Connect with us

Politics

Area of Darkness? Media Frames of Northern Kenya

11 min read.

The Kenyan media has continuously pilloried the North through freeze-framing it as a region where nothing good can or does happen. In this first part of a three-part series, DALLE ABRAHAM examines the role the media continues to play in reinforcing lies and stereotypes about a much-maligned and misunderstood territory and its people.

Published

on

Area of Darkness? Media Frames of Northern Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

“The North is by far the largest of the seven kingdoms, and can fit the other six inside it – not that the others care. Cold and damp, that’s how the southerners see the North. But without the cold, a man cannot appreciate the fire in his hearth. Without the rain, a man cannot appreciate the roof over his head. Let the South have its sun, flowers and affectations, we Northerners have home.”John Snow, Game of Thrones.

Media coverage of Northern Kenya is an invisible and very destructive war. A quick analysis of this coverages reveals how the war is being fought. The focus of the story is similar: sometimes the story is of an enchanting landscape but an unruly people; other times it is of prevailing peace shattered by an underlying atavistic impulse; in other cases, it is how it “almost” attained modern ambition but was in flux because of tribal conflict. Stories of narrow escapes, unexplained and barbaric murders and massacres. Its only variant is the story of a hidden gem in an unruly world.

The narrative comes with its own conventions. Television feature stories are almost always apocalyptic and mysterious: a collage of skulls, crows, clouds, gunshots, parched earth, blood, carcasses, freshly dug graves, a mound of an old grave, a woman crying or a child dying. Their tone, the unsteady camera shots, a reporter seated in the front of a 4X4 land cruiser on a rough road, turning back to the camera in the back seat, feigning surprise, or sympathy, or a reporter emerging from behind a traditional hut or the 4X4 land cruiser. The reporter as commando, camera stand on shoulders, propped like an AK47 in sync with the theme of violence. The soundtrack of suspense and text in blood sets the tone of these feature TV documentaries.

Think about these titles: Desert of Death, Death in the Desert, Oasis of Death, Road of Death and Terror, Manyattas of Death, Death Merchants, Turkana: Living by the Gun, Sun and Guns, Marsabit: Where Guns Rule, Turkana Killings, Uwanja wa Maafa Turkana na Pokot Mashariki, Wajir Mourns, Bleeds and Burns, Mkongoto wa Bunduki, Inside the Killing Fields of Marsabit, The Kapedo Slaughter Field, The Killing Fields of Kapedo, Wajir, Marakwet, Valley of Death.

You can create new versions of this. Any takers? Desert of Terror? Terror and Death in the Desert? Njia ya Mauti? These have appeared on NTV, Citizen, BBC, the Guardian, KTN, Capital FM, Daily Nation, Standard, K24 and many other media houses. These are the titles of media feature stories over the last ten years covering state oppression, diseases, terrorism, ethnic conflict and resource competition in Northern Kenya. NGOs, government policies, comedic clichés and media frames have produced and reinforced a flattened image of Northern Kenya as a place of misery, rebels, guns, deaths, and deserts.

In Desert of Death, a KTN feature story on cancer, Dennis Onsarigo, one of Kenya’s leading investigative reporters, describes the landscape as “an amazing piece of art” with great touristic potential. Onsarigo reminds us that the people are constantly moving in search of water and pasture and rarely have the time to sample the beauty and splendour since something else is hunting them down. His first story in 2013 is titled THE INSIDE STORY: Desert of Death – The Mysterious Silent Killer in Mandera County, even though the coverage is of a village in Marsabit County.

***

In 2015, Miles Warde of the BBC did a podcast titled The Road of Terror and Death. Warde or the BBC borrowed this title with a slight iteration from a Kenyan reporter who in the podcast introduces us to the Isiolo-Moyale road.

“My name is Judy Kaberia, a reporter working with Capital FM. In 2012, I had a traumatic experience on this road. We call it the road of terror or the road of death, that’s how it felt, from every corner, you could smell death. There was a lot of noise and gunshots and at that time I started realising there was trouble, these are the bandits, we call them shiftas, and I said Oh My God…the shiftas are coming…very young energetic men …for me. I thought we were going to die…we will never get out of that place…there was no communication…you can’t call anybody…you can’t text anybody…..that place is very dry…very hot…very dusty…and very rocky…we were really moving very slowly and it was really scary, just praying that we don’t get a puncture because a puncture meant death! We came across a lorry and the driver of the lorry was dead and hanging to the ground…”

We first meet Judy Kaberia in her 2012 feature aired on Capital FM under the title Marsabit Road of Death and Terror. In the feature story, Judy says “Capital FM news is just lucky to have escaped the attack that lasted about 15 minutes”. She informs us that the 120 kilometers of untarmacked road between Merille and Marsabit was very rough and in a pathetic condition and that “a person walking was faster than the one driving”.

She speaks of meeting an Administration Police officer who told her that “in a single day, not less than two people are killed on that road”, which another local had informed her was a “death trap”. The officer and the nameless informant sounded so much like the Swahili-speaking passenger we meet in The Guardian who had told Paul Thoreau, “No, they don’t want your life – they want your shoes.”

In Desert of Death, a KTN feature story on cancer, Dennis Onsarigo, one of Kenya’s leading investigative reporters, describes the landscape as “an amazing piece of art” with great touristic potential. Onsarigo reminds us that the people are constantly moving in search of water and pasture and rarely have the time to sample the beauty and splendour since something else is hunting them down.

In the 2015 BBC podcast, they enact a somewhat familiar setting, a narration interspersed by Somali, Borana and Samburu women singing in the background. It is in this Northern scene that we meet Michael Kaloki, who had helped set up the trip for Miles Warde. We gather that Kaloki is an eccentric man with hobbies like ice carving. He speaks in the polished English often deployed by educated Kenyan city sophisticates. He references the changing vibes as one nears Isiolo and the waning perceptions of belonging. He likens Isiolo to outer space – “a town whereby you’ve reached the edge of…some have called it, maybe I am stretching it, but an edge of civilization in some way and you are moving on to an unknown world…”

When the two men, Kaloki and the white man Miles Warde, arrive in Isiolo, they get surrounded by “an interesting collection of people”. A man in the crowd asks: “What is the value of this information that you are taking from us as a marginalised community who have been under mistreatment for such a long time? What is the value of this to us?”

Kaloki, the ice carver, answers: “We want to show people what life is like in Isiolo. People always talk about Nairobi, people never come out to Isiolo, so we decided, let’s come out and hear the people of Isiolo”. (Kaloki’s good intentions are lost in the unoriginal title of the podcast.)

Something more lies in the cavalier tone that expresses the exaggerated lies of walking being faster than driving in this area, or of two people dying every day, or a car puncture leading to death. All of these stories have a familiar arc. A departure from this kind of misery-filled narrative does pop up occasionally, but even then these stories reiterate the same old clichés: an enchanting landscape of godly splendour, cue Lake Paradise, the salt gem of Chalbi, Mt. Ololokwe or the praises of a cruising road trip.

Or it is the promise of immense potential: LAPSSET and Northern Kenya as the future of Kenya; Northern Kenya as the land of culture. The narratives oscillate between extremes of negativity and of positivity. Old narratives packaged in a new case labelled “Use with Caution”. The positive vibe is cautionary: Beware that this wasn’t possible a few years ago, beware that this joy is temporary, is new, is possible only because of LAPSSET, or because the fighters have gone for a short break.

When the two men, Kaloki and the white man Miles Warde, arrive in Isiolo, they get surrounded by “an interesting collection of people”. A man in the crowd asks: “What is the value of this information that you are taking from us as a marginalised community who have been under mistreatment for such a long time? What is the value of this to us?”

Culture and the Environment and the story of triumph over FGM. Escape from early marriage is an appealing departure but its sentimentalism, its repeated tropes, its throwback feel, its revisionism, is still a confirmation of preconceived notions. There is nothing markedly different in any of these coverages; when the timelines are removed, it is hard to say when the featured events had happened.

The media portrays the North as a featureless place with a cartographic sameness. In her novel, Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kenya’s best contemporary writer, describes it as “…massive canvas of glowing, rocky, heated earth upon which anything could and did happen.” In this context, particularities seem unnecessary and often the media invents non-existent communities to populate the place as The Star did in July, 2019 by claiming that Marsabit is inhabited by amongst others, the “Gendile” and the “Rajuni” besides Gabra, Burji, Rendile, and Borana. Another non-existent community called “Bingi” is often copy-pasted from one site to another (here, and here). This invention is part of the “anything can happen” storyline. With this imagination, Mandera’s plight is projected as Wajir’s and Garissa’s fears are projected as Marsabit’s.

The cost of this violence

At the Pastoralist Leadership Summit held in Garissa in March 2019, Ali Korane, the Governor of Garissa County, stood up and spoke about how while Northern Kenya shared the threats of violent extremism with the rest of the country, for Northern Kenya there was also:

“A more serious concern of not only the real threats but also of perception. While the rest of Kenya only suffers when there is an attack, we (Northern Kenya) are always under pressure to fight perceptions of threat even where there is no insecurity. Anyone who hears about the North of this country will feel an element of fear that those areas are not safe and secure for investment, for travel, for tourism, for trade. We have these perceptions which haunt us day and night.”

Ali Roba, the Governor for Mandera County, was blunt with his disappointments.

“There are more people dying in Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret from other criminal activities than there are people dying in Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale, Mandera from terror- related activities but the same approach as applied to Northern Kenya is not being used. Proclamations of closing the border, removing all the teachers, asking all the doctors to leave never happens wherever terror attacks happens anywhere but it will only in Northern Kenya because of poor policies of government directed towards pastoral communities.”

This perceptual threat has been at work for a long time. In 2015, specialist doctors turned down job offers in Marsabit, citing insecurity, even when the county government told them, “We are ready to pay a salary of up to Sh500,000 and provide decent housing.” The then-Governor, Ukur Yatani, spoke about how “wrong perceptions about insecurity in Northern Kenya are to blame for the lack of interest”.

But these threats go further. The media simplification of stories on ethnic conflicts and their ignorance about who the players are and what the issues in contest are, has meant that reporters use simplified explanations that often favour their informants’ political needs.

Bilinda Straight, in her paper “Making sense of violence in the “Badlands” of Kenya” points out the effects of media effacements and media marginalisation that “contributes to what is effectively a war (however unintended), not on poverty, but on the poor and marginalized”. In this paper she discusses the media in relation to violence in Northern Kenya where “media representations tend to focus on cultural stereotypes that tacitly legitimate ongoing violence by explaining it away as timeless and cultural.” Bilinda points out features that wave away violence in Northern Kenya as routine, acceptable, dismissible, and forgettable.

***

In The Forgotten People, a 1999 Kenya Human Rights Commission report, various media misdemeanors were pointed out. Many examples were curated on how media houses and journalists intentionally twist the truth, how acronyms are muddled, how place names are misplaced, how names of people are frequently misspelled. An example from the Daily Nation’s “Watchman” column of 26 July 1999 illustrates this.

“And still on matters media, Sam Akhwale points out the following variations on the name of our Foreign Minister, all of which have appeared at some time or another: Boyana Godana, Boyana Gonada, Bonaya Gonada, Bonada Goyana, Bonana Godaya, Boyada Gonana, Bodaye Gonaria, Bodana Gonaya, Bodana Goyana, Bonada Gonaya, Bonaiia Goyada. Remember colleagues everywhere, it’s Bonaya Godana.”

The report concludes that these inexcusable errors “indicate not only unfamiliarity with the areas but also disinterest, if not downright contempt”.

This perceptual threat has been at work for a long time. In 2015, specialist doctors turned down job offers in Marsabit, citing insecurity, even when the county government told them, “We are ready to pay a salary of up to Sh500,000 and provide decent housing.”

If in the 1990s poor transport and communication networks were accepted as passable excuses, now, with fairly developed infrastructure, one can call people on the ground and even google to confirm details about places, names and concrete details. The persistence of the same mistakes indicates disinterest and deliberate simplification. All along there has been something more at play; disinterest and contempt are definitely in the mix, but the region has been flattened out and its complexity reduced.

***

The foundation of this narrative lies in the British colonial era in Kenya. The British had fenced off the Northern Frontier District (NFD) and sat on it with no concrete vision of what they wanted. Gunther Schlee, in his book Identities on the Move, writes that the British wanted nothing “…but they did not want to leave this nothing to anybody else”.

NFD, which comprised six districts, was conceived as a buffer zone against Emperor Menelik’s expansionism and later to fascist Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia. NFD kept hostile imperial powers “at a distance of a few hundred miles of semi-desert away from the White Highlands, the Brooke Bond tea plantations and the Uganda railway”.

In post-colonial Kenya, NFD has grown beyond terra incognita into a mysterious place which Parselelo Kantai, in a book review for Chimurenga Chronic, says is “… an outer darkness that generates the ultimate fear: absolute alienation.”

The North has never escaped nor transcended this otherness. A permanent narrative has emerged over the years to keep it where it was. In school texts, the Arabic names beloved by the Muslim Northerners became synonymous with various misdemeanors that Kenyan children were taught to avoid. “These people, we were taught from the earliest days of primary school, were backward, primitive,” writes Kantai.

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the country who had dismissed the residents as “herders by day and shifta by night” had authorised the military to unleash terror to tame the unruly people. Military operations defined Northern Kenya’s relationship with the state’s core. The post-colonial state gave carte blanche powers to rogue officers who supervised mass murders through state-ordained military operations. They gunned down camels, raped women and forced “villagilisation” during the anti-shifta operations. Pastoral nomadism, the engine of the region’s economy, was curtailed. The vestiges of this plunder continues to haunt places like Isiolo where slums – Bulas – around the urban centre house stories of destitution.

*** 

The Kenyan media, it seems from these stories, do not have any moral regrets. Such media practices as fidelity to authenticity, corroborations, timing, and context are disregarded with no professional consequences. The only fidelity they uphold is to the government and to the narrative. The combined assault on the already battered image of the North continues unabated.

Even where communication has improved and roads have “opened up” hitherto unreachable areas like Moyale and Marsabit, the narrative persists, emerging again and again from the remission it occasional sinks into. Conflicts are seasons of rehashing clichés, of harvesting stereotypes, a season that gives one an opportunity to engrave the narrative, adding a personal voice to a script that is passed from one hand to another.

These stories are repeatable props necessary to illustrate and embellish officialdom. These are the justifications to continue with draconian ways to continue vetting Northerners, to continue making it impossibly hard for Northern Kenya to progress in the country Kenya. Fodder that reduces people to second-hand subjects and often objects of state pity. The region is a canvas devoid of complexity, events are inflated out of proportion in keeping with the narrative sustaining the tradition.

In post-colonial Kenya, NFD has grown beyond terra incognita into a mysterious place which Parselelo Kantai, in a book review for Chimurenga Chronic, says is “… an outer darkness that generates the ultimate fear: absolute alienation.”

The new post-colonial elite have also inherited the colonialists’ fear about the place. A conflicting complexity has led to the adoption of a meta-narrative that, according to Emery Roe “…is, in short, the candidate for a new policy narrative that underwrites and stabilizes the assumptions for decision making on an issue whose current policy narratives are so conflicting as to paralyze decision making.”

Sessional Paper No. 10 was thus adopted as a safe gamble that allowed for Northern Kenya to be branded the land of the shifta where adverse government policy and propaganda were marshalled to justify the state’s oppressive marginalisation of the people. These ideas were sold on radios and in National Assembly chambers. These ideas have become the default and attendant discourse on Northern Kenya.

Meanwhile, the Kenyan media has continuously pilloried the North through freeze-framing it as a region where nothing good can or does happen.

Avatar
By

The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Politics

Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

Published

on

Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Download PDFPrint Article

The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

Continue Reading

Politics

The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

Published

on

The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Download PDFPrint Article

The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

 

Continue Reading

Politics

The Irrelevance of NGOs

NGOs have been notably absent in the fight against COVID-19, despite claims they exist solely to ensure accountability and transparency by government.

Published

on

The Irrelevance of NGOs
Download PDFPrint Article

Nothing has exposed neoliberalism as a hoax as intelligently and most strikingly as COVID-19 has done. (Though at the expense of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead.) All over the world, people have come to depend almost exclusively on their national governments not only to stay safe against the deadly pandemic but also for economic survival. Against a painful history of relentless assaults on so-called “big government,” COVID-19 has grown the size of government bureaucracies and budgets in size to what was hardly imaginable only a few months ago.

This change has brought about another debate about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Nowhere is this debate about NGOs more palpable than in my home country of Tanzania, where at the time of writing the East African nation had recorded a total of 480 confirmed coronavirus cases, 18 deaths and 167 recoveries. The situation here seems to be getting out of control as more fatalities continue to be reported, exacerbated by the increasing tendency of hospitals, especially in the country’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, to reject patients suspected of having the coronavirus disease. Several people (see here and here) have reported having their relatives turned away by hospitals, after which some died. The government has been trying hard to underestimate the magnitude of the pandemic, including by underreporting the number of fatalities and doing night burials.

Nearly every action taken by national governments throughout the world in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and thus to save lives and communities, goes directly against the dictates of neoliberal fundamentalism. For a number of decades, advocates of this ideology would propose murderous cuts in public spending on critical sectors like health and education. In addition to the breakneck privatization of public services was the massive growth of NGOs whose missions varied widely; from those advocating for government accountability and democratic institutions to those championing girls’ rights, citizens’ agency, and countless others providing services.

This is no coincidence. The missionaries of neoliberal evangelism have been pushing for the social services provision role of governments to be replaced by NGOs and private individuals, arguing that this will ultimately improve service efficiency for governments. Perhaps there’s no stauncher proponent of that argument in Tanzania than former President Benjamin Mkapa—or at least until recently. It was under Mkapa’s administration that both privatization and NGO growth in the country took root. “Soon after assuming office, in November 1995,” said Mr Mkapa in his speech at the official launch of Tanzania National Business Council (TNBC) on April 9, 2001, quoted in “A Capitalizing City” by Dr. Chambi Chachage, “I realised the need to change the way the national economy is managed. This need was made more acute by the fact that our country was moving from a public sector led economy to a private sector driven market economy.” (Later, Mr. Mkapa would describe the privatization drive unleashed by his administration as the “worst mistake” of his presidency in his memoirs My Life, My Purpose.) In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, however, both NGOs and the private sector have been conspicuously absent on the frontlines where the war against the virus is being waged.

The role of NGOs in Tanzania has been made more interesting both by the Tanzanian government’s handling of the pandemic (which I discuss here), and NGOs’ responses (or lack thereof). So far, the responses of NGOs to the pandemic have been simply bewildering, opaque, and ambiguous. Part of this ambiguity, I think, is due to both the history of NGOs in Tanzania and the issues that they continue to remain deadly silent about. In this latter category is what seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among the NGOs, with very few exceptions, of forgoing what they claim to be their main mission, that is: to cultivate a culture of accountable governance as well as the building of strong democratic institutions in the country. This abandonment is disappointing and surprising at the same time, because during a crisis like the one we are in now, one would have expected that the NGOs, far from pretending as if they no longer exist, would double, or even triple, their efforts to force those in power to act more responsibly and deliver to their constituents.

But from the way things appear on the ground, it is as if the coronavirus disease has forced the NGOs to take some time off their work and give the government, whose handling of the pandemic has made Tanzania the laughing stock of the world, a free reign to act as it wishes. One area of concern is the way the government has entirely left people to fend for themselves amidst the crisis. In fact, instead of helping its people, the government’s asking the people to donate to it! The fact that no NGOs have so far called the government out means that the people have not just been abandoned by their government, but also by the organizations that claim to work on their behalf.

The NGOs have failed to condemn President John Magufuli’s statements and actions that threaten to put the lives of thousands at risk. These statements include the recent one he made during a televised address from his hometown of Chato, in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where the president has been “self-isolating” since the pandemic started. There he urged Tanzanians to consider inhaling steam from a boiling pot of water as a means to cure coronavirus, a suggestion medical doctors have nevertheless advised against. During the rare address, President Magufuli also dismissed the exercise to disinfect public spaces as “nonsense.” Earlier, President Magufuli took to Twitter to declare three days of national prayers “to help defeat coronavirus,” and his government even organized a national prayer to save Tanzania from the pandemic. All this had Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, concerned, according to journalist Geoffrey York who reported via Twitter. In another address, where Mr. Magufuli accused Tanzania’s lab technicians of conspiring with “imperialists” to sabotage the country by increasing the number of positive cases, something which led to the sacking of the national community health laboratory director Dr. Nyambura Moremi, the President said that his government would dispatch a plane to fetch the herbal treatment for the coronavirus touted by the president of Madagascar despite a warning from the WHO that a herbal tonic cannot cure the disease. (One observer of Tanzanian politics described the address as “totally reckless” and even called on people to boycott Magufuli’s subsequent addresses on the coronavirus pandemic lest they go bonkers.) Dangerous and irresponsible as these statements and measures seem, not a single NGO that works in the area of public health—and there is no shortage of them—uttered any public criticism of Magufuli.

Nor are the democratic-championing NGOs concerned by the government’s resolve to centralize the flow of information on coronavirus. No NGO, for example, has come out against the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s (TCRA) directive to members of WhatsApp groups to screenshot “fake information” posted in these groups and report it to authorities. No NGO seems bothered by the Tanzania Police Force’s irresponsible act to storm and interrupt a press conference by the main opposition party CHADEMA intended to give Tanzanians an alternative appraisal of the coronavirus situation from that given by the government. (The party was subsequently able to organize a press conference where its national chairperson Freeman Mbowe outlined twelve issues that he thought were fundamental in the fight against the pandemic.) The same silence on the part of the NGOs was noticeable after a cabinet minister suggested that people should consider using honey when responding to a spike in the price of sugar. (Following a backlash, however, the government later announced a cap on sugar prices.)

While everybody was busy examining their role in combating the coronavirus in the country, some of Tanzania’s “top-notch” NGOs were spotted presenting the government with a 79 million Tanzanian shillings check (about US$34,000) to help fight the virus. The NGOs did that while little or nothing at all was known in the general public of the government’s strategy or even how the money will be used.

I find the move disturbingly ironic, however, given the fact that this money was originally supposed to come directly from the donors to the government coffers but the “development partners” gave them to the NGOs because, as shown above, they are thought to be best placed to deal with social problems. It is also mind-boggling to find the NGOs donating to the government amidst a funding crisis that has hit NGOs across the continent. If the NGOs themselves are convinced that the Tanzanian government can deal with the COVID-19 crisis far better than they can to the extent of giving it money, what does it say of their ideological justification to exist? To their credit, since then a coalition of Tanzania’s NGOs released a position paper and “strategic areas” on COVID-19. In the paper, the NGOs confess to have been caught “unprepared” by the pandemic, something that hampered their ability to respond “promptly.”

A close friend of mine, who works in Tanzania’s NGO sector, thought it was a bad idea for me to go ahead with this piece, saying it was unfair to criticize the NGOs given the fact that I understand the political environment within which the organizations operate and the repression unleashed on them by the state. For a moment I thought this friend of mine was right because it’s true that they work in a tough environment. But then I thought: wasn’t this very attitude on the part of the NGOs to allow themselves to be pushed around by the government responsible for their own miseries, and ultimately, their failure to do what they were founded on?

This led me to revisit 2007, when acclaimed legal and development scholar Professor Issa Shivji published a book, Silences in the NGO Discourse, which served as advice on how Tanzania’s NGOs can remain accountable. He wrote then that if the NGOs are to live up to their missions, which include ensuring democratic reforms in the country, then their entire strategy of engagement with the state would have to change radically. For example, in place of stakeholder conferences, there should be protracted public debates, wrote Shivji. Where previously the NGOs used to dialogue with the state “in five-star hotels,” now there should be demonstrations, protest marches and teach-ins in streets and community centers to expose serious abuses of power and bad policies. “Democratic governance would be an arena where power is contested, not some moral dialogue or crusade for good against evil, as the meaningless term ‘good governance’ implies … You cannot dialogue with power,” the renowned author writes poignantly.

In the wake of the ongoing debate on the role and relevance of NGOs amidst a global pandemic, and the government’s ambiguous response, it appears that more than ten years since Shivji’s book, the country’s NGOs have not been able—or willing—to learn a lesson. Nor, telling from the way they behave amidst the current crisis, is there any indication that they will do so in the near future.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading

Trending