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The War on Corruption: What Singapore Got Right

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Singapore’s success in minimising corruption can be attributed to its dual strategy of reducing both the opportunities and incentives for corruption, while Kenya’s failure to eliminate graft is the result of a half-hearted anti-corruption crusade that is politically weaponised and applied selectively.

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The War on Corruption: What Singapore Got Right
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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.

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Wanjala S. Nasong’o, Ph.D. is Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear cracks in the US system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump sinks the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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

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

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who decides?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?

The economic hardship aggravated by COVID-19 and the mistreatment of Kenyans in China have re-opened old wounds among the Kikuyu, who are now questioning whether Uhuru Kenyatta was really the right choice for president.

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?
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Last week, my friend Njuguna called to tell me he wanted us to meet. I went to their home in Gitaru, not too far from the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and 15 km from the Nairobi city centre. The family was going to have a Skype call with their kid sister, who is now marooned in Wuhan city in Hubei Province, central China.

Six years ago, after Nyambura finished her high school studies, the family put together their resources to send her to China to study medicine, something she had always dreamed of doing. Last December, she graduated from university as a physician and even found a temporary job at a local hospital. Last November, she told her eldest brother Njuguna that she wanted to gain some experience and earn some money before coming home.

Then the coronavirus explosion happened and her life was turned topsy-turvy.

Nyambura told her family that COVID-19 was possibly detected in mid-November in Wuhan, but when it could not be kept under wraps for too long by the Chinese authorities – as they figured out how to control and manage it – the authorities were forced to report the first infection cases after Christmas 2019.

Now, talking to her family from some street corner in Wuhan city, Nyambura was sobbing on Skype, beseeching her family to save her life and not abandon her. On seeing her home and family, she broke down and wept uncontrollably. She thought of how she would have been safe and sound at home among her family, among people she would feel secure with, in her country, where she would mingle and walk freely without fear of being beaten, insulted and harassed for being a foreigner.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar. She was now living on the streets; a fully trained doctor, homeless, penniless, and cowering under the brutalities of a racist regime that her government was scared of confronting.

“The unkempt kids that live and scrounge on the streets of Nairobi are 100 times better than me here in Wuhan,” said a tearful Nyambura. “They are scrounging at home in the full knowledge that nobody will beat them, they scrounge among their people and even though the street boys and girls can be rogue, the people can never disown them, or even beat them recklessly, no one would ever allow that.” In China, said Nyambura, the blacks were being treated like stray cats.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar.

Describing the current situation in China, Nyambura said the country had become a nightmare for Africans, for Kenyans, for anybody with black pigmentation. But she could not believe the extent to which the Kenyan government feared the Chinese, the extent to which the Kenyan government was ready to abandon and disown its people. “At least the Nigerian embassy has registered its displeasure with the Chinese authorities, stood with its people and asked the Nigerian representatives to collect the names of all the Nigerians in Wuhan for safe evacuation. Right now to be a Kenyan in Wuhan, or indeed elsewhere in China, is akin to abandonment, to statelessness, to be entirely on your own, to have been sacrificed,” said the physician.

“Why is Sarah Serem [the Kenyan ambassador to China] lying? Why?” sobbed Nyambura to her family. “She’s been telling you that the people who have been thrown of their houses, who are being kicked around and beaten up and button-holed are illegal migrants, Kenyans who supposedly are without papers…these are outright lies. Am I illegal in China? Am I not in the streets? Don’t I have all the papers? Why is she lying to Kenyans?”

But assuming the Kenyans in China are indeed illegally here, posed Nyambura, “doesn’t an ‘illegal’ Kenyan have rights? Doesn’t she have a life worthy of being protected? Doesn’t she require representation from her government? A Kenyan in a foreign country, whether illegal or legal is a Kenyan. Civilized and thinking governments first don’t stop to ask whether their people stuck in some foreign country are illegal or legal. They move in to evacuate and protect them…they can later on, if it’s really necessary, deal with the issues of how and why they went to that county in the first place after they are finally home safe.”

Diplomats are people who are employed by their respective governments to officially lie on their behalf. “But what [Ambassador] Macharia Kamau [the Principal Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry] and Serem are doing is denying our existence, calling us all manner of names, pandering to Chinese authorities’ whims. It is the worst thing a government can do to its people,” said a crying Nyambura. “To think that we have a responsible government…to believe that the government cared for its people…we’ve all along been cheated and fooled…it’s been a con-game through and through,” trailed off the physician.

The family asked her why the Chinese authorities suddenly found it fit to openly discriminate and harass the Africans. “You know when coronavirus first manifested itself, for some unexplained reason, it did not affect and infect Africans, or more correctly, black people, in China. As the Chinese were getting ravaged by the deadly disease, black people went about their business, unperturbed, apparently, oblivious of the malaise. It, therefore, seems to me, to their chagrin, the Chinese were really irked by this state of affairs. They thought, ‘Why is it that we the Chinese (who believe they are superior to the black race) are dying off, yet these blacks seems to be immune?’ they wondered.”

After the conversation, which lasted something like 45 minutes, Nyambura’s family was distraught, fraught with fear and foreboding. As is wont with many families, they bent their heads and fervently prayed for their sister and imploring the Lord God to “ring her life with the mighty blood of Jesus”.

***

The Njuguna family not only voted for Uhuru Kenyatta three times, it vigorously campaigned for him and the Jubilee Party. I know this because Njuguna and I have known each other for quite some time now. But thinking about the predicament of his youngest sister thousands of kilometres away has made him question his choices. “What kind of government do we have?” (He was not asking me, he was thinking aloud.) “What does Macharia mean when he says hiring a plane is not like hiring a matatu? When Serem disowns Kenyans in China. What’s going on in her head?”

In 2017, we had many arguments and conversations regarding that year’s presidential elections on August 8. I was sceptical about Uhuru’s re-election and he was cocksure that his fortunes, and that of his family, would rise. “How?” I kept on asking him. His response: “The Chinese are building a highway outside our village. It’s going to change our fortunes.”

Two years into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term, the project has not only stalled, but Njuguna does not want to hear anything to do with Uhuru or the Chinese.

When the Chinese started constructing the section on Gitaru, there was a huge uproar among Gitaru villagers. The villagers accused the Chinese of not employing any of their kith and kin. “The Chinese were doing everything, including the simplest of tasks, like dredging the tunnels, driving the trucks and even using the theodolite,” Njuguna recalled. “The local people went to complain to the local administration and the Chinese were asked to be considerate.”

“Do you know why the road has stopped?” asked Njuguna. “It is because Uhuru’s government has delayed paying the property owners their dues to allow the Chinese contractor to expand the road by building drainage that needs to build first. The people are so angry they don’t want to hear about Uhuru and his Jubilee Party government.”

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

I asked him whether he had been bewitched during the 2013 and 2017 elections. He said yes. “How else can I explain my total conviction in Uhuru’s presidency without wanting to brook any contrary opinion? My sister being stuck in China is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We are through with Uhuru…”

Even I was taken aback by his brazen candour. “The Kenyatta family has been the millstone around the Kikuyu’s necks. Do you know why our people are loiterers around the country? Do you know why our people are impoverished? Because the Kenyatta family grabbed all the prime lands in the ancestral Kikuyuland. I’ve told you about our pieces of land in Naivasha and Nakuru? He has now given a Danish company huge tracts of land in Naivasha to build a beer factory,” he complained.

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

“I’m done with Uhuru… I’m really done with him. I regret why I voted for him, why I campaigned for him… it is a mistake I hope never to repeat again,” grumbled Njuguna. “Uhuru can find money for musicians, find money for politicians, dead and alive, but he cannot find money to evacuate Kenyans suffering in a faraway country for no fault of theirs. Once again, for the umpteenth time, President Uhuru has thrown the Kikuyus under the bus,” growled Njuguna.

In the lead-up to the 2017 presidential elections, Njuguna and I had had many heated discussions on who Kenyans should elect as president. That time he told me, “Uhuru ni gaitu ga guicirira…mukuigwa uguo…” Uhuru is ours by birth and blood…you can lump it if you don’t like it.

***

“Iguthua ndogoria, itikinyagira nyeki,” said my friend, a matatu driver to me. Translated metaphorically, it means a limping shepherd leads his flock astray. Literally it means, a leader who lacks foresight cannot lead his people to greener pastures. Essentially, he becomes a burden to his people.

My friend was in a mood to speak his mind “in these times of coronavirus, where our world has been thrown into utter confusion”. He was taking his matatu to the garage for service in Kawangware, so he asked me if I could I accompany him.

“If I didn’t take care of this matatu, regularly making sure it’s well-serviced, it’s clean, that generally it is in a good condition, would I really feed my family? Would I claim to be a right thinking human being who cares about the welfare of his people? I wouldn’t, because it would keep on breaking down, and I would lose face with my loyal customers and my business would be wobbly. That is what Uhuru’s leadership has become. I will tell you this, many Kikuyus voted for him believing that he would lead us to greener pastures, that he would care for our interests, that he would not let us suffer, that he would remember he is where he is because of the sacrifices of the people, many of them strugglers and poor.

“But look what happened? Kikuyus hitched their wagon on a fading horse, a wild horse that didn’t, in the first place, know where it was headed and how it was heading wherever it was heading. Yet we Kikuyus couldn’t stop to ask these important questions because we were consumed by ethnic jingoism. We were all in a tribally induced trance…now we’re all paying for it. I’ve thought about these things: cooked up presidential elections, tribal voting, about Uhuru, politicians, why people are suffering, and now coronavirus and I can tell you we’re living in apocalyptic times.

“I’ve listened to Uhuru in his addresses to the nation – the man lost the plot a long time ago. He is so disconnected from the people, I wonder whether he truly listens to himself. But I’m told these people [politicians] never stop playing games with us, the electorate. ‘My fellow Kenyans’…when did we become his fellow Kenyans? Do you know there are Kenyans who are starving, because they don’t have food to feed their children?”

My matatu driver friend said that in some parts of Kiambu County, where he grew up and still lives, he knows of families that have been rendered jobless. Even with their meagre incomes, at least they could afford to buy food. “Now that meagre pay is not forthcoming. How do you expect these people to survive? Still, the president talks of ‘my fellow Kenyans’. No muhaka ticiria uhoro wa muturire witu wa hau kabere.” We must seriously think of how lives will be in the future.

“For me, I already have”, said the driver. “I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never again participate in electoral politics. What’s the point? Uhuru and his band of politicians can spend millions of shillings cheating our mothers with branded lesos [kitenge-like wrapping cloth, popular with women], caps and T-Shirts, yet he cannot find money to buy the same women masks. In his first address to the nation during these coronavirus times, the president said he had allocated so many millions to money paid to old people. That money is in the government portals – just like the stadia were built in the portals. I can tell you, the last time that money was paid to the retirees was way back, six months ago.

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

Coronavirus, said the matatu driver, had exposed President Uhuru’s administration: “It doesn’t know what it’s doing. Every time Uhuru takes to the podium to address the nation, he repeats the same things that he said the last time, hence, the speeches have become boring and repetitive. Or regurgitates what Muthai Kagwe [the Cabinet Secretary for Health] has been saying. It’s threats, warnings and blaming the youth, the poor and those who cannot afford to self-distance, quarantine, and even self-isolate, because for them it is a matter of life and death.”

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

My friend said the president had relegated everything concerning coronavirus to Mutahi. “Where is his leadership? It is missing, because I cannot see it. It looks like his spin doctors have told him to be occasionally holding press conferences to be seen to be on top of things. So he has become a talking head, talking to himself. Meanwhile, Mutahi’s major preoccupation in his numerously press conferences is to constantly frighten us with numbers, issue threats and condemn the poor and the less privileged.”

If there is one thing coronavirus ought to teach us, said my friend, is that we Kenyans need to think long and hard about the future of the country: “What do we want for ourselves? What kind of leaders do we desire? How do we right the political wrongs we’ve made? Talking specifically to my fellow Kikuyus: How do we unchain ourselves from the Kenyatta family servitude? This will be critical if the Kikuyu people in the coming years hope to be part of the struggle to liberate the country from the shackles of predatory politics.”

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