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Religion in a Time of HIV and Austerity: The Curious Case of Prophet Owuor

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As Kenyan society grappled with an uncertain economy and a disease for which there was no cure, charismatic churches and sects filled a void left by a kleptocratic political class that could not provide solutions.

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Religion in a Time of HIV and Austerity: The Curious Case of Prophet Owuor
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In the midst of the 2008 US presidential election, both sides of the campaign faced a pastor problem. For Barack Obama, it was Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the man who had officiated his wedding with Michelle Robinson, and baptised both their daughters. The future president had to distance himself from Rev. Wright when clips of the pastor saying “anti-white, anti-American” things became the subject of national conversation.

For the John McCain campaign, it was Bishop Thomas Muthee, a Kenyan pastor who had prayed for McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, in 2005. Muthee came up in the campaign after Palin started reviving Obama’s connection to Wright, which had come up in February that year.

There were two videos. In one, from 2005, the Kenyan pastor prays for Sarah Palin, who was then the Mayor of Wasilla. He “anoints” her political ambitions, and “rebukes every form of witchcraft”. Two days later, Palin announced her candidacy for the governorship of Alaska, which she ultimately won. In the second video, shot in mid-2008, Palin recalled the 2005 encounter and attributed her political successes to the anointing.

In the typical fervent opposition research of American presidential contests, details of Muthee’s work and claims over the years came up in different publications. Most of them centered around a foundational claim of his ministry – that he had chased away a witch in Kiambu, bringing down the crime rate, alcoholism, and boosting the economy. He had made the claim many times before, and it had been covered extensively as early as 1999.

This story caught my attention not just because we were all invested in the Obama campaign, but also because I spent a significant part of my childhood in Muthee’s church. I’d heard the story of the witch numerous times, repeated as fact. The characters in the story, including the alleged witch, Mama Jane, but excluding the pet python (this comes up somewhere in the many retellings), were a familiar aspect of my short-lived experiment with faith. Mama Jane lived somewhere on the outskirts of the town in what looked like a walled commune for Akorinos.

As a child, it was easy to miss all the nuances that drove the success of the narrative of the witch-hunt. The events described supposedly took place in the late 80s and early 90s, a time when the world was in flux. Kenya was an economic mess grappling with structural adjustment programme (SAP)-triggered reforms, a new multiparty era, and just about every possible disruption imaginable.

As if that wasn’t enough, the last surviving safe space of the tired citizen – sex – was no more. HIV/AIDs had taken that away, bringing fear and panic to one of the most basic of human activities. What society needed, and what many churches were built on from the mid-80s, was a source of all answers. A simple solution for complex questions.

The Owuor brand

A few months ago, an opinion piece by Njoki Chege on Dr. David E. Owuor, one of several in recent times, triggered a monumental backlash, at least online, mainly in defence of the bearded tunic-donning preacher. It even included a response from Daily Nation’s public editor essentially saying that the opinion piece should not have been based on opinion.

Owuor has been the subject of media attention for the last decade or so. Recently there was a 37-minute investigative documentary by Mark Bichachi that aired in December last year. At the heart of the interest (and controversies) are Owuor’s prophecies and supposed miraculous powers, which include doomsday predictions and (a) resurrection. Buried a layer beneath are questions about his source of wealth and seemingly insurmountable hold not just on his followers, but also on politicians and businessmen. It is a question of the role of religion in modern life, and why, despite our seemingly high literacy levels, we still seem beholden to what amount to fantasy and spectacle.

But nothing Owuor does is essentially new in the religio-political sphere of Kenyan life. Others before him have built similar movements on almost similar frames of thought, with a specific focus on going beyond psychological comfort and belonging. They’ve offered families beyond a bloodline meaning, where marriage is, for example, a carefully curated experience that drives both recruitment and loyalty.

As if that wasn’t enough, the last surviving safe space of the tired citizen – sex – was no more. HIV/AIDs had taken that away, bringing fear and panic to one of the most basic of human activities.

The attention and publicity of such religious figures and groupings tends to focus on their dogmatic quirks, ignoring the socio-economic roles they play. Religion also fulfills an economic role as employer or reference, a social one as friend and family, and a political one as a place to explain the meaning of divine authority and other complexities. To get here though, it needs to first distinguish itself from others pushing essentially the same message. It is not enough to fight Satan as a concept, but also his supposed personification in human and social form.

For early Christians in Kenya, it was the concepts and practices of traditional religions. Then it moved to witches, poverty, and demonic possession, which were also common pivots in the wave of new evangelical churches of the 1980s. They didn’t leave established churches behind, as the composition of the infamous Devil Worship Commission proves. But they went a step further in seeking new platforms, abandoning the traditional pulpit, at least initially, for new ways of reaching audiences. These included open-air crusades, evangelical missions in public spaces, such as markets and buses, and eventually televangelism.

Unlike traditional clergy, they shunned ceremonial robes and chose smart, professional attire instead. They also added even more spectacle to the rituals that older churches had stopped doing frequently – baptism in a river or a pool, for example. If an early Christian time-travelled to our modern age, a lot of what these new churches are doing would look very familiar, including the total immersion baptism.

In the tumultuous 90s, in both urban and rural areas, they explained away social ills as manifestations of a dark force. Anything from crime waves to drug addiction and political corruption could be explained away simply on this basis. The case of the Kiambu pastor is interesting because it was not just dressed as warfare for spiritual health, but for social good – reduced traffic accidents and crime. It also spoke about “powerful people” who had been visiting the witch, implying a direct connection between the socio-economic carnage and politics. Even more importantly, it was geographical pivot for the church itself, and its subsequent growth in Kiambu, its links with international ones, and the centering of this new breed of church as a “meaning maker” replacing the public intellectual in society.

Other churches designed their messaging in a similar way, focusing on issues affecting their primary audience and tailoring spiritual solutions for them. The model encouraged personal testimony led by religious leaders who spoke frequently about their own transformation and “calling”. Many of these churches would try to create a niche for themselves while trying to maintain a respectable perspective of others in the business. It was essentially an oligopolistic market where open conflict was discouraged. The familiar threads also encouraged a form of cross-pollination that hadn’t been possible with the stricter distinctions within older forms of Christianity.

As the economy improved and things eased a bit, the messaging in the most successful churches shifted more towards a liberal theology, emphasising prosperity and purpose-driven lives, with clergy men and women exemplifying such success. Their suits got sharper, their cars got bigger, their homes got grander, and the competition for souls exploded.

By 2007, there were 8, 520 registered churches, 6, 740 pending applications, and 60 new applications being filed every month.

Owuor unsettles this uneasy calm that has existed among different Christian denominations. To drive recruitment and differentiate himself, he routinely riles against sin, specifically sexual sin. In 2015, Owuor was in the midst of an open-media war with Margaret Wanjiru, the epitome of the wave of preachers who emerged in the 80s and the 90s. Wanjiru exemplifies everything that has helped Owuor distinguish himself by fighting rich, preacher-politician identity with a self-confessed “witch” past. She also exemplifies the established clergy that Owuor says shunned him when he begun preaching in 2004/5, although there’s no evidence the two ever crossed paths. This period is important because, as Dauti Kahura rightly observes, it marked the beginning of the end of the common (wrong) view that the church was a neutral arbiter. Within no time, the church would be in the thick of the referendum debate, a short-term battle it won without realising it was losing a much larger one.

Despite this open declaration of war, Owuor’s brand is still rooted in established religious practices. He preaches nothing new and similar movements and doomsday cults are a dime a dozen even today. The difference between him and others is that he has capitalised on the disillusionment of his would-be followers. He keeps his message simple, as exemplified by the name of his organisation – The Ministry of Repentance and Holiness. His primary enemy is not necessarily the concept of Satan, but his fellow preachers and other churches. He uses the same pivots that they did, but disagrees, at least in his sermons, with the direction they took their faith and lives. In the things he still does (that they also do), he goes for spectacle. Whether it’s the motorcades or the open-air crusades or even the things he says.

As the economy improved and things eased a bit, the messaging in the most successful churches shifted more towards a liberal theology, emphasising prosperity and purpose-driven lives, with clergy men and women exemplifying such success. Their suits got sharper, their cars got bigger, their homes got grander, and the competition for souls exploded.

But even beyond this is his ability to create and push a personality cult, one rooted in Christianity but spirited in a way most other denominations haven’t been since the 90s. It is more the spirit and spectacle of the man than the actual content that makes him who he is today. He is a modern brand that has become more familiar in the age of Donald Trump; one built not on substance, but on opposition and display. Owuor’s brand also demands exclusivity from its followers, and then works like a niche, complete with a sub-economy as well as socio-political networks.

Owuor initially rooted his churches in open-air, accessible locations. He himself, however, mostly drives his message and influence through well-choreographed, much-publicised public rallies. In this way he works like a politician in fervent campaign mode. The rallies are not novel, like many things about the Owuor brand, but they are different in the way they are marketed and executed. They are often preceded by weeks, at times months, of marketing in every conceivable social space (even pushed by police officers in uniform), and then aired live for maximum effect. Even this isn’t new, as it was introduced in Kenya by foreign preachers in the Moi era who got similar publicity, police protection, and political networking.

Fresh sermons are given at rallies, with his churches (known within as “altars”), and media houses airing his sermons. Owuor’s organisation also runs a website, a magazine and a radio station. All three run his content almost exclusively, with a heavy bent on his rallies, prophecies, and “miracles.” He has become what scholars see as a “religio-political figure”, a “multi-disciplinary phenomenon.

Other than this Digital Age aspect of his brand’s growth and protection, Owuor is really an Elijah Masinde or an Onyango Dunde, or a Mary Akatsa for the modern age. His brand combines both the mythical influence of traditional beliefs with the modern opportunities of technology and access. He occupies the helm of his fringe movement as a spiritual figure rooted in Christian beliefs, but with the added advantage of being a living, breathing, intelligent man. In his work he combines social, spiritual, political and moral narratives with which his followers can reinterpret world events.

Whether this is a good thing is as controversial as the man. Different schools of thought, even from random comments on Twitter, show a general discomfort with the power he wields.

Weaponising intimate citizenship

While intimate citizenship – a concept that seeks to explain the conflicts of personal decisions – is an aspect of most religions, there’s something more pronounced about how fringe movements use and weaponise them. Religious leaders and the movements they build tend to seek power over who and when people meet, date and marry. The centrality of this core aspect of the individual is an extension of the family, and used over a period of time – a brilliant way of shoring up numbers and maintaining an in-group.

Intimate citizenship became particularly important after the mid-1980s as HIV/AIDS ravaged society and the political class refused to respond effectively. Politicians and clergymen, faced with a problem for which there was no direct answer or cure as there had been for sexually-transmitted diseases before, at first shied away from the topic. At one point, President Daniel arap Moi even asked why people couldn’t abstain from sex for two years, and Cardinal Maurice Otunga burnt piles of condoms at Uhuru Park. The vacuum that the destruction of social structures had created widened, and there were no easy, obvious answers.

At the Jerusalem Church of Christ (JCC), led by Mary Akatsa, congregants were encouraged to marry outside the church, with approval of course. The design here is that Akatsa christened herself “Mummy” and her followers became “Children of Mummy”. Intermarriage between them would therefore be equal to incest, a crime which she once used to launch a hostile takeover of the leadership at her previous church.

In contrast, in Owuor’s church, members are encouraged to marry fellow believers. Owuor has also switched some of the inherited norms of the church marriage, for example, by making the bride arrive at the church before the groom.

To standardise the ranks even more, such fringe sects also insist on uniforms. Such uniforms and other church materials provide for a sub-economy since they can only be bought directly from the organisation or from ordained tailors. The tailors who dress Owuor’s congregation, for example, cannot dress any outsider. Owuor’s church, like Akatsa’s, bans miniskirts, high heels, trousers, shorts, make-up, and a litany of other things.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of adulthood is the idea that we are all, past a certain age, independent, free-thinking beings, that we desire choice in every aspect of life, and always know we can decline. But basic sociology on the power of in-groups in the life of an individual, defined by codes, uniforms and familiar rituals, shows it’s not that easy.

At one point, President Daniel arap Moi even asked why people couldn’t abstain from sex for two years, and Cardinal Maurice Otunga burnt piles of condoms at Uhuru Park. The vacuum that the destruction of social structures had created widened, and there were no easy, obvious answers.

In Akatsa’s church, lateness is punished on the spot. Lewdness in any form, even implied, is a no-no. She also regularly humiliates her congregants by insulting them, slapping them, making them kneel, and punishing them for indiscretions.

The question then is, is it dangerous?

There have so far been few signs that what Owuor preaches is outrightly dangerous to anything or anyone except perhaps other versions of charismatic Christianity. One sign is that the hold Owuor has on his followers, and the amount of weight he places on his persona and mortality, make his demise a dangerous prospect.

Like many others before him, he routinely refers to his own mortality, casting aspersions that others would/will kill him for his message. By doing so, Owuor inadvertently sets his followers on the warpath with anyone who challenges his legitimacy, whether from a religious or non-religious angle. At times, he directly leads these crusades. In 2016, for example, he held “repentance prayers” for “evil media”, borrowing from a government-led onslaught on the media (and civil society) that began with Jubilee’s election in 2013. That year, his followers also wrote an open letter to The Wall Street Journal. In 2015, a man was sued for hacking Owuor’s email and in 2018, his subordinates sued two bloggers for defamation.

All these attacks come at a time when Owuor, and by extension his followers, have been receiving unprecedented coverage for use of state resources, fraud, drama, exile, an attempted suicide and a warning against environmental degradation.

Another more pressing danger is just how much damage his faith-healing crusade can do not just to his congregation, but to the societies they live and work in. The rise of charismatic faith-healers in the 80s is linked, although not entirely, to the carnage that HIV/AIDS caused in almost all aspects of social life, beginning with intimate citizenship. Having a cure for the virus, whether in the form of spiritual or medical cures, such as Prof. Arthur Obel’s series of failed cures, meant speaking to something that knew no socio-economic distinction.

Owuor understands modern medicine more than anyone else by virtue of his past as a molecular geneticist. He has also among his ranks a retinue of trained doctors and scientists who routinely “confirm” his miracles. Doctors and police officers use their credibility to defend his miracles. His second-in-command, Dr. Paul Onjoro, is a lecturer at Egerton University’s Department of Animal Science.

One social fear is that the church has the building blocks to mutate into something more potent, and perhaps even dangerous to its followers and those they interact with. East Africa still carries the trauma of the mass murders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, a Ugandan doomsday sect formed in the 80s. In February and March 2000 the church leadership systematically murdered between 500 and 1,000 people in a secret campaign that culminated in a church inferno. It was the second worst mass carnage of its kind after the infamous Jonestown mass suicides of 1978 where 914 people died in Guyana.

What in the world is happening?

The democratisation of the media (and the economy) has reduced the monopoly that political leaders once had on national spectacle. Preachers know that, to paraphrase Howard French, “Africans love a spectacle”. The spectacle offered by politicians is infrequent or repetitive, as any cursory glance of a week’s headlines shows, while preachers can satisfy it in some way every week, and cap it off with a major display every once in a while. The best part is that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; the raw materials are already in place.

But there’s something else at the heart of this rise in spectacle – boredom. Research shows that boredom renders people more positive to their in-groups and more negative toward out-groups. Human beings built social groups out of a need for common survival when it was mostly to satisfy the needs of nourishment, security, and procreation. In a world where democracy is on the decline, economies are struggling, and everything feels like its about to explode, all these needs are under threat. And just like it happened in the 1980s, human beings are seeking the safety and belonging of in-groups, and religion has more experience than anything else in how to build and shape them.

These trends are all over the world, and personalities like Owuor are a dime a dozen in many societies. What’s even truer is that they count among their followers even people you would assume would not be easily swayed by charismatic individuals. Former Malawian President Joyce Banda made seven trips in 20 months to TB Joshua’s church in Nigeria, which she has since equated to a pilgrimage. Joshua’s hold also includes Tanzanian President John Magufuli, whose son was supposedly healed of asthma in 2011. And Frederick Chiluba, the former President of Zambia, said in 2009 that he watched Emannuel TV-TB Joshua’s television channel daily.

It is a precarious time to underestimate the power of religious groups, particularly evangelicals. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the US, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Traditional centres of power, especially religio-political ones, are on a fast decline as others rise to take their place. But that previous statement is only true for developed, aging societies. The Catholic church grew by 238 percent in Africa between 1980 and 2015, and only by 57 percent across the world. Africa and Asia now export priests.

The democratisation of the media (and the economy) has reduced the monopoly that political leaders once had on national spectacle. Preachers know that, to paraphrase Howard French, “Africans love a spectacle”.

While politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, among many others, have benefitted from Christian support, there are some who are seeking to upend it. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has made a habit of pissing off the Catholic church. More than 80 per cent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic, making the Phillippines the most predominantly Christian country in Asia. In any other context, Duterte’s attacks on the church would be suicidal. Yet despite calling priests “sons of bitches”, threatening to behead one, calling the Christian God “stupid” and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity “silly”, he remains immensely popular.

The reasons are multiple. First, the Roman Catholic Church is facing its biggest threat to its millennia of success with multiple clerical sexual abuse scandals across the world. Duterte is a victim of such abuse, which he openly talked about as he campaigned for the presidency in 2015. He brought it up again several times, and in 2018, confessed that as a teenager, he tried to molest a maid as she slept.

Second, his primary war on drugs and upending of traditional centres of power is a relief to a population that is dealing with many problems. “At a time when democracy is in retreat in many parts of the world, this case illustrates how popular harsh punishment can be in states that have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom, economic growth, and security,” two University of Hawaii scholars wrote late last year.

It is a precarious time to underestimate the power of religious groups, particularly evangelicals. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the US, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Fear is perhaps the most deeply wired reaction we living things possess. It is not just that it evolved as a survival mechanism, but that it is so emotionally consuming and confusing. If we feel the safety we so deeply desire, and deserve, then the same things that fear triggers in us become a heightened arousal state. If our fundamental fears are solved by someone else, like the zoo owner who builds a cage for a lion, then instead of being afraid we feel other strong good things, like curiosity and risk-taking.

The independence generation, which is in power today in politics, religion and almost every other aspect of organised life, understands this quite well. Collective fear is a thing to be deployed strategically, to keep a young population in check, to bring them out to vote, to keep them from the streets. Instead of the witches, miracle healing, and other foundational stories that built careers in the 80s, we now have too many things to be afraid of, including ourselves. The solutions though, do not lie in finding a firm hand to guide us in our adulthood, whether it is an autocrat or the rituals of religion.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

Politics

Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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