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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President

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DAUTI KAHURA recalls what it was like living in the Moi era.

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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President
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On a sunny Saturday afternoon, sometime in 1987, I was taking a stroll from Section 19 into Kitale town, then an agricultural, sleepy, settler town. I did not pay much attention to the beige VW Kombi that passed by me until after it had gone like 20 metres before it started reversing. I kept walking, and the Kombi reversed past me to stop near some school girls who were walking behind me. I had not noticed the girls either. They were in green uniforms and were from Kitale Girls, the school that was later to be renamed St Monica.

I stopped to watch as the passenger in the Kombi van rolled down the window and started talking to the girls. As he talked to them, his right hand reached to the glove compartment and removed a wad of neat Kenya currency notes, which he gave to one of the girls. No sooner had he given the money to the girls, who were by then giggling with excitement, the van zoomed past me, the passenger rolling up the window. I had heard that President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was a man who was besotted with school girls, but until then, I had never taken it seriously.

I will always remember this act of spontaneous magnanimity – of a president going about his business in an unmarked nondescript van (the Kombi became associated with Moi’s tours across the country) and stopping to chat up some students and hand them some cash. I went away thinking, what a kind man, a president who stops to engage with students along a road. That scene stayed in mind for a very long time.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

Three years after my close encounter with Moi, in 1990, I was a barman in Ukunda, which lies along Kenya’s south coast, five kilometres from the famous Diani beach. I had some special clients who worked at the Kwale Law Courts who patronised the club nearly every day. They were clerks, lawyers, magistrates and civil servants. I liked discussing politics with them. Many of them were from the Luo community.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

On February 12, 1990, the daily newspapers reported that Dr Robert Ouko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had gone missing. That evening, when the patrons came for their drinks, the point of discussion was the missing minister. I remember telling them that there was no way a minister could go missing, I do not know where I had gotten that information, but I recall telling them a president must always know where his cabinet ministers are on a daily basis. A minister must report to the president wherever he is, more so a foreign affairs minister. I told them the minister was long dead.

“Young man,” shot back one of the Luo civil servants, “what are you talking about? You are too young to know these things.” We left it at that. The following day, the papers reported that the minister’s body had been found at Got Alila village in Koru in Kisumu by a herdsboy. That day, my Luo patrons did not work, so they came straight to the bar at about 10.00am, carrying their newspapers. They ordered for their drinks, but could not drink them. They were very distraught. Conversing in Dholuo, one of them, overcome by emotions, broke down and wept. It was my first time ever to see a man weep uncontrollably.

“Oh God”, mourned the man, “they have done it again. Kenyatta killed [Tom] Mboya and now Moi has killed Ouko. Why, why, why, nobody likes us…we’ll always be on our own.” One could feel the indescribable pain the man was undergoing. As writer James Baldwin would write, my dungeons shook. Mboya was the mercurial Minister of Economic Planning and Development when on July 5, 1969, he was shot by an assailant, Isaac Njenga, at around 1.00pm as he stepped out of Chhani’s Pharmacy on Government Road (today’s Moi Avenue).

Close encounters

In 1991, I was back in Kitale. My friend, an architect, asked me to accompany him to go and see his client. His client was a well-heeled politician, as connected as they come. He owned a merchandise shop on Kenyatta St. On the day we went to see him at the shop, he was in a foul mood.

“Hawa waKikuyu wanafikiri hao ndio akina nani? Sisi tulialika hawa hapa Rift Valley tukawapatia mashamba ya kulima…sasa wanasema wanataka multiparty politics. Juzi mimi nilikua na mzee na amekasirika sana…ametuambia lazima tuonyeshe hawa waKikuyu Rift Valley ni ya kina nani. Wewe ngoja tu, baada ya miezi sita utasikia maneno – tutachoma na kufukuza hao kabisa.” Who do these Kikuyus think they are? We gave them farms to till here in Rift Valley…now they are saying they want multiparty politics. You know the other day I was with President Moi and he was very angry…he has said we must show these Kikuyus who owns Rift Valley. Just wait, in six months time, you’ll hear for yourself – we’ll burn their properties and chase them out of Rift Valley.

The politician assumed that I was a Bukusu from Trans Nzoia.

As sure as night follows day, six months after, ethnic violence – sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing – started sporadically all over the Rift Valley. Moi and his cohorts called them tribal clashes.

I had gone to school in Kitale, so I had made many friends across the ethnic divide. One of them was from a Kikuyu family that lived up in the Cherangani hills scheme, where his parents were crop and livestock farmers on a 10-acre piece of land. As “ethnic cleansing” sprouted all over Kitale and other places, my friend narrated to me how one night his family was attacked by Kalenjin warriors armed with bows and arrows. My friend said that that night, the family thought they would meet their maker. But when morning came, they emerged from their hiding places alive. But their livestock was gone – their cows were doused in petrol and burned alive. “We could smell the burning of raw meat…you can imagine the torture the poor animals underwent,” he told me.

Moi had instigated the ethnic cleansing of the Kikuyus in the greater Rift Valley province because he had been forced by the West to reintroduce multiparty politics. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and two years later glasnost and perestroika has set in in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as nation-states broke away to claim independence. Kenya had been a darling of the US and UK – barely four years before, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher had praised Moi as an African statesman when he went calling at Downing St. The West had turned its back on Moi by tightening the purse and asking him to conform to the new political dispensation. The Cold War had come to end and the US was now the unchallenged superpower.

“Moi’s double-faced beguiling character is something many Kenyans did not know,” said journalist Ken Opala. “Moi was a master manipulator of emotions, he could charm you out of your socks.” Sometime in 1996, Opala had an encounter with Moi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)’s state pavilion. Opala, then reporting for the Daily Nation newspaper, had gone to cover the state visit of Jiang Zemin, the President of the Communist Republic of China.

As he, Kipkoech Tanui (today the group executive editor at the Standard Group but then a rookie reporter, also working for the Daily Nation) and Manoah Esipisu (now Kenya’s High Commissioner in the UK but then working for Reuters), stood metres away from the state pavilion, President Moi leisurely walked towards them, his left hand in his pocket. When he approached Opala, he asked him:

“Eehe na wewe ni nani?” What’s your name?

“Ken Opala wa Nation”

“Juzi mlikuwa na pullout, mbona hamukutaja Moi na kazi ile serikali inafanya?” Moi queried Opala.

It was just after May 1st that Zemin was visiting and President Moi remembered that the Daily Nation had carried a pullout on Labour Day and apparently he was not happy with it.

“Nyinyi ni watu wabaya sana, munaandika tu mambo yenu…si ya kutengeneza nchi…kama vile serikali yangu inafanya,” Moi lamented.

“Lakini siyo hivyo mzee,” It isn’t that way sir, Opala interjected.

“Lakini nini?” Moi turned on the hapless Opala.

“Wacha flattery.” Stop the flattery retorted a stern Moi, poking Opala on the chest with his index finger.

Taken aback by Moi’s brash harshness, Opala knew he had annoyed the president by defending his employer. But Moi suddenly changed tact and moved closer to him:

“Opala wewe ni mzuri, Kwendo Opango ndio mbaya.” Opala you’re the good one, Kwendo Opanga is the bad one, said a demure Moi, almost cooing into the journalist’s ear. (Kwendo Opanga used to write a hard-hitting Sunday Nation column, which Moi disliked.)

As the Zemin’s plane taxied closer to the apron, where Moi was waiting to receive his guest, his security inched closer to him, signalling him to move away from the journalist.

“Wewe wacha, mimi na ongea na mtu yangu,” You stop, can’t you see I’m talking to my friend, said Moi to the security men. Vice President George Saitoti, who died in a helicopter crash in June 2012 in Kibiko, off Ngong town, seemed uneasy as Moi insisted on talking to the journalist.

Sisi ni wazuri, hao ndio wabaya, twende, twende tukapokee mgeni. Huyu rais ni mzuri anatuletea pesa, wachana na watu ambao wanaadika mambo ya fitina tu.” We are the good people, let’s go and receive the president, he’s a good man, he’s bringing goodies for us. Leave those people whose only work is to pen malicious stories.

Much later, Opala, humbled by the fact that the most powerful man in the country had taken time to engage with him, marvelled at the simplicity of Moi. He believed that the president was a good man who was misunderstood by people who did not know him well. The journalist began doubting whether all those bad stories about Moi were true after all.

Several weeks later, Opala had another chance encounter with the president. Thinking that they were already friends, and that Moi would remember him (apparently, Moi’s memory was legendary), Opala was surprised when the president ignored him and behaved as if he had never met him. “I couldn’t believe Moi, who had talked to me like his son, sharing with me some juicy anecdotes, would behave so coldly towards me like that: I almost wondered what I had done this time,” said Opala. That little experience nearly traumatised the journalist.

Kabarak School: Moi’s backyard  

A master of the game, Moi political life enacted such plays all the time in his political life. He conjured up schemes to keep his political friends and foes alike busy fighting each other as he continually plotted to antagonise them by creating mutual suspicions among them. “Sometimes we think that’s why he built Kabarak School,” said a top notch medical doctor, who is an alumni of the school Moi built.

Kabarak received its first Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE) “A” level students in 1979, four months after Moi ascended to the presidency. “That’s how powerful a Kenyan president is,” said my medic friend. The medic was in the second lot of the 1980/1981 “A” level lot. “I’d been called to Mangu High School to pursue Maths, Chemistry and Biology, but I got a letter from Kabarak and my father, looking at the fee structure, said the school had been built to save his meagre savings… the fees were rock bottom.”

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School in Baringo County, which is 25km from Kabarak and which is in his ancestral village of Sacho and Sunshine School, which is in Nairobi West, Nairobi County. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them. Sunshine School was even built on grabbed land – the land on which Sunshine School sits once belonged to the Prisons Department.

Kabarak began by poaching all the best students from other schools around the country. To start off “A” level class, it poached Kenya Certificate of Education “O” level students who had been called to both Alliance High Schools (Boys and Girls), Highlands Girls, (today Moi Girls Eldoret), Kagumo High School, Kangaru High school, Kenya High, Lenana School, Limuru Girls, Loreto Girls, Nairobi School, Nyeri High, Thika High, Maseno School – basically the top schools in the country then, as now. Moi also did the same with teachers. He picked the best teachers from these schools, and populated Kabarak with them.

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School and Sunshine School. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them.

Esther Koimett was among the first students of the “A” level class of 1979/1980. She is the daughter of Nicholas Biwott, one of Moi’s most powerful henchmen who later acquired the nickname “The Bull of Auckland”. Koimett is now the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Urban Development and Public Works.

Other better known Kenyans who passed through Kabarak include Mary Ijaya Mudavadi, sister to Musalia, Chepchumba Kandie, the daughter of Aaron Kandie, the former solicitor general, Sam Mwamburi Mwale, the former Permanent Secretary in Mwai Kibaki’s government, Orlando Lyomu, the Chief Executive Officer at the Standard Group, and Samson Chepkairor, aka Sam Shollei, also a former Standard Group CEO. (Chepkairor’s classmates of the 1980/1981 “A” level class cannot remember when he changed his name to Shollei.) Others were Robert Matano’s two daughters, Nick Salat’s two sisters and Margaret Nderi, the daughter of Ignatius Nderi, the powerful boss at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s rule.

Sometime in January 2005, I went to talk to Geoffrey Griffins, the Director of Starehe Boys Centre and School. Over and above everything else we talked about that afternoon, I remember him telling me about Moi, which he told me in strict confidence. When Moi become president, he approached Griffins and asked him to accept Kalenjin students. The director said that was not a problem, as long as they met the minimum qualifications. “This apparently did not please Moi because he expected me to say ‘yes, yes, Mr President’,” recalled Griffins.

Moi also wondered loudly why Mwai Kibaki remained the patron of Starehe Boys Centre, while Moi was now the president. “I told Moi, Kibaki remained the patron because the school’s management board, which included members of the British royalty, had settled on the former Minister of Finance and it was for them to decide who was to be the patron.” Soon after, Moi started Kabarak, where he became his own patron, and where one class each out of the four streams from Form I to Form IV was reserved solely for Kalenjin kids.

At Kabarak School, which was just a few metres from Moi’s house, he would invite Kanu political honchos and pit them against each other, right there in the school. “We witnessed many such incidents in which Moi would host two sets of warring Kanu factions and make them believe that each had his ear and exclusivity. One time, on a Saturday, he invited both Matu Wamae and Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru, the Mathira constituency (in Nyeri) titans, each not knowing that the other was also present,” said the ex-Kabarak medic. “Kabarak had many holding rooms where visitors to Moi’s house would be entertained. As Moi entertained Ngibuini in the house, Matu was kept busy at the school by Henry Cheboiwo, the first Baringo North MP and Moi’s confidant, Abraham Kiptanui, a former State House Comptroller and Aaron Kandie.”

Those who have been to Kabarak know that the home and school have two entrances on the Nakuru-Elgeyo Marakwet Road. Both entrances are guarded by the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce squad. Inside the school there is also a tarmacked road connecting the school to Moi’s house. As Ngibuini was being seen off by Moi’s handlers inside the house through the road leading directly from Moi’s house to the main road, Wamae was being ushered in through the link road between the school and the house.

Later both groups, Ngibuini’s and Wamae’s, would congregate at Stagshead Hotel (today known as Merica and owned by the Moi family) in Nakuru town. “Each confident that they had Moi’s ear and each having been given money to run the affairs of the Nyeri Kanu branch, they would begin their quarrels right there and Moi and his henchmen would be left in the house laughing their heads off,” opined the medical doctor. “We also witnessed Moi playing James Njiru against his perennial foe, Nahason Njunu from Kirinyaga.”

The semi-illiterate Njiru was the MP for Ndia, while Njunu was the MP for Gichugu. Njiru imagined himself to be very close to Moi, to the extent that when the president made him the Minister of National Guidance and Political Affairs, he knew he had the upper hand over Njunu. Njiru thought that he was so powerful that he could summon “errant” Kanu members and question them, which led the Anglican archbishop David Gitari, who hailed from Kirinyaga, to describe his ministry as the “Ministry of Misguidance and Political Thuggery”. The tall and slender Njiru and the short and stocky Njunu’s rivalry culminated in them once squaring it out in the precincts of Parliament in 1988.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd. “One Friday morning, Moi came to the school (he was always hovering around it), when we were on parade and raising the flag. His Kombi van stood some distance away and Moi disembarked. He walked briskly past the principal, Mr Joseph Kimetto, straight to his office. When Kimetto saw that Moi did not stop to talk to him, he abandoned the parade and ran after Moi. He found Moi in his office. The next thing we saw was Mr Kimetto running fast towards his house,” narrated the doctor.

“Mr Githongo, you’re now the principal and you Mr Kajwang, you’re the deputy principal,” announced Moi. Githongo was an elderly teacher who had been poached from Kagumo High School in Nyeri and taught Biology, while Kajwang was from Maseno, and taught Chemistry. “Moi made the prompt appointments just like that,” recalled the doctor.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd.

Kabarak was also a place that helped Moi avert loneliness, said the Kabarak alumni. “We’d see Moi in the dining hall, around the swimming area, in the playing field, walking past the classrooms, oftentimes stopping to listen to and watch momentarily as teachers went about their teaching. He was always at the school. He would order the school to pay school fees for respective classes. ‘This year Form I B, Form II D, Form III A and Form IV C will not pay school fees,’ it would be announced in the parade, courtesy of Moi, but of course this was taxpayers money.” He would do the same for Form V and Form VI.

The lonely kingmaker

Many years later, John Keen, his former Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, talked to me about Moi’s loneliness. In 2015, I was invited to his Karen home to attend a naming ceremony, an important occasion in the Maasai culture and tradition. One of his many grandsons was being named after him. I had gone to school with one of his sons and therefore I had known the senior Keen from the late 1980s. On that day, I spent the entire day talking to John Keen, until late into the night.

He narrated to me how some months before, Moi had sent an emissary to him: “Nimetumwa na Mzee Moi, anataka kukuona.” I’ve been sent by Moi, he would like to see you, said the envoy.

“I wondered what Moi would be summoning me for. I had not seen or talked to him for many years,” recounted Keen. Moi has asked that he go and see him at his home in Kabarnet Gardens, in the Kibera area. “When I reached there, I was ushered in to where he was. It was going to 2.00 pm and the hot sun was up, but guess what? I found Moi huddled next to the fireplace, warming himself next to the low-burning log fire.”

“I presumed he had an agenda for me, that there was something he wanted us to discuss…wapi, Moi couldn’t even recognise me, he didn’t even know that he had asked for me. He ordered that I be given some tea and then on and off, he would doze off. After three hours I left.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP), an opposition outfit that was once led by his long time friend Mwai Kibaki in the 1990s. “But also, when you grow old, you need a young wife to keep your fire burning and keep you warm too,” said Keenly cheekly.

Folklore has it that Moi kept The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli’s little bible of political brutality, by his bedside. “Moi was brutal,” some of the people who suffered his wrath told me. Mirugi Kariuki, the Nakuru lawyer who later became the MP for Nakuru town in the Narc government of President Kibaki, told me that Moi was “a brutal incarnate”. He was detained alongside his longtime friend Koigi wa Wamwere during Moi’s regime. Moi ordered that he be tortured by the prison warders at Naivasha Maximum Prison because “I was recalcitrant and unrepentant”.

When Moi released him in 1991, “he found me to be even more unrepentant. He was furious with me because I refused to beg for mercy from him. He wanted me acknowledge the detention without trial and be grateful to him that he had released me – for that I was supposed to go and genuflect before him. My answer to him was: he hadn’t done me any favours.”

Moi suffered from acute paranoia, said Mirugi, who died in a plane crash in April 2006, “and an inferiority complex, especially from people who stood up to him. But over and above he covered his brutality with his supposed love for children.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP)…

After the 1997 general elections, Moi started scheming about how to bring the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta into the political fold. When Moi, in the presence of Peter Mboya (the late son of Tom Mboya who died in a motorcycle crash in 2004) told Uhuru Kenyatta “nataka ungie siasa,” (I want you to get into politics proper),“Uhuru almost jumped out of his skin,” said a Moi relative who was present at the scene. “Hapana, hapana mzee,” No, no, protested Uhuru.

In 1998, after Uhuru was thrashed by a nondescript greenhorn, one Moses Mwihia, Moi asked some Kanu hawks to persuade him to vacate the seat for Uhuru. Mwhia refused. “So they turned to Mark Too, who was a nominated MP. After haggling for several weeks, Too acquiesced,” a Moi relative said to me. “Immediately Too agreed, they went straight to Kabarnet Gardens at 10.30pm. Moi came out from the bedroom in his pyjamas.”

“Mumekubaliana?” Have you agreed? Moi asked.

“Ndio mzee.” Yes sir.

“Haya sign hiyo makaratasi mara moja, hakuna mambo ya kungojea kesho.” OK, then sign those papers at once, there’s no need to wait until tomorrow. And that is how Uhuru become a nominated MP. The rest is history as they say.

When in 2006 William Ruto announced for the first time that he would run for the presidency, Moi was livid: “Ambia hiyo kijana awaje mbio,” Tell the young man to be patient, Moi told a close Ruto confidant. “Yeye bado kijana mdogo sana, kwa nini anakimbia namna hiyo? Mimi niko na mpango yake ya huko mbele.” He still very young, why is he in a hurry? I’ve got some plans for him for the future.

The truth was that Moi could not believe that Ruto had the audacity to declare an interest in the presidency. That was supposed to be the preserve of his favourite child, Gideon Moi.

Moi’s contradictions went beyond raw politics. When in 1989, he famously, alongside Richard Leakey, the then head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), lit the “ivory fire” at the Nairobi National Park, he sent a powerful message to the conservation world that Kenya was not going to tolerate the selling of contraband ivory. Ironically, he lit the mountain of 12 tonnes of ivory while holding his signature fimbo ya Nyayo rungu, his symbol of authority, which was made of pure ivory.

In December 2002, I went to vote at Uhuru Primary School in Uhuru estate. The person in front of me was humming, “yote yawezekana bila Moi” lyrics. All is possible without Moi.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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