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France in Africa: Never Can Say Adieu

9 min read.

KALUNDI SERUMAGA explores France’s paternalistic and exploitative colonial pact with some West African countries, and explains why those who resist this arrangement are quickly silenced.

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Despite apparently going as quickly as it came up, the recent disagreement between the African Union (AU) and one of its employees created a few interesting insights into the current state of Official Pan-Africanism, and also allowed an opportunity for reflection.

In summary, one Dr. Aneka Chihombori-Quao took to the fringes of radical African American media to begin denouncing the state of economic relations between France and the various West African countries descended from France’s colonial empire. Her point was that an essentially colonial (by which she meant paternalistic and exploitative) relationship between France and Africa continues to exist. This, she contends, is a matter that the African Union, Africans and Africa’s well-wishers should all be concerned about, and be fighting against.

The medical doctor-turned-diplomat, and long-term resident of the United States previously, was to make a series of strongly-worded attacks on France. All this coincided with the announcement that the AU was to terminate her services as ambassador.

“Fourteen African countries are obliged by France through a colonial pact”, said Dr. Chihombori, “to put 85 per cent of their foreign reserve into France’s central bank under the French minister of finance’s control.” She continued:

“…… if you look deeper, of the roughly 68 coups that have happened in Africa, 61 per cent have taken place in so-called Francophone countries. In other words, any African leader wanting to take his country out from under the economic control of France was subject to be overthrown by a French-engineered coup…A case in point: Togo’s first democratic leader was assassinated by Etienne Gnassingbe, an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire army sergeant who allegedly received a bounty of $612 million. Similar things can be said of coups or political instability in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and the Central African Republic.”

(Some of her statements have tested the bounds of credibility, especially in the financial figures she gave.)

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

On its part, the AU defended itself not by answering the charges, but rather by challenging the credibility of the one making the accusation.

Describing Dr. Chihombori as running a “misleading campaign” in an October 15th statement, Ebba Kalondo, the AU Commission chair’s spokesperson, explained that Dr. Chihombori’s tour of duty had simply ended, and that a string of irregularities were uncovered in the normal review undertaken at the end of such a cycle. She stated that the ambassador had initiated a whole series of projects and activities without the knowledge or authority of her employer.

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

In so doing, the accusation goes, Dr. Chihombori utilised the African Union logo and official address so as to present these activities as official ones, and went on to appoint people to these tasks, as well as to solicit for funds from the private sector to support them. Fraud, basically. The implication, it appears, is that these broadsides against France served as a diversion.

But this is not really the problem: everything that the AU has said about their former employee can be true, without everything that the employee said about France-Africa relations being untrue.

It is indeed a fact that the French government maintains an undue beneficial influence on fiscal matters among its former West African colonies. This is an arrangement that began in all cases well before independence, and has continued long after it.

It is also a fact that Official Africa, including the collectivity of the African Union, benefits from European Union and French aid largesse.

Furthermore, there is ample historical evidence of France’s penchant for ripping off whole nations of black people.

From slavery to colonialism to post-colonialism

After the enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean island colony of Haiti rebelled in 1791 by killing most of the slave plantation managers and defeating the resident French forces, the revolutionary government of France sent reinforcements at the request of the absentee slave plantation owners. These forces – Napoleonic, no less – were also defeated, and the formerly enslaved of Haiti declared themselves an independent republic in 1804.

In 1825, a decade after the end of Napoleon, twelve French warships armed, it is said, with 528 cannons, sailed to Haiti and delivered a demand: France was willing to finally recognise the new independent republic on condition that Haiti committed to paying France 150 million French francs in gold for the “loss of property” incurred during the rebellion. What’s more, this was to be borrowed from French banks. Haiti, faced with the prospect of a naval blockade, accepted.

This “debt” was kept in force until the final payment was made in 1947. That is a period of 122 years. To complete it, Haiti had to take an additional loan from the United States. As a result, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

France continues to offer what I shall term “intervention services” aimed at resolving security problems in the various countries with which it has historical linkages to the tune of $665 million a year.

However, the line between friendly assistance, and imperial overlordship is quite blurred.

Following a helicopter collision that caused the death of thirteen French soldiers in a November 26 combat operation against jihadis in northern Mali, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was summoning the heads of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad to a December 16 Paris meeting to explain themselves. (France has a heavy military presence in the Sahel, ostensibly to combat terrorism.)

“I can’t, nor do I want French soldiers on the ground while there is anti-French sentiment that is sometimes held by the leaders of some of the African countries,” declared Macron at a press conference during a NATO summit in London early this month.

“The leaders of five West African nations…should come to France on December 16 to provide clarifications,” he added, more than a little imperiously.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded. France is, after all, the EU’s third, and the world’s seventh largest economy.

With the revolts taking place against power globally, it is worth reflecting on how France, already dealing with twelve months of Yellow Vest rioters protesting the general fall in the standard of living, would then cope if it were dropped any lower.

Indeed, there are already rumblings afoot regarding what should be the future of that financial relationship.

The challenge of the imperfect messenger

But the problem may be the challenge of the “imperfect messenger”. The challenge, rooted perhaps in the Christian foundations of Western-built discourse, is the expectation that those who offer us redemption must first be above all blemish themselves.

The New African magazine and has been beating the drum on French trickery in Africa for at least two decades.

One hears a lot of things. For example, that Francophone countries are only allowed to access 10 to 15 percent of their own money held in the France Reserve Bank at any given time, and that any requests for more are charged at punitive rates, with the Bank having the discretion to deny the request.

Furthermore, that this power extends to French government officials sitting on the boards of more than a few West African central banks as representatives of France, and having veto powers.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded.

What Dr. Chihombori has done is perhaps what the writer Parselelo Kantai has described to me as the “privatisation of Pan-Africanism”. She would not be the first African person we have seen in our long history to take it upon herself to appear to speak for the whole race, and to establish organisations supposedly to advance this project.

The historical record of this is murky and riven with division and polarising interpretations. The principal and most famous of these, of course, is the story of the grandfather of Pan-Africanism himself, Mzee Marcus Garvey.

Looking at the bare facts, there is much to cast doubt on Garvey’s credentials as a leader. He had already been labelled as a charlatan by some other black activists in the period before he rode to global prominence between the two great European wars.

By the time his political career was over, he had been successfully sued for criminal libel by a fellow activist, and had been sued by numerous journalists for non-payment for their contributions to his newspaper. He had been married twice, after what can only be described as a chaotic short-lived first marriage, and somewhat messy divorce. He had overseen the failure of a number of business ventures seeded by money from his followers, and served a prison term for financial fraud before being immediately deported from the United States after the sentence was commuted.

The key point is this: If Official Africa will not step into the breach and actually do something effective about these long-running problems, then nobody should be surprised to see the rise of self-appointed lions. And therefore, nobody should be surprised that among those lions there may well be a good portion of chancers who have sensed an opportunity. Neither Dr, Chihombori nor Marcus Garvey are necessarily either.

What we need to note is the fact that that most well-known Africanist movements aimed at liberating black people, and whose legacy lives on today in a variety of ways, were not founded by a native African institution, nor an Africa-based political party, nor an African country; they were started by a person of African descent who did not speak a word of any African language, and who would reach the end of his life having never set foot on African soil.

This is in no way an attempted defence of Dr Chihombori and her actions. Nor is it an attempt to understand her initiatives. I am certainly not attempting to place her alongside Marcus Garvey. I am, however, making the point that when it comes to the politics of other wider Pan-African struggles, all will be condemned, be they prophets or phonies.

As things stand, the AU approach could be accused of being an attempt to reduce the whole incident to a matter of mere human resources management.

And even within that context, no explanation was offered as to why any such irregularities were not picked up earlier by Dr. Chihombori’s superiors, nor how a person of such alleged dubious character came to be in the AU’s employ at such an important deployment in the first place.

Instead the statement ended on an ominous note: “The African Union Commission reserves the right to take any legal action, if necessary, against any use and/or misuse of its name, logo and resources by any unauthorised individuals or entities.”

Whether that is a cover-up or a blind spot is a matter that only further discussions can bring out.

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world. Unlike Asia, where amidst the poverty, there are large economic classes of more or less indigenous wealthy people, and unlike South America, where, despite the weight of exploitative American capital and a large domestic class often descended from long-term European settlers, the ordinary people have sustained generations of resistance and are even now are in the midst of several uprisings. In contrast, Africans on the continent remain dispossessed, and even the rich are not rich. As for the diaspora, they remain the targets of an institutionalised racism, whose underlying workings are only being fully exposed by a new generation of activists and researchers.

Other questions arise.

The AU does have policies committed to a vision for relationships with and between the various African communities long domiciled in countries outside Africa, and, in particular, relationships with the First Diaspora comprising the descendants of those Africans taken from this continent during the various stages of Western and Eastern enslavements.

Had there ever been any discussion on the implementation of those policies between Dr. Chihombori and the AU before she subsequently allegedly embarked upon her unauthorised initiatives? Does the AU see any merit in and of itself in initiatives of the type begun by Dr. Chihombori Quao in the USA? Does the AU have its own plans, or even existing practical programmes, for such initiatives? If not, why not?

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world.

Does the AU have a view on the justness, or otherwise, of the existing financial relations between France and some of her former colonies?

Perhaps these are not matters discussed in the course of a sacking. However, they should be of interest with us. I did put these questions, and more to the AU communications office, using the provided official address. I had not received a response by the time of submitting this article.

Even before Macron’s Napoleonic reaction to the French soldiers’ deaths (one the worst losses of life in France’s military in decades) Bloomberg news agency had reported an announcement of intent by the West African Monetary Union, which is the mechanism created to maintain the currency unit binding former French colonies to France (while France, ironically, has no independent currency of her own anymore), to make a significant adjustment to the arrangement.

Benin’s President Patrice Talon announced that the Africans had “unanimously” agreed to repatriate some their cash reserves from the French treasury.

This is no longer a private matter between them.

In January this year, one Luigi Di Maio, a member of Italy’s populist Five Star movement, had already dragged the issue into an internal European Union quarrel over EU fiscal policy that he was having with Emmanuel Macron’s France. “First [he] lectures us, then continues to finance public debt with the money which he exploits [from] Africa,” said the Italian.

Macron was furious. And it seems he has remained so ever since.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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