsequently skim off the accrued earnings. This type of corruption is also very easy to undertake because of information asymmetries in much of Africa and elsewhere, with bureaucrats having more information about public benefits programmes than the ordinary citizens. In Kenya, the problem of employers, especially in the private sector and within state corporations, making statutory deductions from employees, such as pensions, health insurance, and income tax, which never reach their legitimate destinations is a perennial one.

The evolution of corruption in Kenya

The fact that corruption in Kenya has reached epidemic proportions is beyond question. In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent! This is the situation where, for instance, a development project is conjured up, it is costed, awarded, and paid for, but nothing is done. The exemplification of this is the Kimwarer and Arror dams project scandal in which billions were paid out for nothing. Alternatively, public funds are simply withdrawn from bank accounts and directly pocketed by public officers, a most brazen form of corruption that was amplified by the investigative report on the financial shenanigans at Maasai Mara University.

In view of the pandemic levels corruption has reached in Kenya, a national conference on corruption was convened in January 2019 at the Bomas of Kenya. At the conference, President Uhuru Kenyatta asserted that the government would relentlessly pursue high profile cases already in the courts and launch a crackdown to ensure all corrupt persons are held accountable.

“For the first time,” the President reiterated, “no person is beyond the reach of the long arm of the law no matter how powerful or influential they may perceive themselves to be.” He further revealed that all branches of government were working collaboratively to eliminate the vice. Since then, a big show has been made of demolishing properties constructed on road reserves, on riparian land, and on illegally-acquired public land. Finance Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich and his Principal Secretary, Kamau Thugge, among others, were arrested and charged with eight counts of financial fraud. Additionally, four high county governors were arrested and charged with corruption. These include Samburu governor Moses Kasaine Lenolkulal, Busia governor Sospeter Odeke Ojaamong, Kiambu governor Ferdinand Ndung’u Waititu, and Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko.

In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent!

A lot of fuss has been made before about fighting corruption, right from the 1960s, yet the problem has only gotten worse over time. The question is, given the manner in which the war on corruption has been conducted in Kenya, can it be successful? What chance is there that the current war on corruption will be successful? What will it take to seriously reduce and eventually stamp out corruption in Kenya? Where did Kenya go wrong on matters corruption?

When the rain started beating Kenyans

To understand how Kenya went wrong on the corruption issue, one has to juxtapose it with Singapore. Both Kenya and Singapore were British colonies. Singapore gained independence in 1959 while Kenya gained independence in 1963. Both had the same bureaucratic institutional legacy from colonialism.

For four decades, Kenya’s politics was dominated by one party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU); similarly, the People’s Action Party has remained the ruling party in Singapore since independence. Yet whereas Singapore is consistently ranked the most corruption-free country in Asia and among the top ten cleanest in the world, Kenya is rated among the top corrupt countries in Africa and the world. What accounts for these two realities is squarely the difference between adherence to leadership integrity and good governance principles, and lack of adherence to the same.

When Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister of Kenya in 1963, delegations of goodwill trooped to his Gatundu home bearing gifts for him, which he enthusiastically accepted. The gift bearers sought to ensure favourable consideration of their future requests. Even before he was released from prison, efforts were made to make Kenyatta’s post-prison life comfortable: a house was constructed for him; and, as the late Jackson Angaine stated in an interview with The Nation, “I mobilised the Ameru to contribute towards buying a Mercedes Benz car for Mzee Kenyatta shortly before his release in 1961.” This laid the foundation for favouritism, nepotism, and misuse of public office to serve private interests. The foundation for the appropriation of public office for self-enrichment was thus laid by Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and it has gotten worse with each successive president.

A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity, and for restructuring Kenya’s colonial economy to work for the ordinary citizens, President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves: “We were together with Paul Ngei in prison. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to Kubai’s home, he has a big house and has a nice shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail now he is running his own buses. What have you done for yourself?” Jomo Kenyatta boomed at Kaggia in disgust for refusing to use his position and ethnicity to accumulate wealth instead of teaming up with Odinga to oppose the acquisitive behavior of the new elite.

A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity…President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves.

Kaggia’s response to this rebuke was emblematic of a true servant-leader with the highest sense of integrity and commitment to the general good. He calmly responded: “I was not elected to Parliament to acquire a large farm, a big house or a transport business. My constituents sleep in mud houses. They have no shambas and have no businesses. So, I am not ashamed to be associated with them. By the time they have these things, I will also be able to have them for myself.”

Unfortunately for Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa and even beyond, such leaders of integrity have been rare. Indeed, the few extant ones were, at best, systematically marginalised from the centres of power and, at worst, silenced through assassination. For instance, when Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known as JM) incisively critiqued the government and declared that the manner in which the state was being used in Kenya would lead to a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars, he was assassinated and his body dumped in Ngong forest.

What Singapore did right

Just like Kenya’s Kenyatta, when Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore in June 1959, he received many gifts from well-wishers who, like their Kenyan counterparts, wanted to ensure favourable consideration for their future requests. However, Lee declined to accept these gifts in order to set an example for his political colleagues and all civil servants.

A former senior civil servant, Eddie Teo, revealed that public servants watched and followed the example of Lee and his colleagues and “were incorruptible because they were incorruptible”. Eddie Teo and his colleagues were “motivated by the exemplary conduct set by our bosses” because “they lived simple, frugal and unostentatious lives” and the anti-corruption law was applied to everyone, regardless of position, by Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).

The country relies on two key laws to fight corruption: The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act (CDSA). The PCA applies both to persons who give and those who receive bribes in both the public and private sectors. When applied, the CDSA confiscates ill-gotten gains from corrupt offenders, including direct benefits as well as profits made by individuals or companies from contracts awarded due to bribery. The two laws combine to make corruption a high-risk, low-reward activity in Singapore.

Furthermore, the Singapore Public Service is guided by a Code of Conduct, which sets out the high standards of behaviour expected of public officers based on principles of integrity, incorruptibility, and transparency. The Code of Conduct is enshrined in the Government Instruction Manual for public officers and provides that a public officer (a) cannot borrow money from any person who has official dealings with him; (b) cannot at any time have unsecured debts and liabilities that are more than three times his/her monthly salary; (c) cannot use any official information to further his/her private interest; (d) is required to declare his/her assets at his/her first appointment and do so annually thereafter; (e) cannot engage in trade or business or undertake any part-time employment without approval; and (f) cannot receive entertainment or presents in any form from members of the public.

In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers. They created, by personal example, a climate of honesty and integrity, and made it patently clear to public officers that corruption in any form would not be tolerated.

Perhaps the best exemplification of Singapore’s zero tolerance of corruption is the fact that the anti-corruption law is applied to everyone equally, including top government and ruling party officials. Among top political leaders that have been prosecuted include the Minister for National Development, Tan Kia Gan, in 1966; the Minister of State, Wee Toon Boon, in 1975; the Member of Parliament and trade union leader, Phey Yew Kok, in 1979; and the Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, in 1986. The case of MP and trade union leader Phey Yew Kok is particularly illustrative of Singapore’s unrelenting commitment to zero tolerance of corruption. Kok was charged with misappropriating $100,000 trade union funds in 1979. He, however, fled to exile. When, at age 81, he returned to Singapore in 2015 after 35 years abroad, his case was re-opened by the CPIB and he was prosecuted on 34 charges involving more than $450,000, almost five times the original $100,000 he was accused of stealing from trade union funds in 1979. Kok pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in jail.

In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers.

Available evidence strongly indicates that the most important difference between a corrupt and corrupt-free state is the quality of their governance. A country’s incidence of corruption is related to its quality of governance. Multiple studies conclude that countries with high corruption have a low quality of governance, those with medium corruption have fair governance, and those with low corruption have good governance.

Singapore has minimised corruption because of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s strong political will and the provision of adequate personnel, budget and operational independence to enable the CPIB to enforce the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) impartially, regardless of an offender’s status, position, or political affiliation. Corruption offenders in Singapore are punished according to the law, without their jail sentences being suspended, or without being pardoned by the president. Consequently, corruption is perceived as a high risk, low reward activity in Singapore today because those persons convicted of corruption offences are punished according to the law.

As early as 1996, Singapore was ranked first among the 12 Asian countries in the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy’s (PERC) corruption survey. The PERC attributed Singapore’s top ranking to its strict and consistent enforcement of anti-corruption laws as corrupt officials, particularly high-ranking ones, are dealt with in Singapore with a severity rarely seen elsewhere. The country consistently ranks among the least corrupt in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Indices.

Lessons from Singapore

A number of lessons can be extracted from the Singaporean experience. The first, and perhaps the most critical one, is the importance of political will in the fight against corruption. For the war to succeed, a country’s political leadership must be sincerely committed to the eradication of corruption. They must demonstrate exemplary conduct, adopt a modest lifestyle, and eschew indulging in corruption themselves. Anyone found guilty of corruption must be punished, regardless of his or her position or status in society. If the big fish are protected from being prosecuted for corruption, and only the small fish are caught or prosecuted, as is the case in Kenya, the anti-corruption strategy will lack credibility and is unlikely to make any difference.

The second lesson from Singapore is that to effectively combat corruption, incremental measures won’t suffice. Instead, comprehensive anti-corruption measures must be employed. These include comprehensive anti-corruption laws and a non-corrupt and autonomous anti-corruption agency. The anti-corruption legislation must be comprehensive enough to prevent loopholes and must be periodically reviewed to introduce relevant amendments whenever required.

The third lesson is that the anti-corruption agency must itself be incorruptible. To ensure this, it must be controlled or supervised by an incorruptible leader. The agency must be staffed by honest and competent personnel. Overstaffing should be avoided and any staff member found guilty of corruption must be punished and dismissed from the civil service.

The fourth lesson from the Singaporean experience is that to reduce the opportunities for corruption in those government departments that are vulnerable to corrupt activities, such as customs, immigration, internal revenue, and traffic police, such departments should review their procedures periodically in order to reduce the opportunities for corruption.

The fifth lesson that the Singaporean experience teaches us is that the incentive for corruption among civil servants and political leaders can be reduced by ensuring that their salaries and fringe benefits are competitive with the private sector. The long-term consequences of low civil service salaries are unfavourable as talented civil servants will leave to join private companies for higher pay, while the less capable will remain and succumb to corruption to supplement their low salaries. However, governments might not be able to increase salaries unless there is economic growth and adequate financial resources. The basis for making civil service salaries competitive with the private sector is thus good governance and effective economic management that ensure sustained economic growth and development.

In short, Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption. Indeed, Singapore’s experience in curbing corruption demonstrates that it is possible to minimise corruption if there is strong political will. Needless to say, the situation becomes hopeless if such political will is lacking, when political leaders and senior civil servants pay only lip service to implementing anti-corruption strategies in their countries. Unfortunately, this has been the case in Kenya where the anti-corruption war has been waged half-heartedly, where low-level corrupt individuals are prosecuted while those who perpetrate grand corruption are celebrated and cleared to run for top political offices, and where even the half-hearted war is politically weaponised and applied selectively. It is thus no wonder that the scourge of corruption continues to grow in Kenya and constitutes perhaps the single most lethal threat to the future of the state.

Other successful strategies

Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere, such as the Doing Business Indicators, demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state. Some of the regulations on the books of many countries, such as those related to starting a new business, registering property, engaging in international trade, and a myriad other certifications and licences, are sometimes not only extremely burdensome but governments hardly ever pause to examine whether the purposes for which they were introduced are still relevant to the needs of the present. Such are the regulations that induce corruption and most simply need to be done away with.

Second, experience from elsewhere indicates that creating transparency and openness in government spending is another great strategy for minimising corruption. Subsidies, tax exemptions, public procurement of goods and services, soft credits, and extrabudgetary funds under the control of politicians constitute the various ways in which a government manages public resources. Governments collect taxes, tap the capital markets to raise money, receive foreign aid and develop mechanisms to allocate these resources to satisfy multiple needs. Some countries do this in ways that are relatively transparent and make efforts to ensure that resources will be used in the public interest. The more open and transparent the process, the less the opportunities for malfeasance and abuse. This calls for high levels of citizen literacy, and an active civil society with a culture of participation. A good example here is New Zealand, which remains consistently one of the top performers in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. New Zealand is a pioneer in creating transparent budget processes, having approved in 1994 the Fiscal Responsibility Act that provides a legal framework for transparent management of public resources.

Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere…demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state.

A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state. Purchases of goods and services by the state can be sizeable in most countries – somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of gross domestic product. Since the awarding of contracts involves a measure of bureaucratic discretion, and given that most countries have long histories of graft, kickbacks, and collusion in public procurement, an increasing number of countries have opted for procedures that guarantee adequate levels of openness, competition, a level playing field for suppliers, and fairly clear bidding procedures.

Singapore has achieved this by streamlining cumbersome administrative procedures and slashing red tape to provide an efficient and transparent civil service so that no one needs to bribe civil servants to get things done. A national ICT masterplan was set up in the 1980s, which is updated regularly to enable the government to exploit technology to benefit the country and to spur economic growth. Through this, the government implemented e-services to enhance the accessibility and convenience of government services. Now thousands of government services are transacted online by Singaporeans in the comfort of their homes. With regard to public procurement, Singapore installed GeBIZ, an online procurement portal because of which, today, all government procurement is done online. The procurement specifications are posted online and are available to all prospective contractors, both national and international. Transparency and efficiency are enhanced, and opportunities for abuse and corruption are drastically reduced.

A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state.

Chile is another country that has deployed the latest technologies to create one of the world’s most transparent public procurement systems in the world. ChileCompra was launched in 2003, and is a public electronic system for purchasing and hiring based on an Internet platform. It has earned a worldwide reputation for excellence, transparency, and efficiency. It serves companies, public organisations as well as individual citizens, and is by far the largest business-to-business site in the country, involving 850 purchasing organisations. In 2012 users completed 2.1 million purchases issuing invoices totaling US$9.1 billion. It has also been a catalyst for the use of the Internet throughout the country.

In many of the measures discussed above, the underlying philosophy is one of eliminating the opportunity for corruption by changing incentives, by closing loopholes and eliminating misconceived rules that encourage corrupt behaviour.

But an approach that focuses solely on changing the rules and the incentives, accompanied by appropriately harsh punishment for violation of the rules, is likely to be far more effective if it is also supported by efforts to buttress the moral and ethical foundation of human behaviour. For the anti-corruption war to succeed, the Singapore example illustrates that it requires unrelenting political will on the part of the top political leadership and it must be waged comprehensively and without fear or favour. Otherwise, the manner in which the war against corruption has been conducted in Kenya amounts to mere window dressing; it is emblematic of the proverbial preaching of water while simultaneously partaking of wine.

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‘Secular’ Vs ‘Religious’ Violence: When Is Terrorism Not Terrorism?

5 min read. The rigid distinction between “the tolerant secularist” versus the “barbaric religious fundamentalist” in today’s discourse on the global War on Terror has been employed to justify the extreme measures taken against so-called Islamic terrorist groups.

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‘Secular’ Vs ‘Religious’ Violence: When Is Terrorism Not Terrorism?
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In the past few decades, Islam has been on the spot in connection with violence due to the surge in armed groups that justify their actions using the religion. Examples abound: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) have claimed to want to unite all Muslims under one caliphate, liberate them from a Christian-Jewish conspiracy, and free Muslim countries from foreign influence. Similarly, Al Shabaab has an ambition to regain Somalia’s lost territories and establish a Muslim state that is free from foreign influence.

Such claims and the fear that these alarmist statements ignite have not only won these violent groups new recruits but have also led to the tightening of counterterrorism efforts. President Donald Trump, for example, calls Islamist groups and their violent actions “radical Islamic terrorists/terrorism”. However, after the New Zealand mosque massacre last year that left 49 people dead, he referred to the atrocity as “an act of hate”. Notable is his failure to differentiate between “Islamic” and “Islamist” and how quick he is to draw the link between Islam, Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS). The latter have been labeled terrorist groups even though there has been a spike in white nationalist violence/terrorism in parts of the United States.

Closer to home, Al Shabaab and its rhetoric has often received widespread publicity as an “Islamic’ terror group” – a label that immediately makes a connection between Islam and violence. There have been recent calls by the Government of Kenya for the United Nations Security Council to officially classify Al Shabaab as terrorist group. Yet the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), despite claiming that its actions are inspired by Christianity, has not been labeled a “Christian terrorist group”.

“Secular” versus “Islamic” terrorism

The question is whether claims by Islamist groups such as Al Shabaab should be taken at face value. Al Shabaab has received widespread publicity in comparison to other “secular” armed groups largely because, together with other Islamist groups, it is seen as “religious”, “indiscriminate”, “brutish”, and “inflexible to negotiation” because it hates secular institutions, especially the Federal Government of Somalia (and its allies) and does not recognise “infidels”. If one uses Al Shabaab’s logic, a threat to Al Shabaab equals a threat to God.

However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords. For example, in the period culminating in the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 and during the civil war in Somalia, such violence was propagated by, among other actors, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). ARPCT was an alliance of “secular” politicians comprising a band of warlords mainly from the Hawiye clan and their financiers. There are many other examples of violence by so called “secular” actors beyond Somalia that could be classified as state-perpetrated terrorism, including US drone attacks on Somalia that continue to this day.

Ironically, during that period, it was the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that brought peace to Somalia for the first time since onset of the civil war. Back then, the ICU comprised, among other factions, so-called moderates and radical Islamists. Sheikh Sharif, who later, in 2009, would became president, led the moderates and adopted a liberal approach to politics that was opposed by the more radical faction. This radical faction would go on to form the Al Shabaab of today after sabotaging the unity and progress of the ICU and making more political demands. Al Shabaab gained more strength after the ICU was ousted from Mogadishu in 2006 by US-backed Ethiopian forces.

However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords.

Al-Shabaab violence is often portrayed as a religious act of purification. Yet Al Shabaab’s attacks are non-discriminatory – Muslims and non-Muslims are targets, as are locals and foreigners. In Somalia, the targets have been government buildings, hotels, restaurants and schools where the majority of the casualties have been Somali Muslims. The most prominent recent example is the attack on a hotel in Kismaayo that killed the Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh and the attack in Mogadishu that killed the Mayor of Mogadishu, Abdulrahman Omar Osman, after a bomb was detonated inside the headquarters of Benadir district. Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.

This is not to imply that religious institutions and individuals have not been targets of Al Shabaab. On the contrary, when this happens, it is more because the target was easy and the aim was to heighten the impact of the violence, thereby raising the profile of the group. It also often does so for political and economic motives as opposed to “religious” ones. For example, the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was claimed as a retribution against Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011. The attack in Mpeketoni was targeted at Kikuyu Christians, while the one at Garissa University, which killed 148 students, targeted the mostly Christian student population.

Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.

Therefore, when al-Shabaab uses Islam to justify its actions, it does so to win the support of Muslims in countries like Kenya, which are rich grounds for radicalisation. Thus the notion of purity that comes with the “Islam” label is tapped into by the group to present it as incorruptible, similar to the Salafi or Ummah brands that are used to unify Muslims.

Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state. The use of a pious rhetoric to promise change by returning to the pure foundations of Islam serves a social function that Al Shabaab uses to promote its political agenda.

As argued by Gunning and Jackson, religion is complex and difficult to define and so it is problematic to generalise it. Religion should be seen as a part and parcel of society – a “site of practice attached to power and knowledge embedded within a community of believers”. The rigid dichotomy of “religious” versus “secular” is rooted in European history and politics where religion was seen as irrational in comparison to rational science and therefore confined to the private sphere.

Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state.

Labeling Islamist groups as “religious” is therefore informed by the Christian West, whose image of the Middle East is that of the “other” – the “fanatic Muslims” – an image that is reinforced by the increased use of religious symbols by Islamist groups. This explains the double standard of why the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) of Northern Spain that is shaped by Catholicism is seen as secular yet al-Qaeda, despite displaying diverse secular qualities and ambitions, such as overthrowing regimes, ending occupation, freeing Palestine, and targeting both secular and religious sites, is seen as “a network of Islamic extremists and Salafi jihadists”.

Labelling Islamist groups like Al Shabaab as “religious” risks implying that it is a legitimate representative of Somalis and East African Muslims; yet Islamic practices are shaped by context and are diverse. Muslims in East Africa alone are indeed quite diverse and the fact that some Muslim leaders have come out to condemn the actions of the group serves as proof of this diversity. Al-Shabaab members and their leaders should therefore be seen as only a fraction of Muslims of East Africa, acting not as representatives of Muslims but as a unique group with its own agenda. Regardless of their claims, so-called “religious terrorists” do not necessarily act as they preach; rather their actions are often shaped by political calculations.

The rigid distinction between “the tolerant secularist” versus the “barbaric religious fundamentalist” in today’s discourse on the global War on Terror has had the impact of promoting further conflict and denies Muslims their history, which is distinct from that of the West. This distinction is used to justify the extreme measures taken against so-called Islamic terrorist groups and helps to divert attention from controversial “secular” state violence.

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