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End of Uthamaki? The Disillusioned Kikuyus

11 min read.

As the economy reaches meltdown levels, supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta ponder an uncertain political and economic future. Are we witnessing the end of Kikuyu’s grip of power?

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End of Uthamaki? The Disillusioned Kikuyus
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Early this month, the burial of the mother of a businessman who operates in the famous Nyamakima area in downtown Nairobi took place in south Kinangop. Businessmen who have a strong association with and loyalty to each other turned out in large numbers to financially and morally support their colleague. Many of the traders present – mostly millennials – deal in electronic and hardware goods. For many of them, travelling to Guangzhou in China to haul back 40-foot containers full of varied consignments to Kenya has become second nature.

After the burial, the businessmen drove in their four-wheel Prados and double-cabin pick-up Toyotas to Naivasha town to “shake down the dust” and have “one for the road to clear their eyesight” for the 100-kilometre journey back to Nairobi. Settling down to juicy and sizzling nyama choma (roasted goat meat), a favourite delicacy among many Kikuyu middle class men, the traders could not wait to bitterly excoriate and fume against President Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency and his second-term politics, and to process and reevaluate their collective Uthamaki (the notion that the Kikuyu are and should remain the ruling class) position as they contemplated the future of the Kikuyu nation.

Washing down the goats’ ribs with beer, brandy and whiskies, the traders said that if they could get hold of President Uhuru, they would give him a thorough whipping until they drew blood. “He has not only collapsed our businesses, they are now being taken over by the Chinese,” said a visibly angry trader. “Including the cereals and grains businesses, traditionally done by our mothers (the term mother here being used loosely), are gradually being taken over.”

During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large. Many of them could even afford the upkeep of a concubine.

What hurt most, said the mourners, was that they had staked their lot with Uhuru’s re-election, and had collected funds for his campaign, especially in 2017, in the hope of continuing to reap big time, just like they had done in Kibaki’s time. Between 2013 and 2017, they noticed that their lucrative businesses had slackened somewhat. But they rationalsed this by saying it was President Uhuru’s first time as president and it had taken longer than necessary for him to settle down.

During President Mwai Kibaki’s reign (2002–2012), when many of the traders expanded and grew their businesses, their trade enjoyed a great boom and flourished immensely. They made loads of money, built stone houses in their ancestral homes, bought tracts of land, invested in real estate, rode fancy and powerful SUVs, and generally lived large.

“Business was still thriving,” said Jason Mwangi, an importer of hardware tools, electronics equipment and strobe lights, “but mega corruption was beginning to get out of control and was affecting our trading.” As it was Uhuru’s second and last term – also viewed as his legacy term – the trader told me, the businessmen had hoped that the president would rein in runaway graft, institute measures to curb it and even order the arrest of the said looters.

“He had nothing to lose, he could afford to be firm and brook no nonsense,” reasoned the traders. So, in 2017, they had sealed the entire Nyamakima area to dance and dine and wine and revel in his victory. And now this…barely two years into his legacy term, the traders were gritting their teeth, their businesses were collapsing faster than they had taken the time to build them.

Peter Macharia, who deals in solar lights and panels and energy-saving light bulbs, told me that for the last couple of months he has just been paying his rent for his premises without any discernible income in hand. “Business is so bad. I’m just hanging in there…I don’t know what to do, we have really been screwed…Since President Uhuru’s re-election, he has been spinning the tale that it’s [William] Ruto to blame for all the corruption, hence the wobbly economy. Did we elect Uhuru as president or we elected Ruto?”

“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker. “In fact, the onlooker in this case is even worse than the thief because he knowingly abetted the theft. Just when did President Uhuru realise that his deputy was apparently pilfering the state coffers?” the traders argued, “Because of President Uhuru’s gross incompetence and wanton carelessness, it was just a matter of time before they were exposed.”

“If you are a farmer who keeps animals and you employ a shepherd to care for the animals, but instead of doing that, he slaughters your very animals from time to time, would you continue keeping him, would you continue trusting him with your flock?” asked one trader. “For Ruto to presumably engage in all that state theft, the president must also have been part of it. How else do you explain the fact that you’re the president but you don’t know what’s happening in your backyard? And when you finally wake up from your slumber, you demolish people’s property in the guise of fighting corruption.”

The traders were thoroughly peeved about the president’s directive late last year to destroy certain properties to prove to Kenyans that he was indeed fighting state corruption. “Who was he fooling? That was an unnecessary distraction because as he was destroying the properties, he was clamping down on our consignment.

“If indeed all the theft in government has been perpetrated by Ruto, what has the president done about it?” said a visibly agitated trader. “Gutiri muici na mucuthereria.” There is no difference between a thief and his onlooker.

My goods were confiscated for six months,” said Macharia. “At the Embakasi government go-downs and by the time the president was pretending to come to our rescue, I’d given up on the goods – I couldn’t afford to pay the charges. I lost a lot of money.”

The traders noted that for the longest time the Kikuyu electorate had excused President Uhuru’s drinking habits. “We said it didn’t matter…what mattered was his performance and the fact that he was one of us. We were dead wrong.” they said. “Ruto is focused and steady because he is always sober,” observed the traders. “He also has his faults but because he is a teetotaller he is disciplined, hardworking and organised. This talk that it’s Ruto who had depleted the state’s cash is hogwash…Let Uhuru fight Ruto if he must, but let him not tell us the economy has tanked because Ruto collapsed it.”

Giving up on “The Family”

Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore. The traders said many Kikuyus are waking up to the realisation that the Kenyatta family was only interested in advancing the larger family’s interests and expanding its business empire. “The family has been using the Kikuyu people as a stepping stone to enrich itself to the detriment of the community. It doesn’t care whether our children are starving or not, whether they go to school or not, whether they have jobs or not…all they’re interested in is ensuring this plantation serves their purpose.”

Yet, “the plantation” is now showing signs of dying: the Kikuyu electorate is dazed, disillusioned, and restless. “We’ll never vote again” has become an increasingly repeated mantra among the electorate. Or “We are going to vote for Ruto because he is available and generous.”

The “Kikuyu plantation” is also withering because its people – especially the young – are planning to run away from the country to far-off lands to escape the crippling economic conditions.

Dennis Kimani, aka Denno, a Bachelor of Commerce graduate from the University of Nairobi, has thrown in the towel as far as job hunting is concerned. Even though he is from a fairly stable middle class family, his family connections have refused to come through. “I’ve given up,” said Denno when we recently met. “I cannot take it anymore.”

He has been looking to migrate to Qatar in the hope of getting a job – any job “because at 28, the clock is ticking away…na riua ritietagirira muthamaki.” The sun does not wait even for a king. “I am not growing younger.”

Among the Kikuyu, the Kenyatta family has always remained a taboo subject: the family is treated like royalty, immune from criticism. Not anymore.

Denno told me an unfortunate story: “When I was in primary school, my closest friend was Clifford Omondi. We lived in the same estate, went to the same school and shared many things. We were happy. One night my father came home late at night. We were all asleep but he woke us [children] up to eat the nyama choma he had brought. But he hadn’t woken us to eat the meat – he had woken us to tell me about my friend Omondi. ‘Listen my son, I want you to cease your friendship with that boy…those people are not good, they are not cultured, they have odious beliefs, they like destroying people’s property so they have no respect for anything. If by chance they were left to lead this country, they would run our country down completely…Have you heard what I’ve told you?’”

Denno never spoke to his friend again, but what his father told him many years back haunts him to date. He wonders why since President Uhuru’s presidency in 2013 the country has been gripped by massive state corruption, and by 2018, after two controversial presidential elections, things have apparently spiraled out of control. Even his more reticent father on matters politics is looking troubled. “What I have been itching to ask my father is why the country’s economy is in shambles and yet we have a Kikuyu for president.”

After coming back from United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she had lived for 10 years, Florence Wambui came back home to Nairobi for good to start a business that she had always dreamed of starting: running a shoe company. In Dubai, she had worked for five years as a manager in a big shoe boutique. “I had the know-how, the experience and some money I’d saved to start the business. But the Kenya I’d left behind in July 2008 wasn’t the Kenya I returned to in January 2018 just after President Uhuru had been sworn-in for his second term,” said a less than inspired Wambui.

In just less than a year, she was already thinking of relocating to Canada. “I could not see my future here…everything seemed to be in a tumble down.”

But as luck would have it, people like Dennis began approaching her for advice on the procedures for migrating to the Middle East, a region she had come know very well after a 10-year stint there. “I halted my own migration to Canada to run a bureau for Middle East-bound Kenyans, many of them Kikuyus, who seem to be literally escaping from their country.”

Steve Karanja, 27, an IT technician, is in the same predicament as Denno. Unable to find a steady job, he has reconciled with the fact that the only way for him to find work is if he leaves this country. With a contact in the United Kingdom, Steve has been working to save some cash for the expensive visa processing as he also thinks of how to beef up his meagre bank accounts. “Brexit Britain is better than a troubled country called Kenya,” Steve said to me. “Anytime.”

Lost children of Mau Mau

But nothing prepared for me the impending Uthamaki meltdown like a video clip that was sent to me several weeks ago. It is of a Kikuyu millennial man who claims to have a messianic message for a tribe that apparently has lost its way. It is a cry of anguish, and of introspection. The message is a call to the tribe’s long gone forefathers to come to its rescue and intercede on behalf of a community captured by the capriciousness of fate, and by a single powerful family that has enslaved the community for the last half a century.

“Let’s come and reason together people of my tribe,” reads the young man from a long well-crafted missive read from a mobile phone. It is an impassioned plea:

Nyumba, ndirari gathafari ndiratumetwo ni mwene nyaga na arajeria kundu kuria mwitaga ukirini, ndiracemania na ngomi, maithe maitu, ngomi citu acio makomire tene na ruo runene na ti akenu…eeeh ti akenu. Kiria maruagera ni munaga gikihuthirwo uru ni aria matekeruire. Kuma riria Kenya yagiire wiyathi, gutire mu Mau Mau uri wagunika, bururi uyu, kana ciana ciao igeteithekera kuo. Athini aria athini bio bururi uyu ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria matari migunda ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao, aria mururaga umuthenya magicaria wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau. Aria maturaga magicaria title deed cia tubloti twao ni Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga manegenaga ni kahuwa na macani na iria no Mau Mau na ciana ciao. Aria maturaga mururaga na maratathi magicaria wira bururi-ini uyu, no ciana cia Mau Mau. Airetu aria makomagwo nao ni itonga nigetha mandikwo wira ni ciana cia Mau Mau…Ni nyumba imwe tu ya twenjeiri irima riri eria yehokirwo ni maithe maitu, igicoka ikimagaruruka na riu no indu nyumba iyo iracokaniriria, nigetha iture ya thaga ciana cia Mau Mau na ciana cia cio…icio kimi… Andu aitu hingokai maitho…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…kirumi kia Mau Mau una riu ki mwoyo…

My people, I was away at a little safari that I’d been sent to by our God (of the mountains), and he took me to a place you call ukirini where I met our ancestors, our forefathers that that are long dead, who died with a lot of pain, and they are not happy…yes, they not happy. They are unsettled because what they fought for is being misused by those who did not fight for it. Since Kenya attained independence, no Mau Mau has ever benefitted in this country, not even their children. The poorest of the poorest in this country are the Mau Mau and their children. Those who do not have land, those who loiter every day looking for job opportunities, are the children of Mau Mau. Those that have been chasing title deeds for their little plot of lands, are Mau Mau and their children. The people who have perpetually complained of their coffee, tea and milk productions are Mau Mau and their children. Those people who have been moving from one corner in this country to another with testimonials, in search of work, are the children of Mau Mau. Those innocent lasses who are prostituted by the rich [Kikuyu men] for job favours are the daughters of Mau Mau…It is just one family that has dug this abyss for us, a family that had been trusted by our forefathers, but which turned against them. Since then, that family has just been accumulating abundant riches, all in the name of continuing to enslave and oppress the descendants of the descendants of Mau Mau…You all know the family I am talking about…(The narrator does not mention the name of the said family, but leaves his listeners with absolutely no doubt which family he is referring to: the Kenyatta family).

The narrator closes his call to action to the Kikuyu people by imploring: “Our people, open your eyes to [the true realities of your lives]…the curse of the Mau Mau is still alive…the curse of the Mau Mau still lives.”

This is an excerpt of a much longer soliloquy in which the narrator reminds the Kikuyu people: “Gikuyu kiugaga thire utarihwo no worogi…haria bururi weigereire na kirumi…Kenya yagurirwo na thakame ni maithe maitu magekua meendeire ni getha matucariria wiyathi…wiyathi uyu weteaga na ngati…” The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…Kenya was liberated by our forefathers who willingly died so that we, their descendants, could enjoy the freedom that they so gallantly fought for…freedom which the home guards and collaborators seized, and which they continue to mock us with.

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking a reality check in the central business district (some Nairobians now call it the central bad district) and by pure coincidence I walked next to the statue of the freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi situated on the junction of Kimathi Street and Mama Ngina Street. This was before the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) ring-fenced the statue’s area for renovations.

It was late in the evening and dusk was setting in. As I approached the statue, I could hear the noises of a man grovelling in acute pain. On closer look, I saw a young man, possibly no more than 30 years old, cuddled in a foetal position besides the statue, beseeching Dedan Kimathi, son of Wachiuri, to intercede on behalf of the crying Kikuyu people and liberate them from the yoke of modern day slavery and oppression.

The Kikuyu people say the only debt one cannot pay is that of witchcraft…this country has set itself on a cursed path…

“Why are we suffering so and yet you fought very bravely against the white man so we could have jobs and enjoy life,” pleaded the man. Shaking like a mulberry tree in dry winter, the man wailed about how nobody cares about the downtrodden sons of the peasant and poor Kikuyu families. “For how long will the children of the house of Mumbi continue to suffer so,” implored the man. “Tell us.”

The man then engaged Kimathi. “When will we ever be liberated from the shackles of poverty and enjoy the fruits of the promised land which you and our forefathers promised us?”

As I stood there watching the man writhe in pure pain and pleasure – the pleasure of communing with his ancestors – I realised that the Uthamaki Kingdom was staring at a meltdown: The people are crying, the people are confused, the people are cornered, yet their Muthamaki seems unbothered.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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Politics

IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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Politics

East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

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