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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.

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“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.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Politics

The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam

6 min read. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to cancel the tender for the construction of the Kimwarer dam but to allow for the Arror dam project to proceed at half the original cost has been viewed as a commendable action in the fight against graft. However, ALESSANDRO DA ROLD and LORENZO BAGNOLI suggest that there could more than meets the eye in what is known as the “dams scam”.

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Since the 1970s, Kenya has been considered by convicted Italian criminals as a safe haven – a place to hide from justice. A recent tide has, however, occurred and now some of these criminals have been extradited after spending years enjoying the “good vibes” of the Kenyan sea shores, especially in their stronghold Malindi. It seems to be the end of an era marked by impunity as Kenyan authorities have started pursuing alleged felonies committed by Italians living in Kenya. The authorities are not just going after individuals, but companies as well.

On the 29th of July this year, the Milimani Chief Magistrate’s court in Nairobi allowed Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, to issue an arrest warrant for the Italian citizen Paolo Porcelli, the CEO of CMC (Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti) from Ravenna. Porcelli is charged with abuse of office, bid-rigging and misuse of public funds and could face jail time if he returns to Kenya. With him on the list of the indicted there is also the Italian joint venture between the Italian companies Itinera (Gavio Group) and CMC.

Porcelli declined to appear in court twice. “Porcelli is a fugitive. Despite being given the opportunity, he hasn’t presented himself in court for a second time,” DPP Special Prosecutor Taib Ali Taib told the court. “The Italians think they can break the law and get away with it contemptuously. They believe nothing will come out of it.  Don’t allow it, your honour”.

Porcelli’s lawyers have a different opinion on his judicial status in Kenya: they explained that the indictment has charges only against the Kenyan top officials involved in the case. “It is not clear, and it is not explained [by the investigators] why Mr Porcelli and the joint venture CMC-Itinera could be indicted for the only charges they have, namely cashing in the deposit on the construction as it was agreed upon the contracts.”

The arrest warrant issued to the Italian manager is the latest development in a long saga reported in the international media as the “dams scam”. This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya (CMC declines any involvement, claiming its innocence); the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The CMC’s long nightmare

CMC is a giant company in the field of construction globally. Wherever there is an important tender, the company is among the bidders. However, the glorious history of the company didn’t guarantee CMC’s success – construction is a competitive sector around the world. Sometimes to be awarded a tender, managers have to cross the line between lobbying and corruption.

In 2014, CMC signed a consultancy contract with Primo Greganti, a businessman and former politician who was arrested for alleged corruption: he would have helped some companies to be granted tenders for the construction of the site of Expo Milan 2015, the world food exhibition hosted in the Italian city.  The trial ended in a plea: in the Italian judiciary system, it means there is no verdict on the culpability of the defendant.

This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya; the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The company was effectively granted a six million euro tender for the recovery of the land of the so called “plate”, the foundation for the exhibition facilities. At the end of the work, the final cost skyrocketed to 30 million euros because of differences caused by unexpected changes in the project. These extra costs were heavily criticised by the Expo 2015 board members because there were no grounds for justifying them. But because time for the construction at the site was running out, nobody within the board could reject the CMC’s requests. CMC was also awarded the tender for the construction of one of the French pavilions at the exhibition.

In May 2018, the company issued a press release on its financial situation. Under “total turnover” it reads: “Decreased from €289.0 million to €258.2 million. In particular, construction revenue decreased from €278.0 million to €236.7 million, due to a €23.0 million reduction overseas and an €18.3 million reduction in Italy. A significant increase is expected from certain projects achieving full production stage and from the start of the new project secured in recent quarters.”

In another press release issued in November last year, the company stated: “The Board unanimously concurred that, in a market context that was already structurally problematic, for reasons that arose spontaneously without any predictability, linked to non-receipts of orders and/or the state of progress of work, the Company is facing a moment of cash-flow tension.”

The main “non-receipts of order” at that time was Anas, the Italian company partially controlled by the state and in charge of maintaining and managing Italian highways. With the Kenya dams tender, it seemed that the cash flow problem might be solved. Kenya and Nepal were at that point considered as possible anchors that could recover the company’s accounts. One of the primary goals of the managers, therefore, was to immediately cash in on the advances made on work yet to be carried out. And this is when new problems arose.

The masterminds targeted by the investigation

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta. Both projects were expected to provide water to the population of the Rift Valley. According to the 2017 annual budget of CMC, Kenya was among the list of countries that contributed to expand the productivity of the company. Two years later, the situation is totally different.

In Italy, the authors of this article have since March been investigating the Kenyan dams case for La Verità, a right wing newspaper. The newspaper discovered a contract signed in 2013 between CMC and Stansha Limited, the company associated with the Lamu West MP, Stanley Muthama who was arrested on 28th June for tax evasion. It is a consultancy contract granting Muthama a fixed fee of 3 per cent in case CMC signs a contract with local development authorities in Kenya.

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In that case, it was the Itare dam, another project to supply water in the Rift Valley, which apparently is not included in the current investigation. The investigation went silent until 22nd July when 28 other people were arrested on a different charge: international corruption. Among them was the Italian CEO, Paolo Porcelli, and Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich. The Italian prosecutor Lucia Lotti is handling the case in Rome, with the option to file a new investigation in Italy as well.

As is everything in Kenya now, this case could be framed as the battle between Uhuru and his number 2 in the 2022 election campaign, William Ruto. It has been suggested that Ruto could be using the Italian company for political support. Ruto’s daughter, June Chepchirchir, holds a senior position as the second counselor at the Kenyan embassy in Rome, Italy.

A key moment in diplomatic relations

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was abducted on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County. But since then there has been no substantial information on her situation, apart from the trial of Gababa Wariu and Moses Lwari Chende, who confessed to aiding Romano’s abduction. But the investigation so far has not resulted in finding her.

In Italy the absence of updates on Silvia Romano’s health conditions are considered very alarming. At the same time, there is a new ongoing effort in Italy to have Romano released. The Kenyan head of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and Italian prosecutors in Rome are discussing a common strategy on the issue. If no positive results are achieved, the predictable outcome could be the cooling down of business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in the initial stages.

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was kidnapped on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County.

While Italy is grappling with the dams scandal and the search for Silvia Romano, France is trying to find a foothold in East Africa by signing new contracts with the Kenyan government. Rivalry in bilateral relationships in Africa is always a hot issue within the European Union (EU) member states, who have been unable to come up with a single comprehensive strategy for how EU member states should deal with African governments.

A possible read on the dams case is that William Ruto was the guarantor for the Italians and he can’t assure them anymore because he is currently dealing with bigger challenges related to his re-election campaign, which has been marred by corruption scandals implicating individuals from his political camp.

 

Editorial note:

For additional information on the Arrow and Kimwarer Dams saga see links below.

A consultancy agreement between C.M.C. di Ravenna South Africa Branch and Stansha Limited (a company registered in Kenya) for the general purposes to provide consultancy services for the Itare Dam and Ruiru II Dam project under Athi Water Service Board.

DPP’s press statement on investigations concerning KVDA and Rift Valley Water Services Board
Following complaints to the Government of Kenya has been exposed to the loss of billions of shillings arising out of manipulation of the tendering process of several dam projects including the Arrow dam, Kimwarer dam, Itare dam, Embobut multi-purpose dam, Lower Turkwell irrigation scheme et.al the DPP’s office constituted a team of prosecutors to ensure the investigations of the aforementioned projects were carried out.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe

8 min read. Admired by Pan-Africanists for his anti-imperialist rhetoric but loathed at home for his authoritarian tendencies, Robert Mugabe was a man full of contradictions. TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA reflects on the controversial life of Zimbabwe’s longest-serving leader.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe
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Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for nearly four decades. died on the 6th of September 2019 in a hospital in Singapore. Mugabe’s death, like his life, has generated animated debate, the very first irony being that after nearly four decades in office he died in a foreign hospital. Some have praised Mugabe for being a “liberation icon”, and a “great Pan-Africanist”. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called him “a fellow combatant”. Others have charged Mugabe with being a “tyrant” who collapsed his country and fanned “genocidal” ethnic divisions.

However, in order to fully understand this complex character, we have to put Mugabe into a broader historical purview. Mugabe was educated by Jesuit Catholics. Initially trained as a teacher, he would remain deeply religious his entire life. It was in the maelstrom of liberation contests that Mugabe’s oratory skills came to the fore and he became the target of the vicious Rhodesian state that threw him and other nationalists, into detention.

Mugabe used his time in jail to get qualifications in law and economics. With his release from the Rhodesian jail, after almost eleven years, he headed straight to the liberation war front by escaping the country and crossing into Mozambique. There he became the voice on Radio Zimbabwe, and fronted media engagements. His star was shining as he became the forceful voice leading liberation delegations first at the failed Geneva Conference of 1976 and then at the Lancaster House settlement in 1979 in London.

When Mugabe was prime minister and then president, there were geopolitical factors that worked against the success of Zimbabwe. South of the Limpopo, apartheid South Africa destabilised the whole region. Importantly, the Rhodesian political economy was constructed for a few white settlers and the black majority government that Mugabe led had inherited an economy that was stable but very parochial.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience. Young men labelled “dissidents” were tortured, murdered in cold blood, and buried in mass graves. The violence was so macabre it brought nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to near tears. He escaped to London and wrote The Story of My Life (1984). This was only settled in Mugabe’s favour when they signed the Unity Agreement of 1987.

That sordid part of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history provided a script into the 1990s and 2000s. But what most political biographers of Zimbabwe leave out is that the Rhodesian settler-state inherited by the nationalist movement was a war machinery built to defend white settler interests. Ken Flower, who was the first director of the vicious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), wrote about the “exploits” of the white-security state apparatus in a book titled Serving Secretly. The 1980 Lancaster House Constitution at Zimbabwe’s independence left this state-security apparatus unreformed and years later Mugabe would boast that “he had degrees in violence” and that the “gun was mightier than the pen”.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience.

The ruling political class dealt with opponents ruthlessly and Mugabe’s rise and demise as leader was tightly linked to the military. Professor Jonathan Moyo argued that Mugabe was the victim of Zimbabwe’s “militarists”’. It was a military declaration in 1975 called the Mgagao Declaration that put Mugabe at the apex of the liberation movement in Mozambique. It was the military that kept him in power and that took him out of power via the putsch of November 2017. He was replaced with a man chosen by the military – Emerson Mnangagwa aka the crocodile, a name bequeathed to him because of his ruthlessness.

Scattered ideological orientations

Mugabe blundered from one political ideology to another but at the core of the project was power retention at any cost. In the 1970s Mugabe preached socialism and dabbled in some incoherent half-understood Marxist-Leninism. But when young guerillas attempted to build a Marxist political movement, they were thwarted and thrown into prison.

One young military commander from then, Wilfred Mhanda, wrote about the experience in his memoir Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (20011 – Weaver Press). In the early 1980s, Mugabe articulated variant forms of socialism and Marxism but only to court allies, given the global geopolitical contests of the Cold War era. The ZANU-PF manifestos of the 1980s discussed socialism in theory but there was no attempt to build a socialist economy and by the end of the 1980s any pretence to building socialism was abandoned – the road to socialism was closed off. In another memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006), Fay Chung would state that Mugabe was a devoted Roman Catholic and it’s possible that this closed off any concrete inclination towards Marxism or Maoism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements. The crisis of falling incomes, unemployment, inflation, adventure into the DRC war and the increased debt levels knocked the economy down. This was made more acute by the seizure of white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the agriculture sector.

Mugabe then veered into a radical indigenisation programme. To keep all these threads from exploding, he entrenched a political system of shredding the Constitution and making himself an imperial, almost feudal-aristocratic president. Zimbabweans mass migrated into the region and a passport, to escape anywhere, became a prized possession in a country that has become what Dambudzo Marechera called “The House of Hunger”.

The 2017 coup and the militarists

When Zimbabwe’s generals staged a coup in 2017, they pointed out that ZANU-PF was corrupt and needed to be rescued from itself. The whirlwind that consumed Mugabe was in the seeds that he had sown. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 1999, he had allowed the chief of defence forces to say “the presidency was a straightjacket” and in 2008 he had allowed the military to take over the running of the election under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a relic of the Rhodesian military state.

The political nose that Mugabe had used to strangle the opposition and to brutalise civil society into subjugation was now turned on his neck. Professor Jonathan Moyo, now in exile, has argued that Mugabe was a mere “spokesperson” of the military system that harbours, in his words, the “repugnant ideology” that the “gun commands politics”. To claim that Mugabe, after almost half a century at the helm of the nationalist movement, was a mere “mouth” of the military is the grandest of revisionism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements.

But Mugabe also went beyond violence as a means of political rule. Using his oratory skills, he presented himself as a Pan-African liberation fighter, and often riled against imperialism and stirred the ideological support of nationalist movements. In Zimbabwe, the political system became dominated by what Professor Ranger called “patriotic history”. In a way the system of political rule was a complex combination of authoritarianism, ideological narrative and patronage networks. Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman have pointed out more clearly that “authoritarian regimes rely on ideas, not just guns”:

“The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures where state resources are cascaded down chains of patron-client links. In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of communities who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.” (Mail and Guardian, 6 November 2019)

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history. Mugabe compared the nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to “a snake whose head must be crushed”.

In the 1990s, when his former comrade Edgar Tekere opposed the “one-party state”, he was thrown out of the party and his supporters were accusing of “courting death”. Years after that the famed guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first army general, died in a suspicious fire. Rex Nhongo was suspected of first supporting Simba Makoni and then his wife Joyce Mujuru to challenge Mugabe. A few years later, Emerson Mnangagwa was kicked out as Mugabe played one political faction against the other in Machiavellian style. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders were charged of “subversion”. (Morgan Tsvangirai has written about his trials and tribulations is his memoir At the Deep End.)

When Mugabe was president, the opulence of his and his family’s lifestyle was on display at their home called “The Blue Roof”. Nepotism and cronyism were rife. Those networked with the Mugabes worked their way into economy. In Mazowe, just outside Harare, poor farmers who had been allocated land were kicked out and some were only saved by High Court orders. Nephews, nieces, uncles, children and the president’s immediate family amassed vast amounts of wealth. Mining claims, multiple farms, fuel cartels and contracts with the government is how this wealth was amassed. One of Mugabe’s nephews boasted “if you want to be rich join ZANU PF”. Public enterprises were looted with reckless abandon. Before being deposed, the Mugabes were going to build a Robert Mugabe University to the tune of US$1billion. Even in death Mugabe will be buried in a mausoleum possibility costing millions.

Of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela 

Robert Mugabe left no condensed publication of his thoughts, which means his intellectual footprint is only found in speeches and scattered interviews. For a president whose education varied from law, economics and education, this is rather disappointing.

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history.

It was at continental and global forums that Mugabe attracted the affinity of Black Africa, and where he mesmerised the Global Pan-African movements and other social and political forces. He went to United Nations General Assembly meetings religiously. There he made scathing comments about racism, demanded equality at the UN Security Council, railed against economic exploitation of Africa and raised his voice to throw spears at imperialism. An articulate black president from a small former African colony who repossessed land, who was placed under sanctions, and who made stinging statements against inequitable global power relations is what the Pan-Africanist movement was lacking and some sections praised Mugabe for this.

Compared to the other towering intellectuals, theorists and revolutionaries of Pan-Africanism, Robert Mugabe’s legacy withers. Kwame Nkrumah was a thinker and an intellectual who penned treatises that dealt with the African condition. Mwalimu Nyerere was a nation-state builder who forged the disparate social groups of Tanzania into a cohesive stable polity and who retired into a modest life. Nelson Mandela pulled the strands of a nation traumatised by the violence of apartheid into a “Rainbow Nation”. Having had a “long walk to freedom”, Nelson Mandela subjected the country to constitutional democracy. Thomas Sankara forged an everlasting revolutionary legacy. He placed women at the centre of politics and development, tackled illiteracy, and invested in health. The young captain lived a modest life, shunned decadent opulence and boldly set into motion the belief that the “future can be invented”.

Broad strokes of history

They say history is written in broad strokes. Mugabe’s anti-colonial credentials will shine; he stayed in prison for over a decade, the radical land repossession will also burn bright but this will be blighted by the brutality, the ruthlessness, the corruption and the repugnant politics of polarity authored by Mugabe. Of Mugabe’s politics, the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem had this to say:

“Zimbabwe and President Mugabe are a situation we cannot in all good conscience continue to pussyfoot about anymore. It is indefensible that one man, no matter his contribution to the country, should be holding the people to ransom…Mugabe is no longer the part of the problem of Zimbabwe: he is now the problem (Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards, 2010)

Mugabe built a surveillance state of Stalinist proportions that was littered with impunity, arrogance of power, extrajudicial killings, a rapacious propaganda system, and a personality cult that exacted worship and fear from the man and woman on the street. The long motorcade, ambulance in tow, imported cavalcade of cars, gun-toting soldiers, loud police sirens, police motorbikes, traffic cleared from the road and armoured cars that ferried Mugabe have died down. The putsch of 2017 ushered in the country’s militarists who remain in control of a vicious perpetuum mobile ­­– a kleptocratic military class that has melted away any respect for the constitutional edicts of the country.

We from Zimbabwe will remember Mugabe for a dream that could have been possible but instead was collapsed into what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu called “grotesque nationalism”.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law

8 min read. A law to allow the seizure of white-owned land could have a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences could be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors in South Africa.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law
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Some time has passed since South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s highly controversial announcement of a new land reform law that would allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Accused by some of racism, and by others of populism, the president is trying to address the pressing requests of the vast majority of blacks who still feel oppressed after white minority rule ended in 1994. According to a recently released parliamentary media statement, this bold move should fix “the historical wrongs caused by arbitrary dispossession of land, and in so doing ensure equitable access to land and further empower the majority of South Africans to be productive participants in ownership, food security, and agricultural reform programmes.”

Apparently, in a country where the white minority account for just over 9 per cent of the population but which owns over 70 per cent of the land, such a law seems to be a fair way to balance the scales of social justice. However, on the other side of the barricade, there are thousands of white Afrikaners descended from Europeans who colonised South Africa who claim that they worked hard to obtain that land. These people are human beings as well, and many of them are only paying the price of a segregation regime imposed by their fathers and grandfathers.

This bitter battle between these two sides is rooted in apartheid, a terrible word that does more than just bring back bad memories. It is an ugly concept that speaks to us of racial segregation, and inhumane treatment. And even if now the faces (and colours) of the protagonists may have swapped, the dehumanising cruelty behind it has probably not.

The controversial amendment to section 25 of the Constitution

To date, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s leading political party since the end of apartheid, has redistributed land following a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In a nutshell, the government buys white-owned farms and then redistributes them to black farmers. The idea was to return at least 30 per cent of the land that was expropriated from black farmers to their legitimate owners by 2014. However, today less than 10 per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed. Exponents of the South African Homeless People’s Association claim that the “willing seller, willing buyer” model only widened the social divide, bringing more poverty to the masses.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

This law was supported by a small radical party led by Julius Malema, the newly-created Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, not all the white owners got their land by means of coercion during the previous century. Many claim they legitimately bought it through the hard work of their ancestors and defined this law as grossly immoral and inhumane. Some threatened to wage war to defend their farms, bringing back the sad memories of the recent land expropriation policies enforced in Zimbabwe. Some other “softer” reforms have been proposed, such as paying “just and equitable” compensation that is well below market price to landowners, or banning foreigners from buying agricultural lands.

Racism: the legacy of a century of apartheid in South Africa

Unlike other countries where racism is a tremendous plague that crawls hidden in the very fabric of society, in South Africa racism and discrimination against blacks were explicit laws. During the last century, European colonialists simply institutionalised them as part of the nation’s legal infrastructure. Similar to the racial laws that forced Jews to lose their jobs just because of their heritage, during apartheid in South Africa, a series of laws were put in place to enforce white dominance. It was the Parliament itself that decided that black people had to be inferior human beings and had, therefore, limited access to rights.

In 1913, the South African’s colonialist administration passed the Natives Land Act, a law which stripped nearly all black people of their right to own land. Although 72 per cent of the population consisted of black people, this law limited land ownership among blacks to a mere 8 per cent of the country. White South Africans literally gave land to themselves, a capital offence that created a terrible precedent as many black people were forcefully evicted from their farms.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

Other laws, such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 and the Group Areas Development Act of 1955, further reinforced these policies of segregation. Blacks were forced into unproductive land and underdeveloped regions, which excluded them from amenities such as parks, schools, and hospitals that only whites could access. Blacks could not obtain formal training for skilled jobs, which denied them the right to study, and barred them from equal employment and development opportunities. Together with many other racial laws, apartheid drove the black community into poverty, prevented them from expressing their opinions freely, and stripped them of their properties.

When the apartheid formally saw its end in 1994, many who suffered from these disparities imposed by this regime rejoiced, hoping for reforms that would bring back some justice in their lives. However, as often happens in politics, many of these promises of equity and equality quickly turned into empty words and vain declarations. The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget. Racial inequalities persist in many sectors, including in the mining and industrial sectors, which constitute the backbone of the nation’s economy. The majority of the most profitable companies remain controlled and managed by whites, and the whole labour market still suffers from substantial polarisation.

Growing inequalities

The snowball effect of nearly 400 years of colonialism left the black community in dire poverty, ripe with nearly-illiterate individuals who had no chances to become competitive in the upcoming century of globalisation. According to the World Bank, 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2017, the unemployment rate was still high and growing at 27 per cent, with many people lacking tangible prospects for a better life. Race still has a tremendous impact on an individual’s chances of finding a job, as well as on the wages received once employed. A bitter divide between white Afrikaners and black people has kept growing and has become the core of all social or political debate in this tormented country.

Despite the country’s huge potential for growth, the economy kept stagnating during the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Characterised by rampant corruption and continuous scandals, Zuma’s administration came under pressure as the masses started asking for policies that would address unemployment, disparities, and poverty.

The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget.

Eventually, after an extremely unpopular cabinet reshuffle, Zuma was forced to resign and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. The new president cracked down on corruption and kicked out many inept ministers while Zuma was indicted for money laundering and racketeering. However, the damage that Zuma inflicted to the party’s credibility was so severe that it had to rely on radical parties such as the EFF to gain some traction.

The ANC lost so many voters in the 2016 local elections that the 2019 ones may be in jeopardy. Some argue that Ramaphosa is simply pushing the Land Expropriation Act as a populist ploy aimed at recovering a significant portion of the voters’ trust. The nation’s poor, in fact, make up the majority of the electorate, and addressing their plight will certainly provide him with the political stability his government needs so much.

The human, social, and economic consequences

ANC’s and EFF’s new land reform tastes like nothing but a bloody policy of revenge inspired by populism and driven by a desperate need to win the elections. But blood always calls for blood, and may easily throw South Africa into a new civil war, no matter how justified this law may seem. The French Revolution, the recent Zimbabwe land expropriation laws, and even the Communist Revolution all teach us a fundamental lesson – that legislation that allows a state to violate property rights only creates new privileged elites rather than equalising the social fabric.

A law to allow the seizure of land has a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences can be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors as well, and neighbouring Zimbabwe is a prime example. Just like Venezuela, another country where land was redistributed from the rich to the poor, today Zimbabwe needs to import nearly all the food it needs rather than producing most of it, as it did 20 years ago.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture unless they have access to the latest methods and technologies. Yet, once again, has the government thought and planned a strategy to provide these future landowners with the necessary means to survive in such a harshly competitive environment? Worst case scenario: this may lead to large-scale deforestation by owners who will start selling their wood cheaply to foreign companies – a process that has already devastated Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

However, we may have a very different scenario – one where land is handed down to a smaller amount of black people who will quickly become rich at the expenses of others. A new handful of privileged individuals who will simply substitute former white owners with other newer sons and daughters of uncontrolled capitalism. Their faces may change, but the inequality will bring the country to its knees in the same exact way. Whether their skin tone is darker won’t make them any better than their colonialist predecessors, nor will make the whole act of seizing land be more just or justifiable by any means.

On top of all that, a scenario of harsh social tensions and violent clashes is a bomb that is about to explode. Following some cases of brutal and murderous attacks of white farmer that got the attention of the media, some Afrikaners called out for international aid, claiming there was a “white genocide” going on. And while smart people may easily understand that the numbers are no way as high as to justify the choice of this vastly exaggerated terminology, this alarmist rhetoric is bound to have serious global consequences.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture…

In an era where the rise of neo-fascism, fake news, gross misinformation, and distorted nationalisms represent a serious threat to all societies, this may be a spark that would ignite an uncontrollable chain reaction. Black people around the world are often unjustly identified as enemies by organisations and parties who willfully manipulate information. Knowing there’s a country where a murderous government justifies their violent persecution will only fuel a hate that is certainly more detrimental than beneficial to the black cause.

Conclusion

History cannot be corrected by doing the wrong thing, and the ANC’s policy means nothing but repeating the same mistake over and over again. South Africans deserve having the right to cultivate their lands once again, they deserve to live in a fair country, they deserve peace. It is totally understandable that poverty must be fought with all means, and that the current situation is all but just or fair.

But enforcing the rights of black people with violence won’t restore the justice and equality this country so desperately needs. It will only open a gaping wound across the nation that will widen the divide even more. It may reach the point of breaking any bridge built so far between all those human beings whose sole difference is the colour of their skin and the heredity of their ancestors.

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