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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts

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The Goldenberg scandal did not just negatively impact the Kenyan economy, it also left in its wake damaged and destroyed lives. Central Bank of Kenya employees who raised queries about the massive fraud were quickly sacrificed. These individuals and their families have hauntingly traumatic memories of Moi and his government.

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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts
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As a curious child growing up in the early 1990s, I had a general idea from reading the newspapers that my father brought home that Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya was not a place to play around. Then, in August 1992, these abstract ideas became realities. One evening, my visibly distressed mother brought home a newspaper bearing the photo of her elder brother appearing unconscious and lying on a bed at Nairobi Hospital. The caption had my uncle’s name, Francis Lukorito (whom we called Uncle L), followed by an explanation that the hospitalised Central Bank of Kenya employee had been arrested days earlier in relation to the mysterious death of the multiparty stalwart Masinde Muliro.

Pius Masinde Muliro, the founding member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), had been declared dead on a Nairobi-bound flight from London, where he had gone to fund-raise for the party. FORD was a serious contender in the 1992 general election following the repeal of Section 2(a) of the constitution, abolishing Moi’s one-party state. That newspaper, with the usually charming Uncle L appearing bruised, swollen and defeated, became part of family memorabilia, in remembrance of the day my uncle became an enemy of the state.

Uncle L was a tall, heavily built and worldly individual who people aspired to become. He finished his high school education at Lenana School and proceeded to undergraduate Bachelor of Commerce studies at the University of Nairobi. He was an impressionable 23-year-old when the Central Bank of Kenya came calling in 1976. He was first sent to Milan, then to Washington, D.C. for further training. Within a short period of time, he became the bank’s superintendent, then the senior Superintendent. The future was supposed to be bright – until August 1992 happened.

As narrated to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, where Uncle L took the witness stand on 14 January 2004, the truth was that Muliro and Uncle L came a long way. When Muliro was attending school in Tororo, Uganda, before proceeding to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he made a habit of passing by my grandfather’s home at the Kenya-Uganda border, not too far from Tororo, where he spent time with my grandfather, who was his age-mate. Since then, Muliro remained a regular visitor to my late grandfather’s home, in the process becoming my uncle’s guardian.

On 14 August 1992, while minding his business at work, Uncle L received a call from a friend who informed him that Muliro was dead. Shocked and in disbelief, he left for Muliro’s Nairobi residence in Upper Hill, where he confirmed the news. As Muliro’s children contemplated their next move in dealing with their patriarch’s death, it was decided that Uncle L would become the treasurer for the funeral organising committee. Uncle L drove back to work, unaware that his association with Muliro was about to be conveniently used as a scapegoat to kick him out of the Central Bank – in a bigger game of chess that was being played at Moi’s State House.

Five days later, on 19 August 1992, three plainclothes policemen showed up at the Central Bank. With them was Mr. H. H. Njoroge, Uncle L’s head of division, and a Mr. Karanja, the bank’s chief security officer. The men requested Uncle L to accompany them. No explanations were given. Since the bank officials were aware of what was transpiring, Uncle L obliged. Outside the bank building, on Haile Selassie Avenue, Uncle L saw a Special Branch Peugeot 504 station wagon with two more men inside. There and then, in Moi’s Kenya of detention without trial, he knew his goose was cooked. Multiparty politics had been begrudgingly restored, and although it appeared the democratic space was expanding, in Uncle L’s world, there lurked a monster which was about to cripple the Kenyan economy, an ogre which he and a few others had tried to slay, but which had now come back to haunt them.

As senior superintendent, Uncle L had to scrutinise all export compensation scheme-related CD3 forms submitted to the Central Bank by commercial banks on behalf of their exporting customers. Uncle L worked with Mr. David Meader, an Australian national seconded to the bank from the International Monetary Fund. The duo flagged a whopping 17 billion shillings, which they considered an irregular payout to a company called Goldenberg International, which was purporting to be exporting massive amounts of gold and diamonds on a daily basis to Europe, the Middle East and Asia (even though Kenya had no known commercial deposits of either). For every US dollar earned in the purported sales abroad, Goldenberg was under a statutory export compensation claim where it was paid thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya shillings as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports.

However, proof of sales and exports of gold and diamonds later turned out to be forgeries.

By mid-1992, six months prior to the first multiparty presidential election in three decades, the flow of CD3 forms intensified. At that time, Uncle L and Mr. Meader raised red flags about what they believed was fraud by writing to the Central Bank’s chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office. As they kept scrutinising more CD3 forms, more anomalies surfaced. Unknown to Uncle L and Mr. Meader, the scheme involved some of the most powerful individuals in Kenya, including the Head of the Special Branch (Kenya’s intelligence service), who was a partner in Goldenberg International, a company owned by Kamlesh Pattni.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal, which was being executed right in front of their eyes. As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

Khaminwa: Why do you believe Mr. Riungu, Mr. Waiguru and Mr. Karanja were responsible for your arrest? 

Lukorito: Because when I was working on pre-shipment finance papers, Mr. Pattni was very close to Mr. Riungu. On a daily basis, Mr. Pattni would come and see Mr. Riungu. While working on the papers with Mr. Meader, I would see Mr. Pattni going into Mr. Riungu’s office next door.

Upon entering the Peugeot 504, Uncle L was driven to the Nairobi Area Police Headquarters, where he was taken to a basement office. There, he met three policemen – Mr. Kimurgor, Mr. Murage and Mr. Slim – who wanted to know how he knew Muliro, how he came to know about Muliro’s death, how close he was to the opposition leader, and whether he knew where Muliro stayed. Uncle L gave them the history by writing a 16-page statement.

Later that evening, he was thrown into the back seat of the Peugeot, where he was made to lie down on the vehicle’s floor. The policemen sat and stepped on him as they drove along. After a not-so-smooth drive, the vehicle slowed down at what seemed like the entrance of a building. As they pulled Uncle L out, he saw Hotel InterContinental’s beige façade. If he hadn’t expected the worst, then being in the precincts of Nyayo House gave him reason to be afraid.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal…As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

He was taken to an upper floor within Nyayo House where he met a new set of hostile Special Branch interrogators. This time, the story was that he was an opposition mole within the bank. He told them he wasn’t. The beating started. Uncle L collapsed. When he came to, he was in a dark room filled with water that made his skin itchy. His body was swollen and aching all over. Lucky for him, he was picked up later that night and delivered to Parklands Police Station.

The following morning, Uncle L was driven to Nairobi Area Police Headquarters. This time there was not much to talk about other than kicks and blows. He collapsed. When he came to, he found himself at Nairobi Hospital, where the photo in the newspaper my mother brought home was taken. How the media knew who he was, why he had been arrested and where he was hospitalised is anyone’s guess. Uncle L had not been charged with any crime, but he had been badly tarred with a broad brush – he was now a government official caught in the middle of the country’s “dangerous” opposition politics. He stayed bedridden for six days.

The impact of the beatings meted on Uncle L are captured in the 14 January 2004 proceedings of the Goldenberg Commission, which read: (The witness was then referred to a medical report signed by Dr. D. K Gikonyo, a physician and cardiologist, which showed that on admission, among other things, his blood pressure was extremely high – 230/130. (He has since become hypertensive.) After a mandatory two week sick leave, Uncle L was quickly interdicted.

“Following your arrest by the police on 19 August 1992, we write to advise you that it has been decided to interdict you with immediate effect in accordance with Rule 6.35 (b) of the Staff Rules and Regulations,’’ read the letter from the Central Bank of Kenya’s Administration Division, signed by Mr. C.K. Ndubai. ‘‘While on interdiction, you will be paid half your salary and you will be required to report on every working day to the Head, Security Division, where you will sign a register of attendance. You will not leave your place of work except with the permission of the Head of Security Division. The interdiction will remain in force until further notice.” 

This is how a lame game of ping pong at the highest level of Moi’s government started. On 21 September 1992, Uncle L received another letter, ostensibly reversing his earlier interdiction and requesting him to report to the Principal, Development Division, for assignment of duties.

“This is to advise you that it has been decided that your interdiction be lifted with immediate effect and that you report in your former Division. Accordingly, please arrange to report to the Principal, Development Division immediately for assignment of duties.”

On 8 July 1993, Mr. J. K. Waiguru, the Central Bank’s Secretary had some news.

“Following the lifting of your interdiction and posting back to your division, there has been further development in this matter. Would you please report to the Deputy Governor for further instructions.”

When Uncle L went to see the deputy governor, he was advised to go and see the head of the civil service, Prof. Philip Mbithi, who was stationed at Harambee House. Prof. Mbithi told Uncle L to go home and wait. Someone would be sent to him. Uncle L waited for over six months without pay. Then in February 1994, Prof. Mbithi sent someone to Uncle L’s Nairobi home to bring him over. On reaching Harambee House, Prof. Mbithi referred Uncle L to his personal assistant, Mr. S. Z. Ambuka. Mr. Ambuka showed Uncle L a letter dated 10 February 1993 – signed by Mr. Ambuka – addressed to Dr. Wilfred Koinange, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

You will recall that early this week, I talked to you about the redeployment of the above-named officer who previously worked with the Central Bank and whom we were asked to assist in re-deploying to any of the other banking institutions.

You asked me to check with the Central Bank and confirm [Uncle L’s] status with them before you could take over the case. I had discussions with the bank secretary who confirmed that:

(a) When [Uncle L] had a discipline case with them, he was struck off their payroll.

(b) However, when it was later decided that [he] be forgiven and rehabilitated, he was reinstated in the payroll.

(c) Later on, a decision was made that [Uncle L] be referred to the Office of the President for re-allocation of duties elsewhere. When he was referred to the Office of the President (and subsequently to Treasury), he ceased being in the CBK payroll.

(d) The Bank Secretary advises that [Uncle L] could apply for early retirement from the bank. This early retirement, if approved, would be frozen as [Uncle L] would not be entitled to any retirement benefits until he attains the mandatory age of 50 years.

(e) [Uncle L] would then be available for you to assist him get a fresh placement in any other financial institutions.

[Uncle L] has accordingly been informed and is herewith sent to you for the necessary assistance.”

There it was. Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House to enact the final chess move. It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Khaminwa: Were you forgiven and rehabilitated? 

Lukorito: I do not know that I was supposed to be forgiven because I had committed no offence.

Khaminwa: Something I don’t seem to understand. You were employed by the Central Bank, then how does the Head of the Public Service come into a corporate organisation like CBK?

Lukorito: I do not understand either.

Khaminwa: In Mrs. Mwatela’s statement in Exhibit 111, could you read what she says about you.

Lukorito: [Reads statement.] “I remember Mr. Pattni visiting me in my new office. He arrogantly and proudly reprimanded me for my alleged stupidity in questioning his affairs. He claimed that my stupidity would get me nowhere. I did not reply to him. He specifically referred to one Mr. Lukorito who had been sacked and informed me that no one played about with him and got away with it. I knew he had powerful connections and no purpose would be served in answering him.”

There it was, confirmed in black and white: Goldenberg. Uncle L’s mistake was that he had stood in the way of Kamlesh Pattni, who could leverage state power, including the Office of the Head of the Civil Service, to deal with him firmly.

Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House…It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi? More importantly, one may then want to ask: How did Uncle L try to interfere with the Goldenberg pay-outs, and did he have powers to stop Kenya’s biggest economic crime to date? The answer lies in an exchange between Uncle L and lawyer Cecil Miller, appearing for the Deposit Protection Fund at the Goldenberg Commission.

Miller: Mr. Lukorito, did you question the duplication of CD3s in writing?

Lukorito: Yes. They should be with CBK.

Miller: Who did you write to?

Lukorito: The chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office.

Miller: Did you get a response?

Lukorito: They did not come directly but they came in the form of whether we had agreed on the level of Treasury Bills that we were to advertise for the weekly tenders. If we all agreed on the amount, we would advertise. 

Miller: Am I right in saying that technically you were the final port of call in relation to CD3s and pre-shipment?

Lukorito: Yes my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 17 of your statement, you mention Exchange and Pan African banks. 

Lukorito: Yes my lords. 

Miller: You then proceed to say on page 18; “The funds would be withdrawn from CBK under a currency withdrawal scheme by the two banks and then the amount withdrawn by the beneficiaries at the bank.” Would you know who the beneficiaries were?

Lukorito: I would not know my lords. We would detect the money movement using the open market operations ledger. 

Miller: You raised a concern on page 39 – your memo – on the potential snowball effect on the banking sector. And you got a response which you say you were not satisfied with?

Lukorito: I was not my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 14 of your statement, you list the beneficiaries of the pre-export finance scheme. You left the bank in November 1994. 

Lukorito: I was arrested on August 19, 1992 and from that day I just used to report but I was not working within the bank.

Miller: So you would not know that three of these banks went into liquidation thereafter?

Lukorito: I wouldn’t know. 

Miller: And you would not know whether they had paid their pre-shipment funds by the time? 

Lukorito: I would not know. 

Dr. Wilfred Koinange seemed like a man of few words. ‘‘I have nothing to do with you,’’ he told Uncle L. With that, my uncle was forcibly retired from the Central Bank of Kenya aged 40, an age where he wasn’t entitled to a pension. This is how Kenya is known to treat its best.

‘‘That is all I wish to say in deciding to risk my life by becoming an actor instead of a privileged spectator in the fraudulent deals through CBK during my last years with them.’’ Uncle L told the Commission when wrapping up his testimony. ‘‘And while I can claim a background in central banking, I can only claim a very great interest in the fields of money, banking and finance which would have enabled me to contribute to the economic transformation taking place in our sub-region. It is my hope that someday I will have the opportunity to bring to consummation that interest.’’                                                            

*** 

Sometime in 2014, Uncle L pulled me aside during a family gathering, sat me under a tree and started reading to me a letter of solidarity sent to him during his travails at the hands of the Moi state by a mutual friend he shared with Muliro, who had since moved abroad. The letter was aged, worn thin by the elements and now turning brownish. As he read it, it was as if he was being transported into a different realm. Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but his voice didn’t falter. He was crying, but he wasn’t. I felt both sorry and proud of him, for his endurance, defiance and stoicism. It was an awkward yet special moment. As always, the conversation veered back to Goldenberg. He quickly dispatched his son to bring more documents. He wanted to show me the architects of the 1990-1994 Goldenberg fraud.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi?

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate), the scam transferring the equivalent of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP for the 5 years concerned into private hands. In the process, the Kenya shilling collapsed – dropping from 21 shillings in 1990 to 56 shillings in 1994 against the US dollar. Some of the names Uncle L mentioned, known to those who know within the banking system, left me dumbfounded. But then no one could talk. Those like him who dared speak were unceremoniously pushed to the gutter, their lives turned upside down.

The same fate befell Joseph Mumelo, the Central Bank’s Head of Foreign Exchange, who was married to my mother’s first cousin. As mentioned in the 8 February 2020 Saturday Nation article “Legitimate and dubious means Moi used to build empire”, Uncle Joe was asked not to interfere whenever money was siphoned through the Moi-affiliated Transnational Bank. In 1993, a terrified and non-cooperative Uncle Joe was arrested and detained before being kicked out of the bank.

When I joined Nairobi School in 1999, my family had already moved out of Nairobi, and so I spent my mid-term breaks either at Uncle Joe’s or Uncle L’s. They both had children my age. By then, Uncle L had long moved to his rural home. Uncle Joe retreated to his new home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Whenever I visited, Uncle Joe and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Scrabble. He would open up to me about all sorts of things. Through him and Uncle L, I learnt the proper meaning of lying low. Just like Uncle L, Uncle Joe never drove any of his cars. He enlisted the services of a taxi driver who drove a Volkswagen beetle, and unless the guy showed up, Uncle Joe rarely left the house. On some nights, when he was brought home by his friends, Uncle Joe refused to get out of the vehicle until the song playing on the car stereo played to the end. His were little pleasures. Just like Uncle L, with his roaring voice, he cursed loudly at Moi and his men on the rare occasions he watched the news. Everyone knew to stay quiet.

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate)…

Seeing that Uncle Joe died before he could appear as a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, Uncle L decided to do family duty by adding Uncle Joe’s police statement at the time of his arrest as an annexure to his own, so that Uncle Joe could be heard posthumously. Below, the Commission’s Dr. Khaminwa questions Uncle L about Uncle Joe’s statement on the pay-outs.

Khaminwa: Would you look at your additional statement and read it. 

Lukorito: [Reads statement.]Further to my January 12, 2004 statement, I wish to state that sometime in July 1993, I learnt from the Central Bank of Kenya that one of my former seniors there, Mr. Joseph Mumelo had been arrested by police and was at Kileleshwa Police Station. I visited him and he told me that the previous governor Mr. Kotut had asked him to pass some cheques relating to some banks and when he later on put it in writing, the governor disowned him. I told him that I also had a similar problem with pre–export finance in relation to Goldenberg International. He told me he believed that it was the source of my problem with the bank. I later learnt that he was released and retired from bank service. I have been shown a statement recorded from the late Mumelo on July 23, 1993. The deceased shared the same views as those noted in my memo to Mr. Riungu on January 21, 1992. 

Khaminwa: You state that you had problems with Mr. Kotut regarding pre–export finance, could you remind us what the problem was? 

Lukorito: We got some applications from Goldenberg International but Mr. Riungu was absent. The papers were pushed to Mr. Kotut’s office but we never got any reply. We were not able to proceed because the papers were, to me, very suspect. They had the same CD3 serial numbers from different banks and the amounts were substantial. Mr. Mumelo appeared scared and told me that he was not staying at home because he had been threatened by powerful people. He was moving from hotel to hotel. He cautioned me and from July 1993, I never drove any of my vehicles.

Uncle Joe’s and Uncle L’s well-being – careers, livelihoods, health, family life and their wives’ and children’s welfares and futures – all became collateral damage because they raised queries which had the capacity to unravel Goldenberg. These are the hauntingly traumatic memories some families have of Moi and his government. Sadly, the Goldenberg culprits remain unpunished to date.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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