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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?

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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.

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Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
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“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.

Populist idiocy

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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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Politics

The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?

The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.

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The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
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It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.

Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.

And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House –  was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.

So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice.  It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.

If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.

As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.

The coming harsh winter 

It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.

Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…

Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.

There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.

It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.

The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.

Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.

As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?

Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on?  Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.

Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.

While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.

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Politics

Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence

The BBI report is not a document for building durable peace in Kenya because it ignores the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges, and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution.

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President Uhuru Kenyatta has touted the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report as the panacea for peace that will end political and/or election-related violence in Kenya. Mr. Kenyatta has not given Kenyans his definition or understanding of peace, but his lines of argument affirm his minimalist understanding of peace or what peace studies (PS) call negative peace. Students of peace studies caricature this concept of peace as akin to peace between the proverbial happy slave and the slave master.

Overall, Mr. Kenyatta’s arguments on peace and political violence in Kenya are based on flawed premises, among them a very naïve essentialist view of ethnicity, and a tunnel vision of Kenya’s social divides. But that is a topic for another day. Rather, this commentary aims to assess whether BBI is a panacea for peace and whether it can prevent political and/or election-related violence in the future. I will comment on the BBI process and analyse who perpetrated the past political violence and why, and then evaluate BBI’s response to that political violence. The article will end with a comment on an observed and horrifying pattern of current events that negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Exclusive process

A core dictum in peace studies, which originates from Mahatma Gandhi’s moral philosophy, is the unity of processes and ends. The dictum posits that the process that is used to engender social change should be consistent with the goal. This means that if the end goal is inclusion, then the process for attaining this goal should be inclusive because an exclusive process cannot attain inclusion.

The BBI process fails this test because it started as an exclusive and opaque process driven by two men, President Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga. For example, out of the 14 members and 2 co-chairpersons who comprised the BBI task force, 9 were political affiliates of either Kenyatta or Odinga. Therefore, one can infer that the process was heavily skewed towards the interests of the two men and all the public hearings were just a ploy to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome. We can discern this predetermined outcome from the BBI report’s proposals on past political violence.

Sections on political violence

While the BBI report’s proponents tout it as the solution to past political and election-related violence, neither the 2020 edition nor the 2019 draft mentions or analyses the causes of that violence. However, there are three sections that relate to the issue: i) The section on Ethnic Antagonism and Competition (pages 4-5); ii) the section on Divisive Elections (pages 9-12); and iii) the section on Kenya National Guide on Combating Impunity (pages 43-45) in Annex A. However, the latter section deals with disobedience of the law and court orders by senior civil servants and rich Kenyans; it does not address the nexus between impunity and political violence. Therefore, I will assess the other two sections.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

Further, the report mentions divisive elections, but the section is baffling because it provides a very simplistic, almost sophomoric, comment on past elections in just two paragraphs on pages 9 and 10. It then blames “foreign models” adopted from “the democratic West” for engendering what it terms “Us versus Them” election competition, with “Us” and “Them” being based on ethnicity. It adds that “lack of inclusivity” is the “leading contributor to divisive and conflict-causing elections”, and claims that Kenyans associate “the winner-takes-all system with divisive elections”.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

From these cursory assertions, the section recommends the expansion of the Executive branch to comprise a president, a deputy president, a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers as the solution. Supposedly, an expanded executive will be “more inclusive” and will not “generate the same bitterness and tensions as we see when the fight is for the position of the President”. The surprising aspect is its reference to “the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government” as the standard.

The other paragraphs of the section on pages 10 and 12 do not deal with political violence. Rather, they deal with parliamentary representation and the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

Reading these two sections is really perplexing. Who perpetrated the past political violence in 1992/93, 1997/98, and 2007/2008, and why? Did peasants die in the Rift Valley in 1992/93 and 1997/98 because the country had no prime minister? Did the rural subaltern wake up one day and attack each other because they were ethnically different? Did the rural and urban subalterns die in 2007/2008 because of the winner-take-all system?

Analytical approach

This article applies a peace studies framework to understanding how the form of violence that occurred in Kenya in the 1990s and 2007/2008 is organised. The framework postulates that the social construction of political violence is a discursive process that is based on five pillars. First, violence organisers discursively construct boundaries of exclusion using pre-existing markers such as ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or religious identities. Second, they rally the common identity within the exclusion boundary around imminent “threats” or “dangers”. That is, they articulate threats and victimhood narratives within the constructed boundaries. Third, they target those outside the constructed boundary as the “threats” and the “enemy-other”, and they demonise and dehumanise them. Fourth, they discursively renegotiate norms of violence. And fifth, they suppress counter-hegemonic and anti-violence voices.

This social construction of violence requires moments of social uncertainty, especially political and economic crises.  Using this framework, the pattern of violence in the 1990s was pretty straightforward.

Moments of uncertainty 

Over the years during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, Kenya became a full-blown autocracy where the party, government, and civil service essentially fused into a single hierarchical structure of power under the personal control of the president. The system was opaque and centralised around the personality of the president. As a result, political practice revolved around personalities and one-on-one closed-door dealings, instead of a predictable public stand on policy issues and coherent ideological positions. The system was a spiral pyramid of patron-client relations, with the president at the apex as the chief patron. Below the president were his clients at the provincial and district levels, who functioned as patrons in the regions.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty. Some scholars have referred to this style of controlling a country as retail politics.

The system was reinforced by political intimidation and instruments of repression, including detention laws and political assassinations. Therefore, those who articulated and pursued alternative forms of organisation, especially social class mobilisation, were either intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, detained without trial, or assassinated.

When the struggle for multiparty democracy intensified in 1990/91, the Moi regime turned to these oppressive methods. Thus, the police violently repressed public protests in Nairobi and its environs, killing at least 50 young men. Some democracy proponents were detained, others run away into exile, and publications supporting pluralism were banned.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty.

However, the demand for democracy coincided with two factors. First, worsening economic performance and, thus, a decline in revenue and resources for buying loyalty. Second, a greater international concern over human rights violations, which limited the use of formal repression. The resultant political and economic crises created a moment of social uncertainty that shook the Moi regime. In turn, the regime changed its strategies for the looting of the state and enforcing informal forms of repression.

Organised political violence

The central plank of informal repression was unleashing “ethnic” militias and gangs on the innocent civilian population. At first, a group of senior government ministers and KANU politicians would hold a series of public rallies in certain geographical locations, especially in the Rift Valley. The dominant message in these rallies would be hate narratives centred on nativist thinking and autochthonous notions of identity. The narratives would disparage national citizenship and its accompanying rights and instead divide the population into two groups: natives (indigenous or locals) and guests (settlers, immigrants or outsiders). Framing the latter as threats, they would demonise and dehumanise the “guests” as the “enemy-others”. Then they would threaten violence against them. To suppress anti-violence voices, they would label natives who rejected such violence as “ethnic traitors”.

Subsequently, armed militias would attack the innocent civilian population. In some instances, the militias would be dressed in “traditional clothes” and would be carrying “traditional weapons” to disguise the killings as ethnic. Thereafter, government officials, the police, and the pliant media would portray the killings as spontaneous “ethnic clashes” or “land clashes”.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims. A few days later, an opposition politician or activist would be arrested. This was the pattern in the 1992/93 and the 1997/98 violence.

Therefore, Uhuru Kenyatta and his BBI brigade are dead wrong. The 1990s violence was not ethnic or “tribal”; it was not about ethnicity or cultural or linguistic differences. Rather, it was politically organised and the villains were senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Moi regime. Incidentally, the chairman of the BBI process, Mr. Mohamed Yusuf Haji, was the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner at the time, while another BBI member, Mr. Amos Wako, was the Attorney-General. Further, the impunity enjoyed by the implicated politicians partly contributed to the violence of 2007/08.

Actually, studies on the 2007/08 violence have noted that President Mwai Kibaki’s biggest failure was his inability to dismantle the structures of informal violence, and their supporting discursive practices, which emerged in the 1990s. Instead, these structures of extra-state violence diffused during the NARC era such that by 2007, politicians were patronising and funding urban gangs that had emerged as a result of autonomous processes of urbanisation, unemployment, and the vacuum of control in urban areas. A key consequence of this impunity was the erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions, especially security and electoral institutions. It is this mistrust that predisposed politicians and their supporters to view elections as a do-or-die zero-sum game.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims.

In other words, the 2007 election turned disastrous due to the convergence of several factors. Among these was President Kibaki’s failure to address impunity and the discursive practices of the 1990s. Another factor was the intensification of ethnic mobilisation and the generation of new hate narratives by all political formations.

Studies show that vernacular FM radio stations were some of the main propagators of the hate campaigns. For example, a Rift Valley-based vernacular FM station aired materials of a xenophobic nature against the Kikuyu, while FM stations from Central Kenya promoted a siege mentality and disparaged members of the Luo and Kalenjin communities. Studies have also documented some Central Kenya FM radio stations framing one presidential candidate as a murderer and a latter-day Idi Amin Dada.

In essence, therefore, the so-called “tribal violence” and “tribal divisions” are not a reflection of conflicts between distinct and well-organised cultural communities. Rather, they are outcomes of deliberately organised political violence. Indeed, there are reliable reports that have recommendations on these issues, including the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, the Waki report, and the Kriegler report. Similarly, the 2010 Constitution established several independent institutions to address these issues. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Kenyatta chose the BBI instead of implementing these reports or strengthening the existing independent institutions, including the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).

Not a peace document

Even though its proponents have hailed the BBI report as being the pathway to peace, it is evident that there is no linkage between the report’s recommendations and the quest for peace and an end to political violence in Kenya. The section on divisive elections proposes an expanded executive and cites the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government as the reference point. Yet that model was extremely shaky and the prime minister was always complaining.

However, this proposal is horrifying for more fundamental reasons. First, it does not address state-orchestrated violence and impunity that have been the bane of Kenya’s politics since 1990.

Second, nothing in the proposals nor the entire BBI report would stop the losing candidates from perpetrating violence.

Third, the report assumes good faith on the part of the appointing authority and presumes that the president, deputy president, prime minister, and deputy prime ministers will come from different ethnic groups. But good faith cannot be legislated, as President Kenyatta has demonstrated through his multiple actions and omissions that have violated the 2010 Constitution, and his contemptuous disregard of the current Deputy President, William Ruto, since 2018.

Fourth, the proposed expansion of the Executive is perilous as it will validate and reify ethnic boundaries because ethnicity is the assumed basis for allocating the added executive positions. A key lesson from the 2008-2013 era is that the key players in the coalition government became the chief proponents of ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, and impunity in both the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Fifth, the proposal to appoint ANY of the MPs from the majority party or coalition of parties to be prime minister and any other persons as deputy prime ministers is a recipe for factional fighting because it undermines the authority of political parties to choose their own representatives.

Sixth, the proposed structure will perpetuate the current patron-client system and codify the president’s ability to entrench patrimonial and clientilist rule. Indeed, it echoes the late Mobutu Sese Seko’s strategy in Zaire of co-opting would-be opponents, letting them feed at the state trough, rotating them in and out of office, and encouraging them to become wealthy through corruption to neutralise them. But as the collapse of Mobutu’s Zaire shows, such a strategy does not foster durable peace.

The section on ethnic antagonism and competition proposes the inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum. But it is baffling how this will stop impunity, top-down political tribalism, or stop the clients of a president from perpetrating violence when it suits them.

Also, the section recommends criminalisation of hate speech and of the use of violence before and after elections. This is equally bizarre because both hate speech and the use of violence during elections are already criminal under current laws. However, hate speech and threats of violence remain rampant in the country primarily due to impunity and selective application of the law.  Indeed, there is a horrifying pattern of political practice that outrightly negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Current observations

Keen observation of current events shows that President Uhuru Kenyatta is using the 1990s playbook. His handshake rapprochement with Raila Odinga split his Jubilee Party into two wings. Since then, his Jubilee wing has been consistently articulating threats and narratives of victimhood. They are always demonising and dehumanising the targeted “enemy-other”. They are subtly and discursively renegotiating the norms of violence, and they are blatant in their attempts to suppress alternative voices.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year. One can infer that the failure of the police and the NCIC to hold any of them to account is a dead giveaway.

Meanwhile, the president is always lecturing Kenyans about peace, praising the handshake as a precursor to peace, and accusing others of threatening peace. Four examples centred on Kenyatta and the interior ministry will illustrate these observations.

Example 1 

On 29 October 2020, The Standard and The Star quoted Kenyatta’s self-styled adviser and Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, criticising the Deputy President, William Ruto. Referring to Ruto as an “outsider” in the Mt Kenya region, he accused the deputy president of radicalising the youth in the region using the rich-poor narrative and compared the narrative to the re-invention of the outlawed Mungiki sect. Murathe’s argumentation strategy was not just articulating threats and victimhood and demonising Ruto and those who support him; he was subtly raising and justifying the spectre of state violence against the deputy president’s supporters the way previous administrations dealt with Mungiki adherents.

Example 2

On 21 October 2020, the Daily Nation quoted Uhuru Kenyatta rebuking the Abagusii people for not protecting their “son”, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i,  from insults by “outsiders”. His argumentation strategy was in reality articulating four things. First, he was constructing a boundary of exclusion around ethnic identity by classifying the population into “locals” and “outsiders”. Second, he was articulating a victimhood narrative that was portraying Matiang’I, and to an extent the “locals”, as victims of those he was demonising as “outsiders”. Third, he was privileging ethnic identity and diminishing national identity. And fourth, he was renegotiating the norms of violence so that the “locals” would use “defence of their son” as their justification if violence erupted.

Example 3 

On 13 October 2020, the media quoted Fred Matiang’i speaking in Nyamira, which he called his “home”. In his speech, he admonished “outsiders”.  While his remarks were directed at Deputy President William Ruto, he, in essence, sought to emphasise the Kisii ethnic identity over Kenyan national identity, erect a boundary of exclusion around the ethnic identity, and portray “locals” who supported those he was calling “outsiders” as ethnic traitors.

Example 4

On 4 October 2020, a group of hired youth attempted to violently disrupt a church function graced by the deputy president at Kenol in Murang’a. Instead of arresting the youth, the police violently dispersed the locals and fired tear gas canisters at innocent civilians in the church. The few violent youths whom the local people arrested confessed in front of cameras that they had been hired by well-known Kieleweke politicians from Murang’a. Further, the organisers of the event publicly claimed that some bureaucrats from the Office of the President financed the perpetrators.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year.

While the media framed the violence as a “clash between two rival groups” to create the impression of spontaneity, the police initially blamed two MPs who are not favoured by the regime. A few days later, the National Security Advisory Council (NSAC), comprising the same bureaucrats who had been mentioned as the financiers of the violence, lectured Kenyans about the government’s commitment to peace and security. The NSAC then blamed the deputy president’s political wing and revived the discarded Public Order Act to curtail his activities.

Subsequently, the police blamed politicians from “both sides”, but they never explained why no one was arrested or why the NCIC had not acted. Incidentally, a careful reading of Article 7 (1) (a) of the Rome Statute shows that the violence in Murang’a had all the elements of what would qualify as a crime against humanity.

Conclusion

The BBI report is not a document for ending political and/or election-related violence or building durable peace in Kenya. The relevant sections ignore the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution. Therefore, the only inference that one can draw is that the purpose of the BBI process is to recommend the expansion of the Executive.

Moreover, there is a pattern that shows that the president and his acolytes have borrowed from the 1990s playbook on politically-instigated violence. But they would do well to remember that the widespread use of informal violence, massacres, new wars, and genocides in the 1990s led to the development of international norms, standards, and instruments to deal with these challenges. These norms and standards include those codified in the Rome Statute, whose institutional representation is the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Therefore, under the command responsibility principle, the president, senior officials in the interior ministry and state security forces can be held to account for crimes under international law that could result from their court jesters’ hate-mongering and informal violence mobilisation.

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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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