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Who is Policing the Police? Kenya’s Lame Duck Oversight Mechanism

19 min read.

Seven years after an independent oversight body was formed to monitor and investigate police misconduct and abuse, Kenyans are still suffering under the hands of an incompetent and uncaring police force that gets away with excesses with impunity. Has IPOA lived up to its promise?

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Who is Policing the Police? Kenya’s Lame Duck Oversight Mechanism
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I
First Impressions

 

On the right-hand corner at the top of Policing Lens, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA)’s quarterly newsletter, two heavily padded policemen positioned inside the frame of a magnifying glass are holding shields branded ‘Police’. The duo have their baton-wielding fists raised in the air, poised to descend on a seemingly already subdued civilian lying motionless on the ground. This surreal image ushers one into IPOA’s world, a Freudian admission that the National Police Service (NPS) may not be as transformed from what it used to be when it was known as the Kenya Police Force – still deploying brawn in place of brain.

This disturbing yet at once candid logo subconsciously summarises IPOA’s statement of intent, which is that the statutory agency is not afraid of confronting the dark history and the not-so-squeaky-clean present day state of affairs within the police, an unflattering confession they are willing to make publicly. Conversely, the choice of IPOA’s optics could be (mis)construed as an act of concession, confirming that despite its far-reaching powers and mandate, IPOA, just like the overpowered civilian victim of police brutality, remains subdued by police excesses.

Yet the need for IPOA to live up to its full mandate cannot be gainsaid.

 

II
Waki, Alston and Ransley

During the 29 May 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council sitting in Geneva, Switzerland, Prof. Philip Alston, the then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, faced a dilemma. Coming merely two months after his inaugural Kenya working tour, Prof. Alston was calling for the investigation of the Kenya Police Force in a case where it was suspected of involvement in the execution of two human rights defenders. But as he pushed for an investigation into the police, Prof. Alston regretted that as things stood at the time (and maybe as they still stand to date), it was impossible to investigate the police.

Prof. Alston wrote: ‘‘As there is, according inter alia to the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV, pages 420-421), no existing independent unit capable of effectively and credibly investigating possible police misconduct in Kenya, we consider it imperative that an independent investigation be carried out with support from a foreign police force.’’

Prof. Alston was partly basing his observation on the October 2008 Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV) report authored by Court of Appeal Judge Philip Waki, who chaired the CIPEV, otherwise referred to as the Waki Commission. Apart from pointing out the extent to which it was impossible to investigate the police for suspected police-inflicted deaths and injuries, the Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds. These figures, though supported by morgue data, were disputed by the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, who knew of only 616 deaths, emphatically telling CIPEV that only the police could give authoritative figures for those who died as a result of the post-election violence.

The Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds.

It was under these circumstances that CIPEV recommended the establishment of an “Independent Police Conduct Authority” outside the police, with the legislative power and authority to investigate complaints against the police and police conduct. By the time Alston was suggesting international investigation of police killings, nothing had happened to implement CIPEV’s crucial recommendation, but his report now made it imperative to establish an independent police oversight agency to curtail future contemplation of seeking foreign investigative assistance.

As if pre-empting Prof. Alston’s May 29 presentation in Geneva on 7 May 2009, President Mwai Kibaki tasked Justice (retired) Philip Ransley to look into concerns raised by the other two Philips – Alston and Waki – by appointing him to chair the National Task Force on Police Reforms. Ransley’s Commission aimed ‘‘to examine existing policies and institutional structures of the police, and to recommend comprehensive reforms that would enhance effectiveness, professionalism and accountability in the police services.’’ Ransley was given 90 days, and in October 2009, having wrapped up his hearings, Ransley handed his report, which contained a whopping 200 recommendations, to the head of state.

Ransley asked for, among other things, terminological change seeking the establishment of the National Police Service (NPS), a change from the scandal-ridden Kenya Police Force. The idea was to shift the mindset of the police towards civilians, a change from always resorting to force in the course of duty to one of offering a professional service. This was to also influence civilians’ perception of the police, from that of antagonism to one of co-operation and collaboration. Ransley similarly asked for the setting up of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), tasked with overseeing the human resource component of the NPS, starting from recruitment, appointments, promotions, and general welfare of the police, away from the Public Service Commission (PSC), which previously handled these responsibilities.

More importantly, and in responding to Alston’s and Waki’s concerns, Ransley recommended the establishment of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian body mandated by law to keep the proposed NPS in check. In imagining an ideal scenario, Ransley envisioned an IPOA to watch over financial spending by the NPS; ensure the NPS adhered to international best practices in policing; receive and initiate investigations into complaints on police misconduct; monitor, review and audit police investigations; as well as coordinate other institutions on issues of police oversight, among other things.

 

III
The Resistance

That Ransley’s task force completed its work within 90 days and submitted its report soon thereafter came as a surprise to sceptics, including those within the diplomatic corps. This was evidenced in a WikiLeaks cable originating from the US embassy in Nairobi, which read:

‘‘…However, several prominent persons have expressed doubts about the government’s motives in establishing the PRC. They note that the PRC’s short 90-day mandate is far too little for such a massive task and that Police Commissioner Hussein Ali will act to thwart all but superficial reforms. We share some of these doubts, but will take a wait-and-see approach, recognizing that the PRC provides an opportunity – the only one at this time – for much-needed police reform. The UK shares our doubts, but will support the commission financially by paying for a UK and a Commonwealth police expert to serve on the PRC. If the GOK acts to implement real reform we are positioned to support the effort with funds….’’

The Americans and the British might have had valid reasons to second guess the intentions in setting up the Ransley task force, referred to erroneously in the WikiLeaks cable as the Police Reform Commission (PRC). A few months earlier, before the appointment of Ransley and his team on 7 May 2009, the then powerful Minister of State for Internal Security and Provincial Administration, Prof. George Saitoti, had placed a mischievous announcement in the Kenya Gazette, Notice Number 8144 of September 2008. The alert was about a Police Oversight Board, a proposed agency populated by presidential appointees, which the minister wanted domiciled in his ministry, and whose members – named in the gazette notice – the minister had powers to dismiss at will. This therefore meant that the mandate to oversee the police would remain within the state, under the same ministry as the police, a bad attempt at pseudo self-regulation. Prof. Saitoti’s actions seemed pre-emptive.

At around the same time, the non-statutory Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), among others, was busy singing the chorus of the establishment of a civilian police oversight body. In fact, the KHRC had gone as far as drafting a bill proposing the creation of the Police Oversight Board, a name and concept which the minister appropriated. The difference was that the KHRC was proposing an autonomous civilian agency, while the minister wanted to create an appendage of the police within his portfolio. It was these sorts of cat-and-mouse games that eroded credibility on efforts by the state towards police reforms, setting the stage for doubting Thomases as Ransley got working.

Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’. The minister had also been quoted – utterances he denied having ever made – saying that only “normal reforms are required [like] looking into the welfare of officers, adequate facilities to increase the morale and efficiency” of the police. This strategy, of doing cosmetic reforms by focusing on the more bureaucratic end of things as opposed to delving into the more substantive questions of police violations, is one which would later be used to keep IPOA distracted from its core mandate.

 

IV
The Inaugural Term

On 27 August 2010, almost a year after Ransley’s task force submitted its report to President Mwai Kibaki, Kenya promulgated a new constitution. With the new legal regime in place, and staying true to Ransley’s recommendations, Parliament passed the IPOA Act (Act No. 35 of 2011), legislation which paved way for the establishment of the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA). This was a huge milestone. Other than South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), there remains no other policing oversight agency in Africa.

However, rather than looking to South Africa, IPOA heavily borrowed its architecture from the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This was possibly a direct result of the input by the British expert seconded to the Ransley task force, as explicitly intimated in the WikiLeaks cable. Consequently, IPOA’s objectives were outlined in Section 5 of the Act thus: 

  1. a) Hold the Police accountable to the public in the performance of their functions;
  2. b)  Give effect to the provision of Article 244 of the Constitution that the Police shall strive for professionalism and discipline and shall promote and practice transparency and accountability; and
  3. c) Ensure independent oversight of the handling of complaints by the Service.

In adhering to the Act’s requirements on the hiring of the IPOA board, the president, through Kenya Gazette notices 6938 and 6939 of 22 May 2012, appointed IPOA’s inaugural chairman and the agency’s board members, who were all sworn in on 4 June 2012. Ransley’s team had outlined the composition of the board to include two persons with experience in public administration, alongside individuals with knowledge in financial management, corporate management, human rights, and one with experience in religious leadership. The board’s chairperson had to be someone qualified to be appointed a judge of the High Court of Kenya.

Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’.

As fate would have it, Macharia Njeru, currently a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), who had served as a member of the Ransley task force, was picked as IPOA’s first chairman. One would have imagined that having been part of the Ransley team, Njeru would hit the ground running, having had the advantage of being one of the agency’s draftsmen. However, by the end of his board’s six-year term, Njeru’s team came under heavy criticism,for what was considered an utterly dismal performance, especially by victims of police excesses.

 

V
The Numbers

During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions. These were: High Court Criminal Case No. 41 of 2014 (Republic Vs Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee, and Criminal Appeal No. 23 of 2016 (Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee Vs Republic), and High Court Case No. 78 of 2014 (Titus Ngamau Musila).

Pundits argue that strictly speaking, these were two convictions. In the first case, two police officers were convicted, thereafter appealing the ruling. They lost at the appellate court, a development which saw IPOA count the double loss by the officers as two wins on its part.

During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions.

By 30 April 2018, when the inaugural board’s mandate was just coming to a close, the agency had received a total of 9,878 complaints. These were both from members of the public and from within the police service. Of these, 5,085 were classified as needing to be investigated. The rest, as per IPOA’s breakdown of the numbers, were referred to the Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police Service (748 cases), IPOA’s inspections and monitoring directorate (364 cases), the National Police Service (249 cases), the National Police Service Commission (319 cases), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (41 cases), Officers Commanding Police Stations (370 cases), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (289 cases), and another 312 cases were shared between the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Land Commission, and the Commission of Administrative Justice (Office of the Ombudsman).

Of the 5,085 cases meant for investigations, 752 were reported to have been investigated and completed, 458 were closed preliminarily, 72 were still under investigation, 76 were under legal review by IPOA, 103 were forwarded to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 were sent to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, with 6 referred to the National Police Service. Furthermore, 459 complaints were dismissed as falling outside IPOA’s mandate, 1,642 cases were closed for what IPOA terms ‘‘withdrawal by complainants; matters before Court; not actionable; and insufficient information.’’ 64 cases were before the courts.

As of March 2019, the total number of cases reported to IPOA stood at 12,781, with 136 cases taken to court. In a mark of progress, three more convictions have been added to IPOA’s tally since the new board took office in September 2018. It goes without saying that the new board is to a large extent building on the groundwork done by their predecessors, meaning by the end of the six-year mandate, IPOA’s second board should have better figures in comparison.

By any account, IPOA’s 2012–2018 numbers are mind-boggling, its paltry three convictions not doing much in terms of building confidence within the aggrieved civilian population. As a matter of fact, naysayers will be forgiven for thinking the numbers being thrown around are all a well-choreographed game of smoke and mirrors, a case of motion without movement.

However, the question one may want to ask is, was IPOA set up for failure from the word go?

 

VI
The Bureaucracy

While listening to Macharia Njeru campaigning to be picked as the male representative of the Law Society of Kenya in the Judicial Service Commission, it became obvious that the one talking point IPOA’s inaugural chairman wouldn’t let go of was that he had successfully built an institution from scratch.

Njeru’s exit message as his term came to a close was on how much he, his board and IPOA’s senior staffers had worked in putting in place systems. There was talk of financial management awards, all bureaucratic shenanigans – not unimportant but neither were they IPOA’s core mandate. There was certainly need for institution building, but at what expense did this happen? Did Njeru’s team sacrifice IPOA’s primary oversight responsibility at the altar of corporatism, or was it a trap set for him from the word go – to keep him busy paper pushing and not allow his team adequate time and resources to focus on police misconduct?

When looking at IPOA’s founding financials – an annual budget of Sh96 million (US$ 960,000) in 2012/2013 – it is clear that from the beginning one of the ways the state wished to put the agency on a tight leash was by limiting its budgetary allocations. Seeing that the agency needed to build from the bottom up – hire premises, recruit and train staffers, establish regional offices, among other day-to-day operational logistics, it was evident that with a paltry financial allocation, the board would be kept busy micromanaging budget line items as police violations went through the roof. For instance, it is astonishing to note that in 2013, IPOA could only hire an initial staff of six people.

Possibly seeing that the agency had fallen into the institution-building-at-the-expense-of-its-core-mandate trap, IPOA’s budget eventually grew to Sh696 million in 2017/2018 and Sh800 million in 2018/2019, barely Sh1,000 (US$10) per complaint per day, and definitely an insignificant amount of money considering the scope of oversight expected of the agency. By the time Njeru’s team was leaving, IPOA had acquired a total of 27 motor vehicles – a number one might find laughable, seeing that IPOA’s operations needed to cover the entire country – and had a staff roster of a mere 143 employees. How was such an institution, even if perfectly structured, capable of overseeing a National Police Service that recruited an average of 10,000 police officers on an annual basis? Would IPOA ever be fit for purpose?

In 2014, the board developed a four-year strategic plan to coincide with its 2018 exit. The plan was built around four pillars, namely compliance by the police with human rights standards; restored public confidence and trust in police; improved detention facilities; a functional Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) of the National Police Service; and a model institution on policing in Africa. In its usual brick and motor state of mind, IPOA reported that ‘‘it is pleased that the National Police Service has secured an office for the IAU, and indications are that the Unit will be operational by August 2018.’’ Other than that, it is anyone’s guess as to whether any of the other targets were satisfactorily achieved under the strained circumstances the agency was operating under.

 

VII
The Backlash

By all means, IPOA’s inaugural term had too many moving parts that kept the agency busy, thereby making it drop the ball on many occasions regarding delivery of its core mandate to civilians, who continue to suffer in the hands of rogue elements within the National Police Service. According to Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), and as has become a common refrain in Kenyan society today, vitu kwa ground ni different (reality bites). For starters, IPOA is not perceived as a friend of the civilians, thanks to its one-size-fits-all bureaucracies.

‘‘Victims of police brutality and families of those killed by the police in places like Mathare and Korogocho are weary of going to report their complaints to IPOA for many reasons,’’ Wangui told me when we met in Nairobi. ‘‘Some of them are broke, they cannot even afford bus fare, yet they are expected to go to IPOA’s intimidating head office to make a statement. Once at IPOA, the majority of the complainants, who are either illiterate or semi-literate, will always be harassed for either not filing their complaints properly or for leaving out crucial information. It is in filling these gaps that trusted grassroots organisations such as the social justice centers come into the picture, but even after lodging the complaints properly, the long periods of time which lapse before IPOA moves on the cases is discouraging to the victims and their families.’’

In a word, IPOA’s operations are not fit for purpose since its user experience remains wanting.

According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media. To Gacheke, the fact that IPOA does not have outposts in places like Mathare shows its top-bottom approach to oversight, where instead of going to the ground, the agency keeps to its air-conditioned offices.

‘‘IPOA needs to come and be in the midst of the people who need it most,’’ Gacheke told me. ‘‘Their presence here can work as a deterrent to rogue police officers. If they think residents of Mathare flood their registry, they will be surprised at the many cases which go unreported.’’

According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media.

In the opinion of some front line human rights aficionados who wished to remain anonymous – they do not wish to sanitise IPOA’s arrogance with a comment – IPOA’s biggest shortfall has been its opacity. They claim IPOA behaves as if it is ignorant of the fact that for it to succeed it needs to operate within an ecosystem comprising all kinds of stakeholders nurtured by trust. It is this sense of indifference from IPOA, they say, which has resulted in disengagement by human rights defenders, who are getting completely disinterested in IPOA’s work processes. ‘‘They never answer calls or reply to emails,’’ one of them told me. ‘‘It is a complete disgrace.’’

The other battle on IPOA’s plate is that of perception. Wangui told me that when she brought mothers and widows of victims of extrajudicial killings to IPOA’s open day, the majority of them did not want to come close, since they considered IPOA as part of the National Police Service. ‘‘They wouldn’t go to the IPOA stand,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘because to them, hao ni polisi.’’

 

VIII
The Missing Repository

According to leading human rights lawyer Sam Mohochi – previously executive director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) and immediate former executive director of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-K) – any suspicious death, and particularly death at the hands of or while in the custody of the police or of a prison officer, should automatically trigger a Magistrate’s Inquest under Sections 386 and 387 of the Criminal Procedure Code. In Mohochi’s view, IPOA should therefore be the undisputed repository for all such cases in instances where the police are involved, such that IPOA either exonerates or implicates them.

‘‘All custodial deaths should result in an inquiry being instituted,’’ Mohochi told me in Nairobi. ‘‘But you will notice that as things stand, IPOA does not comply with provisions of the law.’’

‘‘If you look at most cases of extrajudicial killings in Kenya, unless the family or other actors complain, no automatic legal action occurs,’’ Mohochi told me. ‘‘But two, now bring in IPOA. All such cases are automatically expected to be referred to IPOA, directly, by the police. That then means that in IPOA’s progress reports, the agency should always indicate how many such cases have been forwarded to it, by the police. Unfortunately, if you look at IPOA’s progress reports, they are completely silent on that. Yet that would have been the repository where you could keep tally of extrajudicial killings, irrespective of whether investigations are complete or not. That way, there could be a credible tally of encounter killings by the police, reported by the police. What we mostly have are statistics of cases reported by victims, against the police.’’

In Mohochi’s opinion, the ideal situation in cases where police bullets have been used to either harm or kill civilians should be that the Officer Commanding Station (OCS) who is in charge of the police in a given jurisdiction should be the one to forward any suspicious police action to IPOA as a measure of accountability. This means that if the police abuse their powers in a locality and the OCS does not report it to IPOA, then the agency should have punitive measures in dealing with such a non-compliant OCS.

And if dealing with an OCS gets cumbersome – which should not be the case since IPOA has statutory powers – then IPOA should at the very least have its own investigators stationed at every police station in order for the agency to get first-hand accounts of police excesses, which are then forwarded to the agency’s legal and investigative units. Failure to do this, Mohochi says, will result in the majority of police violations to go unreported; even if they get reported, there will always be the evidential challenge since the police, in protecting each other, will neither secure the crime scene nor get witness statements of their own volition.

‘‘IPOA should issue a circular to all police stations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘that should any case of extrajudicial killings occur, they need to be notified immediately. Failure to do so, even IPOA’s own investigators will not find it easy investigating a non-cooperative police service.’’

Further, Mohochi told me, what IPOA is doing – documenting police violations and prosecuting rogue officers – is something that was already being done by non-state actors. However, the establishment of IPOA was meant to scale things up in terms of convictions, something which is not happening. In Mohochi’s recollection, police officers have been jailed before IPOA came into place, but IPOA was meant to act as a bigger deterrent through higher conviction rates. If this is not attainable, Mohochi fears that IPOA will not be serving the purpose it was founded for.

 

IX
The Evidence Puzzle

Over the years, and as intimated by Mohochi, insufficient evidence has remained one of the prominent bottlenecks in litigating against police violations in cases of extrajudicial killings. For the most part, aside from entities such as the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), who were for a long time the go-to place for independent, credible autopsies, especially in public interest cases, attempts to prosecute the police either by IPOA or other actors have run into headwinds for lack of admissible evidence on the cause and circumstance of death. As such, the passing of the National Coroners Service Act of 2017 came as a huge relief for both human rights defenders and evidence-based agencies such as IPOA. This meant that in the event of any suspicious deaths, then there would be a legally mandated entity which would take up the matter, preserve the evidence, institute an inquiry, after which prosecutorial steps can follow.

According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) handbook on the Act, much as the Kenyan version of the coroner’s office will not be quasi-judicial, as an important starting point, the Act establishes a framework for investigations and determination of the cause of reported unnatural deaths in the country. Some of the anticipated quick wins are that obstruction of investigations, bearing false witness, and refusal to comply with directions from the coroner will be things of the past.

Further, the Act provides immunity from civil and criminal prosecution, or any other administrative action for that matter, for those who give evidence to the coroner. This is a huge improvement from the current reliance on Sections 385-387 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provide for an inquest in cases of suspicious deaths, but does not have the sorts of far-reaching powers provided by the Act. Unfortunately for IPOA and its civilian complainants, and in that typical Kenyan self-sabotage fashion, since the signing of the Act into law in July 2017, it remains gathering dust, and is still not operationalised.

 

X
The Recruitment Charade

However, after everything is said and done, one of IPOA’s persisting headaches remains the almost always scandalous police recruitment exercise. It goes without saying that if the National Police Service keeps filling its ranks with individuals not suited for policing, then no matter what interventions IPOA resorts to, its in-tray will forever remain full of cases of police misconduct by rogue officers, persons who were never fit to be part of the service from the word go. To date, no matter what IPOA or other statutory watchdog agencies like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) do, the problem of shoddy police recruitment has kept recurring, courtesy of the now perfected selective application of recruitment guidelines.

For starters, recruitment of police officers is the sole prerogative of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), as recommended by the Ransley task force. However, the law allows the NPSC some discretion, through which it can delegate this responsibility to the Inspector General of Police. This, however, should not be a recipe for subpar recruitment, because the recruitment process should be strictly guided by the NPSC’s Legal Notice No. 41 of 2015. The legal regulations contain general provisions, recruitment categories, gender, regional and ethnic balance requirements, functions of the NPSC in the recruitment, advertising timelines and positions to be advertised for, contents of the advertisement, composition of recruitment panels, calendar of activities for the entire recruitment process, determination of successful candidates, disqualifications, a complaints management system, training schedule and issuance of certificates upon appointment, and submission of the recruitment report to Parliament.

More importantly, Regulations 11-15 of the Legal Notice prescribe a two-tier recruitment process, where in the initial stage, interested candidates submit applications to the NPSC, which having considered education qualifications, gender and ethnic balance, et cetera, is then required to shortlist three times the number of prospective officers it wishes to enlist at each of the recruitment centers. These names are then meant to be shared with the public so that any objections about the recruitment of any individual can be brought forth. Thereafter, the NPSC is supposed to conduct verification of documents as well as medical and physical aptitude examinations. Taking into consideration how rigorous the process should be, from the time of advertisement of vacancies to when the new recruits report to training, Regulation 17 of the Legal Notice provides for a 90-day period for completion of the recruitment cycle.

Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes. Aside from that, flawed advertisement processes, lack of public participation, cases of bribery and patronage, and the locking out of observers – who are mandated by law to have access to the entire recruitment process – continue to be the order of the day.

In July 2014, the newly established IPOA took a bold step by taking the NPSC to court after it observed incidents of corruption, fraud and massive irregularities during recruitment. IPOA sought for nullification of the entire exercise, prayers which were granted by the High Court. On appeal, IPOA’s victory was upheld by the Court of Appeal under Petition No. 390 of 2014 and Civil Appeal No. 324 of 2014 (The Recruitment Decisions). According to those in the know, the government did not look at IPOA’s actions favourably, resulting in reported cases of not-so-subtle intimidation, with strong attempts at creating factions within the IPOA board.

Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes.

In a sad turn of events, neither the NPSC nor the Inspector General of Police seemed to have learnt their lesson. Two years later, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) released a comprehensive report titled ‘‘DisService to the Service: Report of the Monitoring of the 2016 Recruitment of Police Constables to the National Police Service’’, in which it extensively observed that police recruitment continued being marred with serious irregularities characterised by interference from the executive arm of government and a total disregard of the two-tier process, which is meant to attract a higher calibre of trainee officers.

In one of its pleadings, the KNCHR wrote, ‘‘The continuous lack of adherence to follow the two-tier process means that achieving professionalism within the National Police Service will remain a pipe dream. The recruitment process serves as the point of entry into the service, and thus any attempts at professionalising the service should begin at this level.’’

Therefore under the prevailing circumstances, where regulations are ignored at will by the highest organs of the state, IPOA will remain a lame-duck mitigating force inside a garbage-in garbage-out setup.

 

This report is a criminal human rights reporting project of Africa Uncensored and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Politics

Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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