Experts on the study of corruption distinguish between political corruption and bureaucratic corruption. Political corruption involves vote-rigging, registration of unqualified voters, falsification of voter registers and election results, selling and buying of votes, and wiretapping the phones of political opponents. All this is aimed at helping politicians capture and/or maintain political power. With particular reference to Kenya, political corruption also involves instigation of “ethnic” violence in opposition regions by incumbent political parties in order to scatter voters and minimise their turnout on election day.
Bureaucratic corruption, on the other hand, is used by political leaders and civil servants – the bureaucrats – to extract extralegal incomes for themselves, their relatives, and associates. This involves extraction of bribes and rents in the distribution of public goods and services, theft of public resources, embezzlement of funds from state coffers, nepotism, and the granting of patronage to cronies and relatives, illegal taxation by bureaucrats with benefits accruing to them and their associates, capricious and selective enforcement of state laws and statutes in order to generate benefits for the bureaucrat, and differential treatment of private enterprises with the expectation of kickbacks from the favourably treated enterprises.
There are four categories of bureaucratic corruption in the literature on the subject, according to John Mukum Mbaku, an expert on the subject. The first is cost-reducing corruption, which involves actions by civil servants to reduce the regulation-induced costs of an enterprise below their normal rates. An example here is the illegal reduction of a private firm’s tax obligations to the government and exemption of a business from compliance with certain rules and regulations. In this way, a firm’s transaction costs are reduced and the finances thus saved are shared out between the bureaucrat and the firm owner.
The second type of corruption is cost-enhancing corruption. This occurs in situations where governments place controls on the prices of foodstuffs, which normally leads to hoarding and severe food shortages. Herein, civil servants who control government food stocks extract rents from potential consumers by charging them prices that approximate free market prices. Another way is the extraction of bribes by civil servants from entrepreneurs seeking for licences, including import/export, and investment licences. Yet another is where civil servants simply use the state’s coercive power at their disposal to appropriate private property for their own use, for instance through illegal taxation. In Kenya, the public procurement domain is the arena in which cost-enhancing corruption has been most pervasive. This is the situation in which public officials extract rents from their control of the public procurement process. They do so by demanding kickbacks from tender awardees and by inflating the same and skimming off the excess.
The third type of corruption is benefit-enhancing corruption. Herein civil servants may permit more public benefits such as bursary funds to public schools, or development resources to a particular region, to accrue to an individual or group than is legally permitted. Recipients of such benefits then share them with the bureaucrat on the basis of a prearranged formula. This type of corruption is quite pervasive in Africa and many other developing societies because it is relatively easy to execute and not so easy to detect.
The fourth and final type of corruption is benefit-reducing corruption. This is where bureaucrats simply appropriate for their own private use public benefits that are intended for other private citizens. One example of this is a civil servant manager of a pension fund who can delay the transmission of retirement benefits to pensioners, deposit such funds in a high interest-earning bank account, and subsequently skim off the accrued earnings. This type of corruption is also very easy to undertake because of information asymmetries in much of Africa and elsewhere, with bureaucrats having more information about public benefits programmes than the ordinary citizens. In Kenya, the problem of employers, especially in the private sector and within state corporations, making statutory deductions from employees, such as pensions, health insurance, and income tax, which never reach their legitimate destinations is a perennial one.
The evolution of corruption in Kenya
The fact that corruption in Kenya has reached epidemic proportions is beyond question. In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent! This is the situation where, for instance, a development project is conjured up, it is costed, awarded, and paid for, but nothing is done. The exemplification of this is the Kimwarer and Arror dams project scandal in which billions were paid out for nothing. Alternatively, public funds are simply withdrawn from bank accounts and directly pocketed by public officers, a most brazen form of corruption that was amplified by the investigative report on the financial shenanigans at Maasai Mara University.
In view of the pandemic levels corruption has reached in Kenya, a national conference on corruption was convened in January 2019 at the Bomas of Kenya. At the conference, President Uhuru Kenyatta asserted that the government would relentlessly pursue high profile cases already in the courts and launch a crackdown to ensure all corrupt persons are held accountable.
“For the first time,” the President reiterated, “no person is beyond the reach of the long arm of the law no matter how powerful or influential they may perceive themselves to be.” He further revealed that all branches of government were working collaboratively to eliminate the vice. Since then, a big show has been made of demolishing properties constructed on road reserves, on riparian land, and on illegally-acquired public land. Finance Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich and his Principal Secretary, Kamau Thugge, among others, were arrested and charged with eight counts of financial fraud. Additionally, four high county governors were arrested and charged with corruption. These include Samburu governor Moses Kasaine Lenolkulal, Busia governor Sospeter Odeke Ojaamong, Kiambu governor Ferdinand Ndung’u Waititu, and Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko.
In the 1960s and 1970s, bureaucratic corruption manifested itself in bureaucrats’ demands for kickbacks valued at around 10 per cent of the total cost of a public tender, development project, or whatever goods or services were under procurement. By the 1980s and 1990s, the rates had escalated to around 40 per cent. In the current dispensation in Kenya, the rates have maxed out to 100 per cent!
A lot of fuss has been made before about fighting corruption, right from the 1960s, yet the problem has only gotten worse over time. The question is, given the manner in which the war on corruption has been conducted in Kenya, can it be successful? What chance is there that the current war on corruption will be successful? What will it take to seriously reduce and eventually stamp out corruption in Kenya? Where did Kenya go wrong on matters corruption?
When the rain started beating Kenyans
To understand how Kenya went wrong on the corruption issue, one has to juxtapose it with Singapore. Both Kenya and Singapore were British colonies. Singapore gained independence in 1959 while Kenya gained independence in 1963. Both had the same bureaucratic institutional legacy from colonialism.
For four decades, Kenya’s politics was dominated by one party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU); similarly, the People’s Action Party has remained the ruling party in Singapore since independence. Yet whereas Singapore is consistently ranked the most corruption-free country in Asia and among the top ten cleanest in the world, Kenya is rated among the top corrupt countries in Africa and the world. What accounts for these two realities is squarely the difference between adherence to leadership integrity and good governance principles, and lack of adherence to the same.
When Jomo Kenyatta became Prime Minister of Kenya in 1963, delegations of goodwill trooped to his Gatundu home bearing gifts for him, which he enthusiastically accepted. The gift bearers sought to ensure favourable consideration of their future requests. Even before he was released from prison, efforts were made to make Kenyatta’s post-prison life comfortable: a house was constructed for him; and, as the late Jackson Angaine stated in an interview with The Nation, “I mobilised the Ameru to contribute towards buying a Mercedes Benz car for Mzee Kenyatta shortly before his release in 1961.” This laid the foundation for favouritism, nepotism, and misuse of public office to serve private interests. The foundation for the appropriation of public office for self-enrichment was thus laid by Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and it has gotten worse with each successive president.
A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity, and for restructuring Kenya’s colonial economy to work for the ordinary citizens, President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves: “We were together with Paul Ngei in prison. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to Kubai’s home, he has a big house and has a nice shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail now he is running his own buses. What have you done for yourself?” Jomo Kenyatta boomed at Kaggia in disgust for refusing to use his position and ethnicity to accumulate wealth instead of teaming up with Odinga to oppose the acquisitive behavior of the new elite.
A couple of years after Kenya’s independence, when Bildad Kaggia teamed up with Oginga Odinga and a few other truly nationalist leaders to fight for the rights of the landless for social justice and equity…President Jomo Kenyatta publicly ridiculed him for failing to amass the kind of wealth that his former fellow political prisoners at Kapenguria had amassed for themselves.
Kaggia’s response to this rebuke was emblematic of a true servant-leader with the highest sense of integrity and commitment to the general good. He calmly responded: “I was not elected to Parliament to acquire a large farm, a big house or a transport business. My constituents sleep in mud houses. They have no shambas and have no businesses. So, I am not ashamed to be associated with them. By the time they have these things, I will also be able to have them for myself.”
Unfortunately for Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa and even beyond, such leaders of integrity have been rare. Indeed, the few extant ones were, at best, systematically marginalised from the centres of power and, at worst, silenced through assassination. For instance, when Josiah Mwangi Kariuki (popularly known as JM) incisively critiqued the government and declared that the manner in which the state was being used in Kenya would lead to a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars, he was assassinated and his body dumped in Ngong forest.
What Singapore did right
Just like Kenya’s Kenyatta, when Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore in June 1959, he received many gifts from well-wishers who, like their Kenyan counterparts, wanted to ensure favourable consideration for their future requests. However, Lee declined to accept these gifts in order to set an example for his political colleagues and all civil servants.
A former senior civil servant, Eddie Teo, revealed that public servants watched and followed the example of Lee and his colleagues and “were incorruptible because they were incorruptible”. Eddie Teo and his colleagues were “motivated by the exemplary conduct set by our bosses” because “they lived simple, frugal and unostentatious lives” and the anti-corruption law was applied to everyone, regardless of position, by Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB).
The country relies on two key laws to fight corruption: The Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act (CDSA). The PCA applies both to persons who give and those who receive bribes in both the public and private sectors. When applied, the CDSA confiscates ill-gotten gains from corrupt offenders, including direct benefits as well as profits made by individuals or companies from contracts awarded due to bribery. The two laws combine to make corruption a high-risk, low-reward activity in Singapore.
Furthermore, the Singapore Public Service is guided by a Code of Conduct, which sets out the high standards of behaviour expected of public officers based on principles of integrity, incorruptibility, and transparency. The Code of Conduct is enshrined in the Government Instruction Manual for public officers and provides that a public officer (a) cannot borrow money from any person who has official dealings with him; (b) cannot at any time have unsecured debts and liabilities that are more than three times his/her monthly salary; (c) cannot use any official information to further his/her private interest; (d) is required to declare his/her assets at his/her first appointment and do so annually thereafter; (e) cannot engage in trade or business or undertake any part-time employment without approval; and (f) cannot receive entertainment or presents in any form from members of the public.
In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers. They created, by personal example, a climate of honesty and integrity, and made it patently clear to public officers that corruption in any form would not be tolerated.
Perhaps the best exemplification of Singapore’s zero tolerance of corruption is the fact that the anti-corruption law is applied to everyone equally, including top government and ruling party officials. Among top political leaders that have been prosecuted include the Minister for National Development, Tan Kia Gan, in 1966; the Minister of State, Wee Toon Boon, in 1975; the Member of Parliament and trade union leader, Phey Yew Kok, in 1979; and the Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, in 1986. The case of MP and trade union leader Phey Yew Kok is particularly illustrative of Singapore’s unrelenting commitment to zero tolerance of corruption. Kok was charged with misappropriating $100,000 trade union funds in 1979. He, however, fled to exile. When, at age 81, he returned to Singapore in 2015 after 35 years abroad, his case was re-opened by the CPIB and he was prosecuted on 34 charges involving more than $450,000, almost five times the original $100,000 he was accused of stealing from trade union funds in 1979. Kok pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in jail.
In a nutshell, unlike Kenya, Singapore resolved from the very beginning to fight corruption as a matter of strategic imperative to ensure the rule of law, sustain a healthy state of governance, and facilitate economic and social development. Right from independence, the founding political leaders saw it as their onerous task to set good examples for public officers.
Available evidence strongly indicates that the most important difference between a corrupt and corrupt-free state is the quality of their governance. A country’s incidence of corruption is related to its quality of governance. Multiple studies conclude that countries with high corruption have a low quality of governance, those with medium corruption have fair governance, and those with low corruption have good governance.
Singapore has minimised corruption because of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s strong political will and the provision of adequate personnel, budget and operational independence to enable the CPIB to enforce the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) impartially, regardless of an offender’s status, position, or political affiliation. Corruption offenders in Singapore are punished according to the law, without their jail sentences being suspended, or without being pardoned by the president. Consequently, corruption is perceived as a high risk, low reward activity in Singapore today because those persons convicted of corruption offences are punished according to the law.
As early as 1996, Singapore was ranked first among the 12 Asian countries in the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy’s (PERC) corruption survey. The PERC attributed Singapore’s top ranking to its strict and consistent enforcement of anti-corruption laws as corrupt officials, particularly high-ranking ones, are dealt with in Singapore with a severity rarely seen elsewhere. The country consistently ranks among the least corrupt in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Indices.
Lessons from Singapore
A number of lessons can be extracted from the Singaporean experience. The first, and perhaps the most critical one, is the importance of political will in the fight against corruption. For the war to succeed, a country’s political leadership must be sincerely committed to the eradication of corruption. They must demonstrate exemplary conduct, adopt a modest lifestyle, and eschew indulging in corruption themselves. Anyone found guilty of corruption must be punished, regardless of his or her position or status in society. If the big fish are protected from being prosecuted for corruption, and only the small fish are caught or prosecuted, as is the case in Kenya, the anti-corruption strategy will lack credibility and is unlikely to make any difference.
The second lesson from Singapore is that to effectively combat corruption, incremental measures won’t suffice. Instead, comprehensive anti-corruption measures must be employed. These include comprehensive anti-corruption laws and a non-corrupt and autonomous anti-corruption agency. The anti-corruption legislation must be comprehensive enough to prevent loopholes and must be periodically reviewed to introduce relevant amendments whenever required.
The third lesson is that the anti-corruption agency must itself be incorruptible. To ensure this, it must be controlled or supervised by an incorruptible leader. The agency must be staffed by honest and competent personnel. Overstaffing should be avoided and any staff member found guilty of corruption must be punished and dismissed from the civil service.
The fourth lesson from the Singaporean experience is that to reduce the opportunities for corruption in those government departments that are vulnerable to corrupt activities, such as customs, immigration, internal revenue, and traffic police, such departments should review their procedures periodically in order to reduce the opportunities for corruption.
The fifth lesson that the Singaporean experience teaches us is that the incentive for corruption among civil servants and political leaders can be reduced by ensuring that their salaries and fringe benefits are competitive with the private sector. The long-term consequences of low civil service salaries are unfavourable as talented civil servants will leave to join private companies for higher pay, while the less capable will remain and succumb to corruption to supplement their low salaries. However, governments might not be able to increase salaries unless there is economic growth and adequate financial resources. The basis for making civil service salaries competitive with the private sector is thus good governance and effective economic management that ensure sustained economic growth and development.
In short, Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption. Indeed, Singapore’s experience in curbing corruption demonstrates that it is possible to minimise corruption if there is strong political will. Needless to say, the situation becomes hopeless if such political will is lacking, when political leaders and senior civil servants pay only lip service to implementing anti-corruption strategies in their countries. Unfortunately, this has been the case in Kenya where the anti-corruption war has been waged half-heartedly, where low-level corrupt individuals are prosecuted while those who perpetrate grand corruption are celebrated and cleared to run for top political offices, and where even the half-hearted war is politically weaponised and applied selectively. It is thus no wonder that the scourge of corruption continues to grow in Kenya and constitutes perhaps the single most lethal threat to the future of the state.
Other successful strategies
Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere, such as the Doing Business Indicators, demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state. Some of the regulations on the books of many countries, such as those related to starting a new business, registering property, engaging in international trade, and a myriad other certifications and licences, are sometimes not only extremely burdensome but governments hardly ever pause to examine whether the purposes for which they were introduced are still relevant to the needs of the present. Such are the regulations that induce corruption and most simply need to be done away with.
Second, experience from elsewhere indicates that creating transparency and openness in government spending is another great strategy for minimising corruption. Subsidies, tax exemptions, public procurement of goods and services, soft credits, and extrabudgetary funds under the control of politicians constitute the various ways in which a government manages public resources. Governments collect taxes, tap the capital markets to raise money, receive foreign aid and develop mechanisms to allocate these resources to satisfy multiple needs. Some countries do this in ways that are relatively transparent and make efforts to ensure that resources will be used in the public interest. The more open and transparent the process, the less the opportunities for malfeasance and abuse. This calls for high levels of citizen literacy, and an active civil society with a culture of participation. A good example here is New Zealand, which remains consistently one of the top performers in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. New Zealand is a pioneer in creating transparent budget processes, having approved in 1994 the Fiscal Responsibility Act that provides a legal framework for transparent management of public resources.
Beyond the momentous experience of Singapore, evidence from elsewhere…demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the incidence of corruption and the extent of bureaucratic red tape. This suggests the imperative need for cutting bureaucratic red tape by eliminating needless regulations while safeguarding the essential regulatory functions of the state.
A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state. Purchases of goods and services by the state can be sizeable in most countries – somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of gross domestic product. Since the awarding of contracts involves a measure of bureaucratic discretion, and given that most countries have long histories of graft, kickbacks, and collusion in public procurement, an increasing number of countries have opted for procedures that guarantee adequate levels of openness, competition, a level playing field for suppliers, and fairly clear bidding procedures.
Singapore has achieved this by streamlining cumbersome administrative procedures and slashing red tape to provide an efficient and transparent civil service so that no one needs to bribe civil servants to get things done. A national ICT masterplan was set up in the 1980s, which is updated regularly to enable the government to exploit technology to benefit the country and to spur economic growth. Through this, the government implemented e-services to enhance the accessibility and convenience of government services. Now thousands of government services are transacted online by Singaporeans in the comfort of their homes. With regard to public procurement, Singapore installed GeBIZ, an online procurement portal because of which, today, all government procurement is done online. The procurement specifications are posted online and are available to all prospective contractors, both national and international. Transparency and efficiency are enhanced, and opportunities for abuse and corruption are drastically reduced.
A third strategy recommended by experts, and which is based on the Singapore experience, involves deploying smart technology. As already noted above, one of the most fertile sources of corruption in the world is the purchasing activities of the state.
Chile is another country that has deployed the latest technologies to create one of the world’s most transparent public procurement systems in the world. ChileCompra was launched in 2003, and is a public electronic system for purchasing and hiring based on an Internet platform. It has earned a worldwide reputation for excellence, transparency, and efficiency. It serves companies, public organisations as well as individual citizens, and is by far the largest business-to-business site in the country, involving 850 purchasing organisations. In 2012 users completed 2.1 million purchases issuing invoices totaling US$9.1 billion. It has also been a catalyst for the use of the Internet throughout the country.
In many of the measures discussed above, the underlying philosophy is one of eliminating the opportunity for corruption by changing incentives, by closing loopholes and eliminating misconceived rules that encourage corrupt behaviour.
But an approach that focuses solely on changing the rules and the incentives, accompanied by appropriately harsh punishment for violation of the rules, is likely to be far more effective if it is also supported by efforts to buttress the moral and ethical foundation of human behaviour. For the anti-corruption war to succeed, the Singapore example illustrates that it requires unrelenting political will on the part of the top political leadership and it must be waged comprehensively and without fear or favour. Otherwise, the manner in which the war against corruption has been conducted in Kenya amounts to mere window dressing; it is emblematic of the proverbial preaching of water while simultaneously partaking of wine.
Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness
12 min read. No Roses from My Mouth, Stella Nyanzi’s collection of poetry that was written in prison, and which has won awards, is a deliberately provocative – and apt – response to a dictatorial regime that fails to see the folly of imprisoning writers.
The drama of picking up the book would have been wholly farcical were the circumstances not surreal enough already.
The ridiculousness of furtive telephone calls in which names were neither asked nor given, the long, curving drive that skirted the city, suspicion as to why the boda knocked the car, and then arriving at the drop-off point only to be told the delivery man would not make it, underlined just how psychologically precarious it is to be in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda.
It was bound to be that way the day Stella Nyanzi was sent to prison in 2018. The activist and scholar had opened what amounted to a second front in the fight against the Museveni dictatorship. The means the way such a war is fought is rarely visible, so that while the placid surface of a society going about its quotidian slog remains even, nerves are getting chewed thin underneath. Along with Bobi Wine, one a poet, the other a singer, both of them versifiers, Nyanzi has deployed weapons and tactics dictators are wholly unprepared for:
The reaction of the state apparatus when it moves in on creatives is to always get it wrong. It may have looked like victory to the goonery when Stella Nyanzi was jailed nearly two years ago. But the result has been an Oxfam and PEN International award, and counting. This has been quickly followed by a poetry collection that will now underpin Nyanzi’s repute and bring to all the sheer courage of this woman. As with censorship of books, the argument that not imprisoning writers is the best way to silence them never gets through the collective thick skull of tyranny.
And yet the forceful Nyanzi had made it impossible for Mr. Museveni to not act. Her provocation – for it was, and Nyanzi proudly owns it – was delivered in such terms that Mr. Museveni was doomed to respond, even though he may have been aware of the folly of doing so. How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand. But the history of Big Man-badly- mauled-by-activist woman is a long one. The late Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, might have heeded wise counsel and kept clear of Wangari Maathai. But as with Nyanzi, Maathai too had set her challenge in terms that cornered the late Moi into attacking her. The day he laid hands on her was the day she won.
The diatribe Nyanzi aimed at Mr. Museveni more than found its mark; it paralysed the warmonger who is so used to operating from the outer limits of decency (and being feted for it, by no less than the World Bank), that the bounds of propriety are lost on him, a man who set fire to four, perhaps five, countries, killing millions of Africans and comprehensively corrupting Uganda. He stepped on everyone.
How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand.
He stepped on Stella Nyanzi. Like the feisty girls highschool boys live in fear of, Nyanzi has shrieked out in pain. Here, she describes graphically where she has been touched in language so stark that her attacker remains disoriented. Mr. Museveni has since stumbled from one vaguary to another, like a man searching for firm ground. He led an absurd anti-corruption walk of shameless self-mockery. He went on an aimless self-promoting trek retracing his bush war days, returning to the mythical ground of his self-declared “liberation” war, in what can only be a para-Freudian return to a time when he did believe in something. It was the subconscious speaking louder than the man could ever admit – that he has led a life of hypocrisy. Since Nyanzi spoke, we who pay attention have noticed declining changes in Museveni. There is no going back for him.
And so the irony that a man who in the 1990s used the feminist cause to build an impregnable bulwark of political support has been taken down by a feminist. We can only imagine what went on in Mr. Museveni’s mind when Nyanzi used the Luganda words “lutako” and “butako” to describe him. International media picked and amplified the translation: The Ugandan president had been called a pair of buttocks
“If you put your hands in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble,” Mr. Museveni said in the heat of election campaigns in 2015. He had dangled a bawdy, self-assured illusion of himself. He was the first to use an obscenity against himself, a “crime” for which he still walks freely. But he had left the scatological door wide open and Nyanzi did not need a second invitation.
And so here we are. A plummet from the heights of the Marxist speechifying of the 1980s, when he had been a frequent guest of Kim iI-Sung in Pyongyang, to the whiplash, road-to-Damascus conversion and pre-eminent neoliberal economic mandarin of the 1990s, a shift done without missing a beat (so we doubt how much he had understood of either) as though Karl Marx’s middle name had all along been Hayek. The Museveni regime had at last hit a literal bottom:
“Means of production”, “macro-economics”, “leveraging comparative advantage”, “stabilising the economic base” – words (for they had really been mere words) that had one time been stock-in-trade of clever revolutionaries, had been replaced by “anuses and “thick thighs”, “vaginas” and “buttocks”, the classic declining narrative of cinema that opens with high-end screenings but find that pornography sells more tickets.
This then was where things Ugandan had ground
State reaction to Nyanzi has been a stumble from botched inelegance to overcooked crudity. Two charges – cyber-harassment and disturbing the peace of the president – were brought against her. The double charge was the judicial fishing expedition to guarantee a conviction. There had been an earlier attempt at stifling Nyanzi via the coarse chicanery of a mental illness test, which we can only assume would have been rigged and would have seen her locked up to rot in a mental asylum.
The Directorate of Public Prosecution, whose head at the time has since been elevated to a judicial bench, further besmirched the reputation of an office not wanting for infamy by going ahead with that framing, and then not stopping there.
That test never went ahead. They attempted another ruse. They offered bail, that special form of clemency within the gift of state power. Nyanzi saw through this. Acceptance of the offer of bail would mute the campaign, show that the state had been just all the while.
Makerere University, a tragic shambles under its current vice chancellor, was pressured to dismiss her from her job (we writers have all gone through employers who are forced to let us go). Vice Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe, a man put there to make the university look stupid, terribly botched the dismissal – not that anything other than botched can be possible with Mrs. Museveni as Minister of Education.
It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.
The tragic disconnect is how tyrannical state goonery never understands how writers see the world. Judges and prosecutors (judicial guinea fowl with eyes firmly stitched to their legalistic navels) see prison as the ultimate tool of ostracism, for is it not proof of guilt that you are locked up?
And so with alacrity they paid for Nyanzi’s 18-month writing retreat by sending her to prison. As a bonus, they handed this creative research scholar thousands of captive respondents via which to study Uganda. Might the advisory council to Mr. Museveni, creaking under its own dead weight, have pointed out to him the folly of putting writers in prison and how that has always turned out?
It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.
Prison has at last given us and Nyanzi what had always been missing – a substantial enough work from which to see her outside of the high voltage media filter. Had there ever been doubt about her intentions, that has now vanished, and Nyanzi joins a stellar orbit of writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ken Sarowiwa, Jack Mapanje, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose voices were amplified.
Over the course of the past year, Stella Nyanzi smuggled dozens of poems out of prison. As she says in the book, dozens others were confiscated by prison officials, and presumably destroyed. Reading this collection comes with the urgent knowledge that there are bound to be consequences for Nyanzi and her colleagues.
No Roses from my Mouth has that rough and ready samizdat feel. The urgency to get it out was such that the conventions of publishing, the page-setting, the mulling over cover design, was not possible. Here and there, text overruns page, the guillotine chops words midway. There is no table of contents, and the wine-coloured cover feels more like a stain.
All of which do not matter.
Of those that contrived to sentence her to a mental asylum, Nyanzi says, via the poem, They Must be Schizophrenic:
They want me to upbraid the
Dictator with sweet Apples,
To rebuke him with sweetened
Milk and honey,
To reproach him with a thick
Slice of red velvet cake.
No! In the eponymous poem, No Roses From my Mouth, the last stanza sets the terms of this front:
There will be no orgasm
Coming from my mouth
Who cares about pleasure during war?
Instead there is venom and acid
The fighting tone defines the work, as it defines the woman, through 159 poems, the urgency ranging across insights, observations, a haiku, a call to arms. We have not had a book like this in this region. It is hard to think of another writer doing what Nyanzi is doing. Her language is direct. It is more than direct. It long broke the boundaries of conventional politesse and set as its starting point the far reaches of the acceptable, and then it goes beyond that.
This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers. It is not uncommon. We don’t hear too much of it because the people at whom it is often aimed, being aged men in power, rarely dare push their way to the point that this is called for.
When an elderly woman strips naked or uses obscenities, we do not ask if she is mad. We turn to the old man and say, “See what you have done? Mr. Museveni, have you no shame that now women have to strip naked?”
Nyanzi’s poetry is that. It is textual stripping, textual ritual shaming for an old man whose heedless actions threaten to destroy society. This is how we must read this book.
Thus the heavy sexual allusions, the references to castration in Missing Jewels, the provocative threat to “bitch-slap” the “tyrant” in He Cries at Mere Poetry. These are verse equivalents of clothes coming off before the masses, reading in public as a mother declares that the man in power has taken everything society has, so what is left to cover up? What does decency mean when the fount of honour is dishonourable?
This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers.
But naughtiness too. Who Pinched My Buttocks? is arguably the funniest poem here. Nyanzi’s narrative skill is plain to see. A poem that opens as a plaintive call for understanding, Who Pinched my Buttocks? sets off rhetorically, asking for understanding, to each her own, saying Let me do my bit to the best of my ability/Do your bit, too, as well as you can. Hence, those who speak diplomatically should not stop those who sing ragga. The religious must not drive out the demons of nude protestors. So it goes on, with calls to writers of legislation not to stymie the writers of tweets and Facebook. Fair enough. Except, that opening line was suspended and reconnects to the final lines thus…But let me grow my finger nail that pinch/When my time comes I want to be effective/The dictator will say, “Who pinched my buttocks?”
It is the tone with which the collection opens, the clarion call to action of A Plea for Decongestion. (Sure enough, four verses in, the F-word appears). Nyanzi proceeds to describe how prisoners sleep packed like sardines as…
My thighs pressed hard onto someone’s arse
My arse pressed hard onto another’s thighs
This sequence of adult thighs pressing adult arse
Is repeated in two rows of 30 women each
Nyanzi may be in prison, but her sense of humour is sharp at the ending of this poem:
If fighters of sodomy in Uganda cared at all
They would start by decongesting the prison
We will be led down this path only for sombreness to end in jest, again and again. And we have to be thankful for it.
The collection is a totality of prison life. News arrives to Nyanzi that Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina has died. She says in Is Binya Really Dead?:
Binya broke hard ground at a difficult time!
Binya took the bull by the horns
And inspired me with boldness.
Binya inseminated my mind.
The closing sections of the collection are more personal and introspective. They are about Nyanzi’s family life. The lowest moments do come as she wonders in No Padlock on Your Loin whether her marriage will survive prison. Thoughts about her children come close to breaking her. She pulls up and says in How to Visit Prison that visitors to prison must not come with their tears because prisoners have trouble enough. Break down and dry after the visit is done.
It is painful to read Nyanzi retell how she lost her unborn child due to negligence by prison staff.
The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula. These could be a separate collection by themselves. Though they are windows into the locked-away world of incarceration, they are really insights into the world outside. We count here what values society considers acceptable by examining the obverse. Solitary souls in prison, plucked clean off the margins of society from whence they had fought to survive, the mangos hawked by the roadside to feed the 8-month-old baby who must now survive six months motherless because the mother has been locked away, the young woman who needed just that stick of weed, just the stick from inside prison. The androgynous prisoner in Intersex in Prison, personalities viewed via versfication, poetry that captures snatches and glimpses of their being. It is their souls we feel, and what we feel lies heavy upon us.
And then the realisation dawns: But is this not what it is all about? Nyanzi’s struggle, lest we forget, began with the backtracking of the promise by Mr. Museveni during the election campaign of 2015/2016 to provide sanitary pads to all school girls if elected president. Once duly declared the winner, he sent his wife, who had been elevated to Minister of Education, to say that there was no money for the promised pads. Hence the fiery Facebook post for which Nyanzi is in prison. We must ask how many women might not be in prison had their education not been interrupted by menstrual cycles?
That is the asking price here. It is the stiff penalty. If Nyanzi’s language ensures that we don’t casually look away from class, ethnic and gender violence, how do we then address a female Minister of Education who says there will be no pads for young girls under her watch? Which is the obscenity – the language of Nyanzi or Mrs. Museveni’s sentencing into poverty and abuse millions of school girls?
The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula.
The furore surrounding Nyanzi’s work has nearly succeeded in obscuring her poetry, how it is conceived, how it works. The judge that sentenced her declared that it was not poetry. And although Nyanzi responds emphatically to this in Your Aesthetic Standards (a title surely missing an expletive) with Pooh to your bourgeois snobbery!/Your aesthetic what-what again? We have now come close enough to Nyanzi’s mind as a writer to know that she need not to have mentioned “standards”. Arguing over literariness is a cat-and-mouse game we can play in this collection, but we would be missing something more important.
That her writing is a radical, political position is underscored by the poem, Your Aesthetic Standards, where she writes, of her writing:
Bitch, I penned my pieces on the prison floors.
My sounding boards were suspected vagabonds
Druggies and junkies offered some rhymes
Convicts of common nuisance passed the meter
Sex workers and fraudsters approved lines.
Impersonators and thieves approved lines.
Suspects of murder and assault gave symbols
Suspects of manslaughter advised on ideas
Political prisoners cried at some stanzas
And just for size, Nyanzi adds
Prison wardresses confiscated some poems.
Far from gratuitous iconoclasm, Nyanzi’s ethos is a time-honoured tradition of radical criticism, which is also at the very heart of Marxist thought, of historical materialism. Here, the human body, as the material, is posited as the central platform upon which history is generated. Stripped to its essential, the human body is the active reagent of politics and economics, from black legs, arms, torsos and heads (needed together and functioning) being sold into slavery to generate the capital in Western capitalism, it is the parts of the human body called upon to operate tools, fingers that pick cotton, the human body that is targeted as the primary digestive tool and fat storage for the fast food empire, the feet that are covered by Clarke’s shoes, legs, buttocks and arms and shoulders that Vuitton and Hugo Boss target.
The colour of the skin you wear will, in America and England, determine whether the police pull that trigger or not.
The human body is the generator and archive of culture, what we do with the hair on top of it, which bits of flesh are trimmed, shaved and cut off depending on gender and religious persuasion. The body of Christ, for Christians, is the ecumenicalism that binds the religion together.
The human body is power. Entire civilisations convulse at the showing of an ankle, shoulders, breasts. Priests and judges police the human body more than they police anything else. When a tyrant wants to show who is boss, it is the eyes and nostrils at which tear gas is aimed, the head is for the baton, wrists and ankles for manacles, the heart for the bullet of the firing squad.
The body carries everywhere it goes, from temple to a football game, a litany of “unmentionables”. Breaking the command of priests and judges (the perennial handmaidens of dictators) by baring some parts while covering others at once dissolves their source of power.
In Nyanzi’s collection, the body plays the vital role of offering insight into society. There is the transexual with both male and female genitals whose elusive category erases gendered response: Does he/she have power or not? The state must break the body to acquire power, hence, the prisoners must sit on the floor, stooped, kneeling before the upright standing guards.
Nyanzi returns us to the basics, disavowing metaphysics (the acceptable politics of “beyond the body”) that can and often comes riddled with falsehoods. A return to the body is, in political terms, a handing of power back to the masses – the working, labouring “body” of society, away from the ruling “head”.
A return to the body is a threat to the ruling ethos, for once covered up and policed, those that decide what we wear, which parts we cover up, or which words we can use, can misreport to us what the body says – which is what culture and law and “civilisation” more or less add up to. A return to the body is insisting on seeing the exhibits for ourselves, to judge if what we are being told about human society is accurate or not.
No Roses from My Mouth is published by Ubuntu Reading Group, with an introduction by the writers and activists, Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. It can also be purchased on Kindle.
Tedium and Cannibalism in America’s Democratic Primary
13 min read. As Democratic Party candidates hurl insults at each other, and fail to inspire voters, the Trump machinery is gearing up to prepare for another victory in the 2020 election. What future can liberals in Trump’s America expect, especially in an environment where rational debate has been replaced by idiocy?
“Who the f**k are you, man?” Some awkwardly dressed long-haired pale kid asked out loud to a quiet bar at the appearance of six or seven of the candidates crowding the stage of one of the initial Democratic debates back in July 2019. Now, nearly seven months later, that statement, then met with tepid chuckles over 8 dollar draft beers and local artisanal fried cheese with “hand-made” aoili, rings truer than ever.
It still hangs heavy over the entirety of the Democratic Party; one that is now in a crisis of identity, and being repeatedly body punched in a fight that it does not fully understand. The question was asked in the heart of what has rapidly materialised as the singular most vital swing state in the entirety of the country; which is rapidly proving to be the mid-western state of Wisconsin (the one that looks like a mitten, north of Chicago).
The audience within that state, and one imagines, many other states, is rapidly erring on the side of indifference. In the crucial Democratic zone of Dane County in the overtly liberal capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, there have been sinfully few actual inroads towards actually doing the crucial thing – getting the base frothing at their mouths with a sense of urgency.
We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019. How to sum up these last six months of “serious” presidential campaigning on the Democratic side? Quite possibly, pointless, although it is honestly nearly impossible to tell – such is the minimal impact that the last half year seems to have had in influencing the mind of the “Democratic base voter” to be inspired enough to get out and campaign, to sign up their friends, to back a candidate, to even vote.
Truly, it should have been more memorable than it was, and therein lies the problem. The Democratic Party doesn’t realise that the entire year was seemingly spent whilst laying as little infrastructure and making as few viable inroads as they possibly could. Just as the race started to become solid, as one would expect the party to come together after the posers and long shots began to drop out across the latter months of 2019 and early 2020, the problems grew bigger as the campaign grew more “serious”— highlighted in bizarre on-stage fights between two of the three arguable front-runners, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the former of which threw barbs at sexist sentiments; the latter whose supporters claimed vast establishment conspiracy.
We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019.
Right now, key predictions are stating that there are four states that can be judged as “absolute toss-ups”: Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania went to Donald Trump in 2016 – arguably the biggest shock of that awkwardly rolled-out night, the announcement coming shortly before John Podesta shuffled aimlessly out onto the stage in New York City to tell shattered Hilary Clinton supporters to go home, probably shortly followed by the chair of the campaign wandering home to stare into the depths of a bottle of Scotch and wonder when his failings would bite him in the ass. Pennsylvania will have blue (Democratic) money poured into it; there is next to no chance of it going for Trump again.
Florida, while it is called a toss-up, has the controversies of six political thriller novels every two years with each new election cycle. The deck has been rigged Republican in the state to ensure the suppression of votes – taking away voting rights, not allowing former prisoners to vote, or as in 2000, when all else fails, just giving shitty ballots to the states multitude of senior citizens (albeit the old liberal Jewish ones). It may be called a toss-up, but it will fall red (Republican) in the 2020 presidential ballot.
Arizona cuts the same way; consistently touted as having the potential to flip over to the liberal side of the voting trend, the state never truly arrives at voting “left”, and the same will almost definitely ring true in favour of Trump in 2020.
That leaves Wisconsin, and given the above estimates, if the predictions hold, it will put the electoral college score at a dead heat of 268-260 towards the Democratic candidate. (In this screwball American system of elections, it takes 270 to win and to the victor goes all the power.) Now it seems that the ball has rolled slowly to our feet; whether Wisconsin possesses any ability to pick it up and run with it is a drastically different story. Right now, indifference reigns supreme.
Hubris and hot air
The entire summer last year, it seemed to rain, and people seemed to get angrier every time the clouds broke long enough to melt the earth with a heat wave that would make Mombasa blush. The attitude surrounding the debates in the early and mid-stages of July wasn’t helped along by this acclimatic side effect to global warming; all of the candidates seemed to rise and fall, punching themselves out and then landing a knockout blow, only to be slapped down days later in a circular firing squad of their own demise.
Each formed their own fate and rapidly dug their grave on the small hill that they chose to die on on a separate occasion. For Warren it was continuing to address the claims of Native American heritage; for Kamala Harris, it was burrowing down the rabbit hole of staying the “most woke” as a former prosecutor in the state of California (albeit before she randomly dropped out to yawns on a Tuesday in early December); Bernie engaged and engaged on some of his former campaign staff (not him, specifically) being accused of sexism. Mayor Pete had a race relation issue as the black police chief of his city was controversially fired; Joe Biden continually tripped over his own dick at every possible turn and Amy Klobuchar kept getting slammed with terrible answers over her alleged abuse of former staffers.
Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain. John Delaney dropped out on January 31st, mostly to general surprise that he’d ever been in the race at all. Cory Booker dropped out in mid-January, having thoroughly missed his shot. Just three days before him, Marianne Williamson dropped out to much disdain as the race had been much more interesting watching her have assorted drug flashbacks live in front of a studio audience. Julian Castro, considered a long shot dark horse, dropped off shortly before Williamson and promptly threw all of his swing state clout behind Elizabeth Warren, resulting in much speculation towards vice presidential angling.
Trust me, I know even reading the previous paragraph is an exercise in exhaustion. After several bruising campaign events and debates, the knock-out and reemergence of seemingly irrelevant candidates at the said debates and a continual media firestorm to navigate, no one has truly emerged as a winner; even the clear front runners are met with trepidation, doubt and the lack of real cohesion among what is passing for the “base” in the Democratic Party. It has become politics by participation – no one deserves to lose yet, let’s just hear what they think, okay?
Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain.
Even as one alleged competitor (albeit one with little claim to the throne), Beto O’Rourke, dropped out of the race (to assorted shrugs of indifference), another challenger with the cache and cash to go far, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has jumped into the Democratic fray. He has kicked up several weeks of bizarre ads (including a multi-million-dollar spot during the Super Bowl) and has still managed to fail to crack into the upper echelon. He has taken on the role of kingmaker, seemingly self-aware enough to know he stands little chance months into his run. He has vowed to play dirty and throw millions behind the eventual Democratic winner (assuming he is to inevitably lose). The whole affair seems to be a party held by the voters. Even typical political alliances are failing to take shape as the race progresses; no one is on anyone’s side, dogs are eating dogs.
At this point, trying to keep any rational track of the proceedings is akin to gaining your bearings in an all-out blizzard; the light at the end of the tunnel rapidly fades into a mirage.
In the meantime; Trump has continued to weather storms that would destroy anyone else: if they are ships to be sunk, he is an ugly little rock that gets battered by the hurricane and doesn’t go under the surface. It has been a summer and early fall that quite frankly came across as some kind of strange record: what that record would be categorised as is harder to pinpoint (douchiest quarter? Worst leadership month? Foreign policy fuck-ups per capita in an administration? Unforced errors in a day?)
Truly, the only way to properly see the scope of Trump’s mistakes since June of 2019 would be to sum them up in bullet form:
- He held an unprecedented military parade on the Fourth of July;
- He was booed at a baseball game in Washington DC;
- He pulled US troops out of Syria, causing the Middle East to somehow become more of a quagmire in less than 12 hours. He gave into Erdogan for apparently no reason;
- A massive scandal about Ukraine and quid pro quo broke. He admitted the scandal repeatedly. He called for investigations into those who were investigating him
- He was linked to a notorious billionaire child sex trafficker who was then arrested and who committed suicide in prison under mysterious circumstances;
- He callously mishandled the wake of major mass shootings the same weekend;
- He was found guilty of stealing from a charity to bolster his own political efforts.
These events snowballed into a much-maligned months-long impeachment show trial, which once again the Democratic powers that be fell straight into, thinking that there were more than five “rational” Republican Senators left. (There aren’t.) On January 31st, 2020, Trump was all but acquitted when the Republicans held their line, put their middle fingers up to precedent and simply refused to even hear witnesses; ostriches with their heads willingly buried.
Yet, he doesn’t seem to have lost any real ground. There is talk of impending Republican collapse, sure, but talk in American politics is the cheapest of commodities, and right now Trump has a monopoly on that market. The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.
A classic counter-attack
The strategy of the Republicans is a classic counter-attack: in the face of impending disaster, send everyone into the opposition’s box to put shots on goal. Right now, it seems to be working like gangbusters. The Democratic Party has a rapidly dwindling opportunity, one that grows smaller and smaller every month. Meanwhile, there has been substantial consolidation by the right wing to influence possible battleground states.
This has always been a Democratic problem, and frankly, a Republican strength: that those on the right make awful politicians, but are utterly adept at winning in politics. It was showcased last fall when the Republican Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, was handed a resounding defeat by upstart Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, by an incredibly narrow margin. Defeat, however, may be a strong term, as Bevin is currently fighting tooth and nail to have the results nullified or even thrown out.
That race was the essence of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are Machiavellian; they’ll do anything to get ahead and win. The Democrats seemingly have no such ability; they repeatedly roll over, giving inches and miles, throwing in the towel before eating each other for not being woke enough. It begs the question often asked in post-colonial era elections in East Africa: If you know your opposition is going to play dirty and win, what’s the point of playing the game clean?
This is a ponderous question to be sure, but with all of this “polite” conversation, political angling and snippy remarks at each other, it is one that the American left wing is currently not answering with any real teeth. As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.
The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.
On his part, Trump must be given his due, just as the devil is. He is currently leading a political machine and movement with a deft touch, despite not having the character to wield such power. Every three months or so, in an act that can only be described as masochistic, I watch the entirety of a Trump rally live on YouTube. Sober.
Yes, completely sober. The latest of these little exercises of burrowing deep into the strangeness came in October 2019 at the much-less-infamous-than-it-should-be Minneapolis rally at which Trump made hate claims against Somalis in the state of Minnesota, made extremist claims against representative Ilhan Omar, called Joe Biden’s children assorted names, publicly made weird sexual dialogue about the FBI’s role in the Russia investigation after the 2016 election, and repeatedly admitted to wrongdoing during his call with the Ukrainian president (while framing the phone call as “perfect”).
And yet, none of it is capitalised upon, no front running is found, all instincts of stepping on your political enemy when they’re down have seemingly been lost on 75 per cent of the Democratic candidates, while the ones that do “get it” can’t message their way around a free marijuana giveaway. If they have tried; it has been a pitiful effort against arguably the most flawed opponent in political history. If they were a boxer, the Democrats would have let up their opponent back up off the canvas, with their backs turned and hands raised in meaningless presumptuous triumph. So why haven’t any of the Democratic candidates stated the seemingly obvious (and court ruling-backed) truth: that Trump is a terminally criminal asshole and should be kicked to the curb.
As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.
As drastic as the above language is, it serves a further point – that when dealing with meanness this extreme, and a political climate this drastic, all semblance of kindness and reasonableness should be thrown out the window at all possible cost. This very election seems to hold a kind of decade on the tail end of it; if Trump wins, his power will be consolidated for at least another decade.
In essence, the current election must be contextualised for the weight it truly holds for the future of the country, the region, global geopolitics, global warming and sentiments veering to the right on a global scale.
A quintessential East African election
The US presidential election of 2020 resembles Kenya’s in 1992, Uganda’s in 2011, or even Rwanda’s in 2010. The initial contrast between this year in the US and that of Kenya in 1992 lies in the stakes: Kenya had come through the autocratic era of the 1980s Moi regime and up the hill of struggle to gain multipartyism, only to have the dream shattered as Moi won controversially once again (marred by allegations of ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation) while in the Rift Valley pockets of brutal violence emerged along with the results. Similarly, in the US, Democrats’ efforts to throw out a man they deem to be a wannabe brutal dictator fall flat. Instead of the change towards a progressive future that Kenya had hoped for, the ‘90s for the nation were more of the same, even as the years of corruption steadily corroded the shilling. This could also reflect in this upcoming American election – all hope for getting back on course towards a sort of progressive political shift could slide back into another tedious decade of fear and anger.
There is further fear in the US ahead of the 2020 election of abject failings at a systematic level a la Uganda’s general election debacle of 2011. The vote pitted challenger Kizza Besigye against multi-decade ruler Yoweri Museveni, and early indicators showed that the incumbent may have vulnerabilities after sliding back on promises during his previous term and the country facing the possibility of economic turmoil. Instead, the proceedings saw rampant malfeasance, with Museveni in the end claiming a decisive victory even as local and international observers leaned heavily on the military’s intimidation of potential voters as a crucial factor in deciding the outcome.
There are similar fears in America – that minority voters will first face the struggle of getting past intimidation (some of which has been directly called for by Trump himself), and both local and foreign interference (once again directly called for with frequency by Trump) and in the end the results could be an utter foul-up. If the initial Democratic Primary Caucus election of February 3rd is any indication (in which the app used for tallying votes seemed to die due to the pressure of it all), this doesn’t uphold in the upcoming American vote running anything resembling smoothly.
In Rwanda in 2010, it seemed that the first presidential election since the nation mandated their necessity (in seven-year increments), the resulting vote seemed to be a referendum on the very future of the nation – a fruitful economic decade translated into much of the population overlooking any allegations of cracking down on anti-Kagame dissent and rumoured human rights abuses. The result? Kagame won with 93 per cent of the vote, an utter landslide and an utter rebuke to any naysayers within the country. As a result, his mandate was deepened and widened, his grip on the country, for better or worse, has been drastically legitimised. This is the fear among cynical American liberals three-quarters of a year away from the upcoming election: that much of the problem will see the band playing on with an endless stream of economic bounty- and capitalism-fueled orgies. The fear remains that the success is based on lies that both the American left and voters of Donald J. Trump simply are blind too; or perhaps even more worrying, that they’re aware of them and simply choose to ignore them.
It is exactly the same for the Republican Party. For the Trump faithful, this is a 2030 play and beyond: to make the future of the nation (and whoever America deems bombable next), economic inequality be damned and let the memory of ice caps fade away. What they fail to realise is that the temporary economic relief could give way to a much longer term disaster.
The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down. It is that brooding, constant question that many have asked prominent opposition figures: If you knew for certain that the incumbent was cheating in the election, why didn’t you cheat better?
In past elections (see Obama era), there were widespread watch parties and enthusiasm abounded amongst the “base”; there was something to galvanise there. Now, with less than a year to go, the rare battleground bar will play the political theatrics of a Democratic debate live; the atmosphere is almost too pervasively toxic. It seems as if many are afraid to even dare jump into that fray, as though the very notion of Trumpism could rear its ugly head in the form of a yelling “bro”, a drunk and disorderly patron, a disgruntled random who decides to go get his AR-15 and “finally show those libtards they should finally listen”.
In the mid-west, especially in Wisconsin, there is a cultural norm that I once read described as “radicalised politeness” – the idea that politics shouldn’t be brought out into the light amongst decent people for debate; it could ruin an evening of Friday fish fries or (god forbid) an NFL game. From what I can tell, with the noxious fumes being spewed off over all things politic in this year 2020, the entire middle class in America is temporarily numb to it. Trump’s inherent gaucheness has goaded them into some kind of tepid silence, with lifelong pollsters desperate to gain some kind of rational grip on the polls.
The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down.
The ugly truth remains that as of right now, there isn’t a solid foothold to be found anywhere; if the ship is heading for the rocks, then the crew is squabbling over who should hold the wheel. It seems as though the honest direction of things is that Trump will maintain a grip on the White House in 2020, and that “liberal” America will try to take their last shot in 2024, probably to an even further depth of failure.
The stakes are high, but no one is there to meet them. At Thanksgiving dinner this year, in a house full of old-school union Democrats in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the essence of the problem was crystallised. Among the eight different voters at the dinner, not one shared a favourite candidate. The struggle for a political edge in the party has become a war of attrition to which voters are shrugging their shoulders.
Trump, on his part, continues to hurl idiocy in the air. Like so many tragically flawed opponents of dictators before him, the bait is being taken. What they seem to realise is that if they don’t manage to come together, there is absolutely no telling just how far down this rabbit hole could truly go.
I like comparing politics to driving; Americans, despite all their fancy roads and cutting edge cars, die in the thousands in car accidents every year. Why? Simple – they never anticipate a potential blind spot.
Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women
7 min read. The main objective of Kenya’s largest women’s organisation has been to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for Kenya’s women.
MYWO has always existed to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the foreseeable future
We are witnessing the Kenyan government’s attempt to reimpose silence as the preferred political language in this next phase of politics. These attempts are hidden in plain sight. Take for instance the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO)’s recent public censure of the Member of Parliament for Kandara constituency, Alice Wahome, for criticising the president, or the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders demanding that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s popularisation is the preserve of those aligned to the president.
According to its website, MYWO is a non-governmental organisation of over 25,000 affiliate women’s groups and over 4 million individual members. Registered in 1952 by a group of white settler women as part of the colonial government’s Department of Community Development and Rehabilitation, its purpose was to focus on women’s social welfare, which it did through organising women’s self-help groups around the country. In central Kenya where the movement for land, freedom and independence (the Mau Mau) was active, MYWO was treated with suspicion and there were rumours it was used to collect information on Mau Mau activities.
MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independence government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development. The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987. MYWO, therefore, has deep roots in the state and the state as an institution for the control of people. It is an organisation by women but not for women; its purpose is to serve the interests of the state.
MYWO has never deviated from its historical roots and purpose. It has never been an independent women’s organisation, nor has it ever been invested in women’s political agency. Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.
Because women were for all intents and purposes excluded from mainstream politics, MYWO was one of the few spaces for politically active women. Thus, some of its chairpersons include such politically active women as: Hon. Phoebe Asiyo, who was first elected in 1980 and was also the first person to table a bill for affirmative action for women’s representation in elective politics in 1997; Jael Ogombe Mobogo, who almost beat Mwai Kibaki in the race for Member of Parliament for Bahati Constituency in the 1969 elections; and Ruth Habwe, who was expelled from KANU in 1966 after she dared to run against KANU as an independent. Other chairpersons of MYWO include such prominent women as Hon. Zipporah Kittony, who was first nominated by President Moi as a KANU MP in 1988 and again by Gideon Moi, President Moi’s son and the Chairman of KANU, to the Senate 25 years later in 2013; and Jane Kiano, who was also a patron of the organisation until her death in 2018.
Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.
However, MYWO’s influence began to decline during the “second liberation” as demands for multipartyism grew and civic space expanded. As the public space for women expanded, including through the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, MYWO continued to shrink. Its resurgence to chastise Alice Wahome for criticising the president is, therefore, worth reflection.It is also worth noting that President Uhuru Kenyatta first ran on a KANU ticket and his political mentor was President Moi.
For the first time in our history, men and women form a class of citizens, neither with superior status, and both with the right to representation in elective and appointive bodies. Yet over the past decade, and especially in the last seven years, we have witnessed some of the most hardened resistance by the state to women as citizens — from systematic violations of the Constitution to exclude women from Parliament, Cabinet, and parastatal and ambassadorial appointments (as required by the Bill of Rights Article 27) to laws undermining their equality in marriage and the increase in violence against women by men in the public and private spheres.
In other words, there has been no shortage of “women’s issues” over the past decade. Women and women’s organisations working in women’s interests have had to demand, advocate and fight for women against the state despite the law – from court cases challenging these unconstitutional actions by Parliament and by the president to public advocacy for compliance with the rule of law to ensure women’s full representation in public space and politics. Women working for and on behalf of women have been at the forefront of challenging state illegalities that harm women, undermine their citizenship and limit their opportunities. During this time MYWO has been missing in action.
The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment. MYWO certainly does not protect the interests of women as a class of citizens. This isn’t to argue that their position is invalid or does not deserve a platform but to provide context and to assert it is not the women’s position.
MYWO was established to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the future of women in the country. The Kikuyu Council of Elders is the preserve of men, and the emergence of a “women’s league” in a notoriously misogynistic institution is probably a sign that the interests and positions being advanced are those of men.
The homogenisation of women
Women have been speaking for the past decade on issues of national importance. Where are those voices of women who have been speaking when it wasn’t convenient or politically expedient? Indeed, what the 2010 Constitution did to the consternation of the political elite is to create opportunities for the largest number of women in Kenyan politics – women who demand public space and national platforms without apology and on the same terms as men, women who speak against the state’s failure to protect women.
The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment.
But the way in which women who have been speaking for and on behalf of women against the state are being covered today is an attempt to homogenise women, to deny women the right to multiple and diverse opinions (see how this is consistent with a view of women as not real citizens). A small class of politically active women are also trying use the media to manipulate the public into seeing them as the “leaders” of the constituency of women so that they can leverage this standing to secure positions in the negotiated politics that is the fashion post-BBI.
Women are insulted, raped and killed and MYWO is silent, but a woman politician doing politics in a way that upsets the establishment is a cause for national statements. No woman with an issue – from the alienation of inheritance land or rape of her daughter in a public high school, or even the death of her daughter allegedly by a governor – runs to MYWO. However, the state runs to MYWO when it has issues with women.
To deny women diverse political opinions is to deny us the fullness of citizenship; it serves to infantilise us as well as to deny us agency at a time when the political elite is most vulnerable. Our politics is bad but it isn’t simple. Attempts by the political elite to gloss over differences or muzzle dissent should be met with suspicion.The only way citizens can influence the direction or agenda of politics is through critical political engagement not mere acquiescence.
MYWO’s resurgence, especially in the role of the disciplinarian of women doing politics, is a harbinger of a politics without basic freedoms: freedom of association and speech, not just for women, but all citizens. The nature of our popular, predominately male, political analysis is to render anything articulated by a woman as peripheral to the national discourse and only for the consumption of other women. Whereas men speak and do politics for the public, women speak and do politics only for other women.
This analytical framework fails to take cognisance of changes in society, as well as the expanded public and political role of women, especially post-2010. In addition, it is stubbornly ahistorical, ignoring this administration’s history of violating women’s rights as a prelude to more expansive and systematic repression. We see the same modus operandi with court orders. The Parliament and the president have consistently violated court orders on the two-thirds gender rule, including refusing to enact legislation on women’s representation and naming an unconstitutional cabinet. Now court orders are violated to deny some citizens the right to enter the country, as well as release them on bail.
We would do well to broaden our political analysis to take women’s role seriously as citizens with agency and with diverse political perspectives and, therefore, as proponents of both progressive and regressive politics. Part of what is most threatening in the current context is diversity of political opinion, complexity and nuance among all citizens, not just women.
MYWO and organisations like it are telling women what the proper political position is, thus pulling women back from complicating the public space by demanding to be heard. This is especially damaging for women because women as a class of citizens have legitimate litigated grievances that challenge the legality and legitimacy of any proposed referendum or constitutional amendment processes.
Why women are critically important is because none of the legal processes to amend the Constitution are available because these institutions are unconstitutional as they exclude women. We have an unconstitutional cabinet, an unconstitutional Parliament, an unconstitutional electoral body and a political elite that have all but admitted that elections are hijacked by those in power. The scope of the current illegalities would seem to exclude the current holders of those positions from initiating or overseeing any constitutional amendment process. Instead of an unconstitutional government overseeing amendments to the Constitution, what we should have is an independent transitional government. But the political elite know that this political moment works in their collective interest only if it is a binary choice, uncomplicated by facts and the law.
As citizens we would do well to be suspicious of those seeking to silence us or to mould us into well-packaged constituencies, whether they be organised around ethnicity, gender or age, for sale to the highest bidder. We are being encouraged to consider political choices that are both illegal and ahistorical and questioning the framing is considered heresy. We seem to have learned nothing from the silencing of critics and the faux “tyranny of numbers” scenario.
Shrinking the political space, especially the space to disagree and oppose the status quo, is bad for citizens and great for politicians. The politics of silence is the politics of oppression; it merely starts with women but will eventually silence and oppress all citizens equally.
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