From Nairobi, Dr. Felix Wanjala texts the following on a work Whatsapp group: “Team, let’s ensure we don’t let the team down…let’s meet our target.”
Without context, this might appear like a harmless motivational speech from a boss to his subordinates. But the context here is this: Dr. Wanjala is the CEO of Nairobi Women’s Hospital (NWH). In the message immediately before that, he had forwarded a text listing the admission numbers across all the hospital’s branches in the country. “We have the numbers as follows at this hour,” the CEO wrote to his employees, and then listed admissions totaling 288 across the hospital group.
The target, and the context of the war cry not to let the rest of the team down, he went on, was to have 22 more admissions. To do this, the CEO recommended that his team, based at one of NWH’s two branches in Nakuru (called Nakuru Hyrax), “start with looking for referrals”, not miss “any opportunity”, and be “very vigilant in casualty.”
In multiple texts covering different days in 2017 and 2018, the Whatsapp group resembled a trading floor, with Dr. Wanjala and his Chief Operations Officer, Eunice Munyingi, pushing employees to work harder to increase admissions. On the first day of July, for example, Eunice wrote in reply to the nurse in charge of the hospital chain: “Let us increase speed 2 admissions against 13 discharges at this hour not good.”
Two minutes later, the CEO added, “It’s our striking time. Let’s intensify our effort…replace all discharges by 6pm.”
Five days later, at 7:28 p.m., the COO told to the Nakuru branch staff to “get 3 admissions by 9pm.”
Several interviews with whistleblowers describe a corporate culture of being pushed to meet admission targets. “Although it was not said explicitly,” one former member of the NWH said, “the implication was that doctors and nurses in particular had to find reasons to admit patients to meet the hourly and daily targets, even if those reasons were an absolute lie.”
Another added that there was a financial reward paid to clinical officers for each admission; but they still had to write down why they were admitting each patient. This meant they had to get creative to meet targets, both personal ones and those of their employer.
Founded two decades ago by a young gynaecologist called Dr. Sam Thenya, Nairobi Women’s Hospital began with a unique specialisation. The focus of its first branch in Hurlingham was solely obstetrics and gynaecological services, meaning its primary clients were women. It became particularly known for its Gender Violence Recovery Center (GVRC), a charitable arm that serves survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
“I was working in a hospital and I had pitched this idea to the CEO of that hospital, but he wasn’t very keen on the idea of taking in abused women for free,” the hospital’s founder told Business Daily in November 2016.
“One time he told me that if I thought the idea would work then I should go ahead and open my own hospital because it wasn’t going to work at that hospital and right there I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’”
So at the age of 31, Dr. Sam Thenya took up his boss’s challenge.
The thing that drove him to start the hospital when he had no money, he told the interviewer, was a “certain trigger, madness or passion”. His singular goal, despite the challenges almost as soon as he started, was to build one of the most familiar, respected private hospitals in the capital city.
“Although it was not said explicitly,” one former member of the NWH said, “the implication was that doctors and nurses in particular had to find reasons to admit patients to meet the hourly and daily targets, even if those reasons were an absolute lie.”
For the hospital to survive without taking in more investors or money, it needed to scale up fast, and build solid revenue streams that included donor funding for its GVRC charity. It also had to wade through the rough early 2000s, as Kenyan systems tried to reset themselves.
In 2003, for example, the hospital’s banker, Daima Bank, collapsed. Dr. Thenya, still in the early years of his project, heard the devastating news while he was fuelling his car at a petrol station. “We had just issued suppliers cheques,” he said in the interview.
Despite such and other challenges, Dr. Thenya and the hospital he built surged on.
He transformed from a practising gynaecologist to an entrepreneur. He also sold the hospital for a fortune, and was on his way out as the founding CEO. Although he stayed on after resigning as CEO, his armophous role as Director of Strategy didn’t mean much.
In a scenario that exemplifies the fine line between private healthcare as a business and a service, Dr. Thenya had to fight with politicians, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, and technocrats who had demanded the release of patients (alive or dead) over bills.
Once, he told the interviewer, the President called him and told him someone had sent him an e-mail that the body of his/her mother was being held hostage by NWH over unpaid bills.
“Sam, what do we do?” the President asked.
“Your Excellency, the bill has to be paid,” Dr. Thenya answered.
After the President said he would pay the bill, and asked the body be released while he did it, Dr. Thenya replied, “I need some proof of payment of some pre-payment today.”
“If you want me to release it today,” he went on, “then pay today.”
By this point, a lot had changed.
Born in Nyakihai, Murang’a, in 1968, a much younger Sam Thenya had wanted to be a pilot. But he became a doctor instead. As a young doctor in training, he led a strike at Nyeri Provincial General Hospital in the early 1990s. The issue, which was fixed because of the strike, was bad working conditions for medical practitioners.
“I am not one who stands by and watches things deteriorate,” he told an interviewer in 2011.
What finally drove him to ask his boss to start a wing for victims of sexual violence, and doing it himself when he was challenged, was meeting the victim of a brutal gang rape. Battered, violated, and in need of urgent medical care, she did not have money to pay for admission.
“I paid for her admission and closely monitored her progress.”
As a young doctor, Dr. Sam Thenya was unstoppable in his mission to build Nairobi Women’s Hospital. In October 2000, a hospital called Hurlingham Hospital was on auction for unpaid debts. Dr. Thenya approached the auctioneers with a promise to buy the hospital. It was an attractive deal for both sides: the auctioneers would get rid of an asset few can or want to buy, and the young doctor could build a hospital from scratch.
But there was one problem, a big one. He had no money.
The most he could raise was half a million shillings, which he did by selling his wife’s car. He needed 17 million more, so he got other investors to put in the money and take a share of the repainted hospital’s ownership.
In the world of modern finance, this seemingly brilliant financing strategy has a name. It is called a leveraged buyout (LBO). It works exactly how Dr. Thenya did it: you buy a company by taking in debt and giving up equity, which means you do not need a single coin to start whatever enterprise you want to start. The assets of the thing you are buying, with money that is not yours, serve as the collateral in case the enterprise doesn’t prosper.
The most famous LBO in the world is the hostile takeover of an American company called RJR Nabisco. In 1989, the executives of the conglomerate, which sold tobacco and food products, including the world famous Oreo cookies, started an unstoppable process to acquire the entire company at $75 a share.
The events that followed that ignition are covered in Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, a book (and movie) written by two American journalists. It covers the executives’ plan to buy out other shareholders, and the marathon that began when other groups of people joined in on the race to acquire one of the biggest companies in the world. One of them finally won, by offering a price higher, by $15 a share, than the management team’s offer.
But the best of this story is that none of them, even the executives who wanted to buy a company for $25 billion, actually had the money. They didn’t need to. In the great game of modern finance where money is an idea, one person quoted in the book says, you need more money to start a shoeshine store than you do to buy a 2 billion-dollar company.
The gist is to start what is called, in modern finance, a fundless fund –simply a corporate body that on the one hand promises to and negotiates to buy something, while asking for money from those who have it to complete the deal. For investors with vast amounts of money on hand, this is an investment for which they expect to see profits.
In the world of modern finance, this seemingly brilliant financing strategy has a name. It is called a leveraged buyout (LBO). It works exactly how Dr. Thenya did it: you buy a company by taking in debt and giving up equity, which means you do not need a single coin to start whatever enterprise you want to start.
Dr. Thenya gave up 40 percent of NWH’s ownership to the investors who gave him the $50 million (in total) to buy the assets of Hurlingham Hospital, and to repaint it afresh as Nairobi Women’s Hospital. As the new hospital grew on the back of its reputation as a niche healthcare provider, Dr. Thenya progressively bought out the investors, and by the late 2000s, owned the entire thing.
As they left, presumably after making a profit, Dr. Thenya expanded his enterprise just in time. The 2008 financial crash was wreaking havoc in Western markets, starting first in the mortgage industry and eventually spreading its tentacles to the heart of multiple economies. For private equity funds, which had had their best years right before the crash, it was time to find other markets to play in.
In 2009, Dr. Sam Thenya acquired Masaba Hospital in Adams Arcade, and turned it into the second Nairobi Women’s Hospital branch. By the end of the next decade, there would be a total of nine Nairobi Women’s Hospitals: four in the capital city and the metropolis; two in Nakuru; and one each in Naivasha, Meru, and Mombasa.
From a single hospital in Hurlingham, Nairobi Women’s Hospital was one of the fastest-growing hospital chains in Kenya by the mid-2010s. But things had changed. In the first decade, Dr. Thenya had quit practising to concentrate on the business side of his hospital.
“I realised that I was not giving my patients full attention because I was often caught up in strategy meetings,” he said in later years, “[so] I had to choose between expanding the hospital and practising.”
And in several transactions beginning in 2010, he had progressively sold his ownership stake in the hospital to the successor of leveraged buyouts in modern finance; a similar but differently named structure called a private equity fund.
A private equity (PE) firm is a leveraged buyout by another name, with very few significant differences. Simply, you get money from wealthy individuals and organisations, such as pension funds and charities, and buy attractive companies. Then you restructure them by cutting costs, expanding as fast as possible, extracting as much revenue as you can, and then selling them for a profit.
The basis of this model of financing is to buy and sell, as opposed to keeping an investment in perpetuity. So PE firms strip their new companies of any sellable assets, change the management, reduce costs by firing professionals and employing cheaper labour, pay executives bonuses for meeting targets, and once the company is attractive enough on paper, sell it to someone else. That new buyer is often just another PE firm.
In the complicated structures of global commerce, private equity funds are used to finance rapid expansion, which increases the value of the assets. Investors, who include funds of funds, where one investment fund invests in another investment fund, expect a return in investment. And investment funds get money by promising exactly that.
PE funds themselves make money in two ways: by charging an annual management fee of the money they have been trusted with, calculated as a percentage, and by taking a cut of the profits they make when they sell the companies they buy. So their primary motivation is to get more investor money, and to restructure companies as fast as possible to attract a higher price than they bought it for.
One of the things PE funds do when they acquire a company is to transition it from a founder-run company into a corporate body that can attract a higher price. This is exactly what happened at Nairobi Women’s Hospital from the first funding round in 2010, where Dr. Sam Thenya’s ownership systematically reduced as the new owners’ ownership stake increased.
In the midst of the “Africa Rising” narrative, and from the ashes of the 2008 global crisis, billionaires and institutional investors in the West turned their investment focus on Africa. The continent’s young population offered an attractive proposition for profit-making ventures; it was expected that not only would these younger Africans be richer than their parents, and willing to spend more on everything, but that there were no modern legal or regulatory structures in place to halt corporate raids of existing companies. And by the time they came, several rounds of investors would have already made enough profits.
In 2010, Dr. Sam Thenya got $2.66 million for part of his stake in the hospital. The buyer, The Abraaj Group, which would collapse in 2018 amidst investigations that its founder and executives had stolen investor funds, was founded by a Pakistani based in Dubai. In addition to Nairobi Women’s Hospital, it also acquired all or parts of other Kenyan companies: Java House (100%); Brookside Dairy (10%); and Seven Sea Technology (21%).
But its most prominent purchases were in private healthcare, where it bought 18 clinics and 10 major hospitals. In addition to its stake in Nairobi Women’s, it also bought part of Avenue Group Hospital, Ladnan Hospital, and Metropolitan Hospital.
Three years later, Abraaj bought more of Nairobi Women’s with a partner PE firm called Swedfund. The Swedish government describes Swedfund, which it funds and owns, as a “development financier and development cooperation actor”; but it works in basically the same way privately-owned PE firms do.
“The objective of the Africa Health Fund is to increase access to affordable and quality health-related goods and services for those at the bottom of the income pyramid,” Swedfund said in a press release dated 22nd November 2013. “At the same time it hopes to provide investors with good long term financial returns.”
This dual-purpose fit into Dr. Thenya’s founding principles, which had been to build a hospital that offered services to abused women for free, while offering other medical and surgical services at a fee. Swedfund, which said it “put a high emphasis on environmental, social and governance issues”, and other investors were investing in the hospital to fund its expansion.
In 2010, Dr. Sam Thenya got $2.66 million for part of his stake in the hospital. The buyer, The Abraaj Group, which would collapse in 2018 amidst investigations that its founder and executives had stolen investor funds, was founded by a Pakistani based in Dubai.
From a single branch, Nairobi Women’s Hospital had expanded to three hospitals: one in Adams Arcade founded in 2009, another in Ongata Rongai founded in 2011, and the Nakuru branch which followed a year later. It also had two medical centers in Kitengela and Eastleigh, both opened in 2012, and two more branches, in Mombasa and Kisumu, on the way.
This was all, the Swedish state investor said, “part of a the grand plan to expand further in the country and the Eastern African region by 2016; and subsequently into the rest of Africa.”
While the source of Swedfund’s finances is obvious, the source of The Abraaj Group’s funds is a more interesting story because it led to its death in 2018, and the arrest of its top executives.
Because PE funds run multiple projects at any one time, they structure them as independent funds with their own fund managers. The specific one that invested in private healthcare in Kenya beginning in the late 2000s was called The Abraaj Growth Markets Health (Africa) Fund. It got its $1 billion to invest in Kenya and other countries from multiple sources, the most prominent being the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank’s private equity fund, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The second deal, which reduced Dr. Thenya’s ownership even further, was worth $6.5 million.
The Dubai-based Abraaj Group, founded a year after Dr. Thenya started Nairobi Women’s, was a renowned investor in multiple sectors across the continent. By the time it collapsed in 2018 amidst a dispute with its investors, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had initiated an audit into how its money in the healthcare fund had been used; it had invested an estimated Sh320 billion in 80 transactions across Africa.
Through the fund, part of which the PE firm’s founder, a Pakistani man called Arif Naqvi, was accused of misusing, Abraaj owned private hospitals in Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In April 2018, around the same time the screenshots of the Nairobi Women’s Hyrax Whatsapp group were revealed, Naqvi was arrested in Britain on a US warrant.
Naqvi had resigned from Abraaj the month before investigators found evidence that he had defrauded investors in two ways: by inflating the price of assets, which included Nairobi Women’s Hospitals and several other Kenyan private healthcare providers, and misappropriating the fund.
The scandal made headlines around the world, as many other similar investment structures had ridden on the Africa Rising wave and bought many companies, in many countries, on the continent. Meanwhile, The Abraaj Group was closed and its assets stripped for parts by other PE firms. A British firm took over its stakes in Brookside Dairy and Java; an American PE firm called TPG acquired the healthcare fund, which counted among its assets several Kenyan hospitals. TPG then renamed the fund the Evercare Health Fund to avoid the negative reputation of its former name and manager.
These high finance events and deals all took place outside of Kenya, but in the end TPG owned Nairobi Women’s Hospital and several other private hospitals in the country.
Meanwhile, Arif Naviq remains in the UK, and not by choice. Last May, after he had spent a year in custody, he was granted a record $20 million bail. By October, he was also being investigated for bribing Pakistani politicians.
While this complicated game of international finance was happening, the private hospitals in Kenya were still operational, and still working to make profits for the fund, as their investors sorted a new PE firm to “buy” and run them.
In a text forwarded to the Nakuru Hyrax staff on 11th September 2018, CEO Dr. Felix Wanjala outlined the revenues so far, and the targets he expected them to contribute during the course of that day. The Nairobi Women’s Hospital group was making Sh12.81 million a day against a target of Sh15.47 million, and cumulatively was Sh33 million off a total target of Sh170 million.
“Team this revenue is too low for the numbers that we have, are we billing,” he posed to the staff.
The shift from Dr. Thenya’s ownership and leadership to the PE funds had launched what was typical corporate behaviour after acquiring a new asset. Nairobi Women’s Hospital had, over time, stopped hiring medical officers (MOs), professionals in waiting who are mostly post-graduate students, to serve outpatient patients. It had instead turned to hiring young clinical officers (COs), who (at the time) only had a diploma earned after three years of training, to do the job.
To staff its rapid expansion, Nairobi Women’s was now depending on COs to serve patients who were not already admitted in the hospital. It was also encouraging them, according to multiple insiders, to meet admission and revenue targets, which were analysed every hour of every day, day and night. While the hospital still hired specialists, it hired less than it required (because MOs demand better salaries) and gave clinical officers the job of determining which patient needed to be admitted. It also gave the COs a financial incentive, at one point 710 shillings per patient they admitted.
This structure meant that while COs would find and push for admissions, even (and especially when) they were unnecessary, more qualified medical officers would only encounter the patients when they had already been admitted, and were already paying for the bed, food, tests, and medicines. They were already, in lingo used frequently in the leaked Whatsapp group messages, customers.
Nairobi Women’s Hospital had, over time, stopped hiring medical officers (MOs) to serve outpatient patients. It had instead turned to hiring young clinical officers (COs), who (at the time) only had a diploma earned after three years of training, to do the job.
Once they were in the hospital, the top management of Nairobi Women’s encouraged the staff, everyone in the Whatsapp group, medical and non-medical staff included, to keep them admitted for longer.
In another text, for example, CEO Dr. Felix Wanjala asked his staff “how did we end up at 18 discharges from 10 planned.” The text included an emoji of a sad face, suggesting he was unhappy with the situation. His COO, Eunice Munyingi, then asked someone called Victoria to answer the CEO. Victoria then passed the question to two other people, before the CEO responded “Vikki calm down…we expect better performance in future. Obviously this is not good for us.”
Medical officers and other specialists who worked at Nairobi Women’s at the time describe multiple instances of being pushed to keep patients for longer than necessary. In a text sent at 8:04 am on 11 November 2018, COO Eunice Munyingi told the staff to “lock discharges at 7” and to “…kindly start now.”
This meant that if you were admitted at this particular Nairobi Women’s Hospital, and should have been released to go home, the decision of whether to let you go was based on revenue and admission targets, not on your health. In the texts, the senior executives ask staff to post hourly updates of the branch’s status, specifically how many people are being served and how much money was made, and cheer them on in language a media practitioner described as “better suited for a trading floor than a hospital management team”.
The comparison to a trading floor is poignant, because insiders describe an internal system that fits the script of the popular TV series Billions, with a CEO-COO dynamic similar to that of the characters Bobby Axelrod and Mike “Wags” Wagner in the show.
The similarities with a fictional TV show do not end there because the two characters run a ruthless private equity firm that buys companies, restructures them by any means necessary, legal or otherwise, and sells them over for a profit.
Like a PE firm and any modern enterprise, the top management of Nairobi Women’s also kept tabs on its reputation online. In one screenshot from 2017, the then clinical services in-charge, Victoria Wawira, posted a screenshot of a Facebook post written by a woman who had commented on their hurry to admit her child. Whenever she took her daughter to the hospital, “…The doc sees her and immediately its admission no second thought about medication,” she’d written on a Nakuru Country Mums group on Facebook.
In follow-up messages, Victoria told two clinical officers that the post was “trending on FB” and that they should “vet admissions”. In any other context, this would mean that the two COs should make sure they were admitting only patients who needed to be admitted. But in this particular context, it meant one thing – that they should check that they didn’t admit potentially problematic patients who would be suspicious of the need for them to move from outpatient to inpatient.
Medical officers and other specialists who worked at Nairobi Women’s at the time describe multiple instances of being pushed to keep patients for longer than necessary. In a text sent at 8:04 a.m on 11 November 2018, COO Eunice Munyingi told the staff to “lock discharges at 7” and to “…kindly start now.”
Bad publicity meant not just harm to the hospital’s reputation, but it could also hurt the bottom line if future buyers, well-meaning investors, and nosy reporters found the posts and figured out how Nairobi Women’s was achieving its spectacular service and revenue targets.
The chaos, and reasons why we seek medical attention, meant patients caught up in this great game of corporate greed, and trusting their doctors to know what was best to restore their health, did not know better. They would have sell assets, sacrifice savings, hold fundraisers both online and offline, and do whatever was necessary to pay their hospital bills, without ever knowing that they had been unsuspecting victims of the vagaries of modern finance, and the focus on Africa that followed the 2008 financial crisis.
In Part II, the author examines how we let this happen, how other hospitals do it too, and how other countries have warded off the barbarians at the gates.
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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