On October 17, 2019, while speaking at the unveiling of the plaque for the expressway linking the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the Westlands area in Nairobi, President Uhuru Kenyatta said: “Wanasema ati BBI ni ya kutafutia Uhuru kazi. Mimi sitaki kazi, nimechoka. Eeeh, BBI ni ya kuhakikisha ya kwamba hakuna Mkenya hatamwaga damu tena katika nchi yetu kwa sababu ya siasa. Tuko pamoja?” People are saying BBI is an excuse for getting Uhuru a job. I don’t want a job, I’m tired. BBI is for ensuring that no Kenyan will ever shed blood again because of politics. Are we together?
Exactly a month later, on November 16, the president met a 3,000-strong delegation of MPs, senators, former MPs and other leaders from the Mt Kenya region at Sagana State Lodge in Kiganjo, Nyeri County, for an eyeball-to-eyeball face-off meeting. This meeting had been overdue because, as the president himself acknowledged, there had been simmering disapproval of his leadership in his backyard that had led to loud murmurs of discontent and grievances.
At the meeting, to which he came late, delegates had been asked to assemble as early as 8 am, (Uhuru himself arrived in the afternoon). President Uhuru conducted the business of the day in the Gikuyu language. “Ati Uhuru niigutuika Prime Minister? Ndingethura kuneneha ringi…” You mean, Uhuru can be the Prime Minister? Huh, I wouldn’t mind being at the helm once more…” expressed the president, while claiming that he did not know the contents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
In 30 short days, President Uhuru had forgotten his vow to Kenyans that he would give up presidential powers in 2022. At Sagana, he had the effrontery to allow himself to be enticed with an (executive) job offer that of a prime minister, which was purportedly contained in a document whose contents he allegedly knew nothing about.
In the seven years that he has been president, Uhuru has become the master of doublespeak: he will wax lyrical about one thing, and then will do the exact opposite. And when put to task about his sudden change of position, he will blame overwhelming demons or will become overtly angry and hot-tempered.
Restricting ourselves to his promise of “going home” once his term is over, because apparently he is “tired”, the “sudden surprise” posture of interest in the prime minister’s position is very telling. “The BBI is all about creating the position of an executive prime minister for Uhuru Kenyatta,” said a Jubilee MP who counts the president and his deputy as his personal friends and has known them since the time they were all in KANU. Dubbing it BBI (II), the MP said, “This is the real BBI, forget about BBI I and the shenanigans that took place at Bomas of Kenya.”
After the BBI team rounded off its town hall-like meetings across the country sometime in early August last year, it launched its report at the Bomas of Kenya on November 27, 2019, where it publicly handed over the report to the “handshake” duo: President Uhuru and ex-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the former 2017 presidential contender under the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition outfit. “What we saw on that day was a charade, a farcical display of political tomfoolery of a people whose intentions were to test the waters, even as they tested the patience of Deputy President William Ruto,” said the Jubilee MP.
“The BBI is all about creating the position of an executive prime minister for Uhuru Kenyatta,” said a Jubilee MP who counts the president and his deputy as his personal friends and has known them since the time they were all in KANU. Dubbing it BBI (II), the MP said, “This is the real BBI, forget about BBI I and the shenanigans that took place at Bomas of Kenya.”
That charade was witnessed by scores of Kenyans across the country – the function was beamed live on radio and television stations. Seventy-year-old Wandia Kimaita, who watched the proceedings from Iriani village in Mathira constituency in Nyeri, was later to observe how she was appalled by how President Uhuru treated his deputy. “I really sympathised with Deputy President Ruto for all the humiliation he underwent that day. Why would Uhuru behave like this; seemingly gleeful and laughing recklessly? This was unbecoming of the President. Even if they humiliate him [Ruto], my vote is still with him.”
A matter of trust
The 156-page BBI (I) document that was hailed at the Bomas jamboree as a “peace document” included a non-executive position of prime minister, with its attendant deputies. The prime minister in the BBI (I) report is an appointee of the president who wields executive powers.
“The BBI (II) is about expanding the executive,” said the influential Jubilee MP. “It is about creating a powerful position for the ‘tired’ president. It is true, the president doesn’t intend to extend his presidential term, but it is not true that once his terms expires, he wants to fade into oblivion. He wants to stick around in a powerful position within the government because – I’ll be very forthright with you – the Kenyatta family doesn’t trust one William Ruto.”
This trust issue is something that has consistently cropped up in my interviews with Jubilee Party politicians, most of whom are past or present MPs from Central Kenya and the greater Rift Valley regions who have remained close to the two powerful men. I have also spoken to Jubilee Party mandarins and aficionados who have worked around and with President Uhuru and his deputy and who, therefore, can, with a fair amount of surety, authoritatively comment on the two. The verdict I always get on why the bromance between the president and his deputy has been waning since January 2018 (when Uhuru and Raila shook hands) is that trust between the two has been broken.
But in seeking to understand precisely why, after fighting so hard to retain their power as incumbents in 2017, their bromance “suddenly” died, I sought the views of two senior politicians, one from Central Kenya and the other from Rift Valley, who are knowledgeable in Kenya’s presidential and succession politics. Both have been witnesses to Kenya’s tumultuous presidential successions at their critical junctures.
“The now emerging problems between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are not about the presumed governance style, the apparent contestations and greed for power, state theft, or even ethnic affiliations. They are just about one thing – trust,” said a senior veteran Central Kenya politician, who requested anonymity. “The Kenyatta family simply doesn’t trust Ruto. Trust is not something you feed someone like porridge – if the trust is not there, it’s not there; you cannot force yourself to trust someone.”
The Kenyatta family is not convinced that Ruto, once he assumes the reins of the presidency, will not destroy their business empire – they know it, said the politician. “They are persuaded that this is what he will do when he becomes president.” The politician claimed that the Kenyatta family (here he referred specifically to Mama Ngina, Uhuru’s mother, and Muhoho, his younger brother) categorically asked Uhuru to stick around because he was too young to exit the political scene, least of all, to even contemplate going home. They advised him to work to create the position of an executive prime minister purely in order to protect and safeguard the family’s wealth.
Why the position of the prime minister? I asked. “Because it doesn’t interfere with the constitutionally-mandated two-term presidential limit. The idea of changing the constitution to sneak in a third term clause was going to be messy and Kenyans were going to reject it outright,” said the senior politician. “Hence, no one can accuse him of abrogating the law. Still, he would have to change the constitution to accommodate the new position and its deputies”.
“The now emerging problems between Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are not about the presumed governance style, the apparent contestations and greed for power, state theft, or even ethnic affiliations. They are just about one thing – trust,” said a senior veteran Central Kenya politician, who requested anonymity.
Recently, President Uhuru spoke about being betrayed by people he had entrusted to work for him: he was referring to his deputy after the narrative of corruption failed to fly. He now seems to have stumbled on a new idea: the trust narrative, which he hopes Kenyans this time will buy, pointed out the veteran politician. “William Ruto was being used as a ladder by the Kenyatta family to capture power; after that he was going to be dumped like a used rag”.
“Uhuru telling us that he has been betrayed is really stale news,” said a mzee from Limuru. “Who tells Uhuru he’s the only one who can be betrayed? We entrusted him with the presidency, and he has betrayed us big time. That’s why we don’t want him anywhere near the executive – he should just go quietly and leave us alone. They want to create the position of the executive prime minister with this BBI (II) for him, we know, and we will defeat the referendum when it comes.”
The mzee said that the BBI project has one linear argument: “Don’t vote for Ruto because he’s bad, he’s untrustworthy. What I object to, is the moral highhandedness of the purveyors of BBI to think that we Kikuyus don’t know Ruto is bad. We know he is very bad. Has Uhuru and all the others been good? Ruto is corrupt, a thief, will bring down the country…we know. They have numerously hinted to us that the country will be worse off…where is it now? Is it any better? Who has amassed more wealth and money in this country than the Kenyatta family? Who has brought down the country? Who did we elect as president? Is it Ruto? If Ruto has been the president, please let us know.
“To paint Ruto as the most wicked politician will not change our resolve: we [Kikuyus] will still vote for him in 2022. Those talking about Ruto have nothing else to talk about, or offer any alternative. It’s best they keep quiet and go away. Agikorwo Gikuyu matigothoma na giki kia Uhuru…gutiri hindi magathoma, megutura me ngombo cia mbari ya Kenyatta”. If Kikuyus this time will not learn from the travails that Uhuru has made them go through…they will never learn, they will remain slaves to the Kenyatta family.”
The senior politician from Central Kenya said the president has been telling Kenyans – and specifically Kikuyus – that the sole aim of BBI is to sue for peace and that this country should never go to war again, which the Kikuyus totally agree with. “But they part company when then he tells them, by his words and deeds, that they should shun William Ruto…”
The senior politician from Central Kenya said the president has been telling Kenyans – and specifically Kikuyus – that the sole aim of BBI is to sue for peace and that this country should never go to war again, which the Kikuyus totally agree with. “But they part company when then he tells them, by his words and deeds, that they should shun William Ruto. How? ‘If we don’t want Rift Valley Kikuyus to ever shed blood again because of politics, it is prudent then we vote for one William Ruto’ say the Kikuyus. But the president doesn’t seem to get it, or does he?”
“The Kenyatta family’s property”
The politician said President Uhuru cannot believe the Kikuyus have turned their back on him. “Because since 1963, it has always worked: The Kenyatta family has always beckoned on the Kikuyus to do their bidding without fail and without opposition. The Kikuyus have been the Kenyatta family’s property – they do with them as they wish. Now the family is facing open rebellion and the president doesn’t want to believe it’s over – it’s the people who are tired with the Kenyatta family, for taking them too much for granted and ensuring they are economically finished.” The politician said that the Kenyatta family replaced the British masters who had ruled Kenya for 70 year, as the new black Kenyan colonisers.
“All what the Kenyattas want is to expand and ensure their business empire is intact and thriving going forward, the rest are details. Everybody else could be eating cake for all they care. The only thing that has grown in this seven years is the Kenyatta family businesses. As its empire grew, the converse has been happening to the Kikuyu people and the rest of Kenyans.”
The politician, who knows Uhuru since his formative years, says the president is living in the past: “He’s used to getting his way, doesn’t listen to [wise] counsel, but worse still, and more ruefully, to hide his ineptitude, his stupefying reaction is to be bombastic, dictatorial, lose his temper and throw tantrums. He cannot believe Kikuyus are no longer enamoured by the Kenyattas, much less him. He wants to be feared, just like his father and Moi wanted. When that doesn’t happen, he becomes abusive and insults everyone. He wants to be feared and loved at the same time.”
The BBI (II) is a dynastic elite pact between the Kenyatta and Moi families that is assisted by Raila Odinga to retain their stranglehold on the country’s political power, surmised a senior from Rift Valley and a close friend of the deputy president. “For Uhuru to hang onto power, he has to expand the executive to accommodate and calm the aspirations of several other ethnic kings to assuage his own power grab.”
To this extent, said the politician, BBI (II) wants the executive expanded into having a president and his two deputy presidents, an executive prime minister and his two deputies and finally regional governors. “In short, BBI (II), by proposing the new positions of regional governors, is resorting to the old format of a provincial administration structure of provincial commissioners, district officers and local chiefs reporting to the centre.” The politician hinted that the centre has never been comfortable with devolution. The recent unconstitutional transfer of powers from the Nairobi County to the executive is just a curtain-raiser of things to come.”
For this to happen, the grand architects of BBI (II) cannot escape a referendum. “Änd this is where their real problems will begin,” said the Ruto ally. “Why? Because Ruto has stolen the thunder from President Uhuru and Raila. His strategy is to fight within the BBI territory and not without. As his close friend told me, he is better off peeing inside than outside, which is why Ruto and his team decided to not openly fight the proponents of BBI and their document.”
“But the 60-million-dollar question is this,” posed the politician, “Do you think if it came to the referendum question and Ruto decided to oppose it, the BBI (II) proponents would defeat him in a straight fight?” The Ruto ally told me that the deputy president was toying with several options in his efforts to tame BBI (II). One of them is to, at the appropriate time, assemble a team of between 30 to 50 legal experts who would have scrutinised and scoured the document with a toothcomb before going to court and arguing that the document is neither anchored in the Kenyan law nor recognised by any constitutional statutes.
The beginning of the year saw BBI (II) commence its popularisation campaign meetings in what one Jubilee Party mandarin cheekily described as NASA zones: Kakamega, Kisii, Mombasa and Kitui. “Let’s see how they are going to fair on in Eldoret, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Meru, Nakuru and Nyeri.”
The BBI (II) is a dynastic elite pact between the Kenyatta and Moi families that is assisted by Raila Odinga to retain their stranglehold on the country’s political power, surmised a senior from Rift Valley and a close friend of the deputy president. “For Uhuru to hang onto power, he has to expand the executive to accommodate and calm the aspirations of several other ethnic kings to assuage his own power grab.”
A friend who works at the Makueni County governor’s office in Wote told me he recently accompanied the governor to inspect some county projects and the people who generally are happy with their governor, Prof Kivutha Kibwana, did not fail to put him to task over his apparent cozying up to BBI (II) mandarins.
“Musomi withinwa ni kyao yiulu wa BBI? Na yiikwaatene na maundu ma andu onthe. Nitwisi BBI nikyau…tikwondu wa mathina maitu…indi ni kwa kuaana maunini kwa ala oi nakumuthingii Uhuru silikalini.” Professor, why are you getting entangled with this BBI politics? We know what BBI is all about…it’s not about our welfare…it’s about elite power sharing and sneaking Uhuru back to power.
On January 20, 2019, Jubilee Party MPs and senators who are aligned to the deputy president, after congregating in Naivasha town for two days, issued a raft of ultimatums concerning the ongoing BBI (II) meetings. They styled their meeting like a Parliamentary Group meeting, which the party Secretary-General and Cabinet Secretary without portfolio, Raphael Tuju, objected to by issuing a press statement saying the MPs’ meeting was not a Jubilee Party affair. “We have noted with great concern the manner in which BBI popularisation rallies have been conducted so far,” said part of the Naivasha memo. “The discussions have mainly been on personalities and positions for the political class.”
On that same day, the president, feeling the heat of the Naivasha meeting, summoned Ruto to his office at State House, Nairobi. According to my sources, the president was breathing fire. Why are Jubilee Party MPs rebelling against him? asked a worked-up president to his deputy. The president also wondered loudly why Kikuyu MPs were taking him on. Convene a parliamentary group meeting and call the MPs to order, was supposedly his deputy’s answer.
Indeed, even as 2022 fast approaches and the political temperature in the country rises amidst hard economic times, food insecurity and locust invasions, it is crystal clear that BBI (II) inspires little confidence, especially in the president’s own backyard where people are tired of being held hostage by the Kenyatta family. It is a reminder that Kenya is stuck in a deep political rut and held hostage by a cabal of ethno-chauvinists who have perfected the art of subverting democracy by introducing a new cast of enemies-turned-allies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Irrelevance of NGOs
NGOs have been notably absent in the fight against COVID-19, despite claims they exist solely to ensure accountability and transparency by government.
Nothing has exposed neoliberalism as a hoax as intelligently and most strikingly as COVID-19 has done. (Though at the expense of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead.) All over the world, people have come to depend almost exclusively on their national governments not only to stay safe against the deadly pandemic but also for economic survival. Against a painful history of relentless assaults on so-called “big government,” COVID-19 has grown the size of government bureaucracies and budgets in size to what was hardly imaginable only a few months ago.
This change has brought about another debate about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Nowhere is this debate about NGOs more palpable than in my home country of Tanzania, where at the time of writing the East African nation had recorded a total of 480 confirmed coronavirus cases, 18 deaths and 167 recoveries. The situation here seems to be getting out of control as more fatalities continue to be reported, exacerbated by the increasing tendency of hospitals, especially in the country’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam, to reject patients suspected of having the coronavirus disease. Several people (see here and here) have reported having their relatives turned away by hospitals, after which some died. The government has been trying hard to underestimate the magnitude of the pandemic, including by underreporting the number of fatalities and doing night burials.
Nearly every action taken by national governments throughout the world in their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, and thus to save lives and communities, goes directly against the dictates of neoliberal fundamentalism. For a number of decades, advocates of this ideology would propose murderous cuts in public spending on critical sectors like health and education. In addition to the breakneck privatization of public services was the massive growth of NGOs whose missions varied widely; from those advocating for government accountability and democratic institutions to those championing girls’ rights, citizens’ agency, and countless others providing services.
This is no coincidence. The missionaries of neoliberal evangelism have been pushing for the social services provision role of governments to be replaced by NGOs and private individuals, arguing that this will ultimately improve service efficiency for governments. Perhaps there’s no stauncher proponent of that argument in Tanzania than former President Benjamin Mkapa—or at least until recently. It was under Mkapa’s administration that both privatization and NGO growth in the country took root. “Soon after assuming office, in November 1995,” said Mr Mkapa in his speech at the official launch of Tanzania National Business Council (TNBC) on April 9, 2001, quoted in “A Capitalizing City” by Dr. Chambi Chachage, “I realised the need to change the way the national economy is managed. This need was made more acute by the fact that our country was moving from a public sector led economy to a private sector driven market economy.” (Later, Mr. Mkapa would describe the privatization drive unleashed by his administration as the “worst mistake” of his presidency in his memoirs My Life, My Purpose.) In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, however, both NGOs and the private sector have been conspicuously absent on the frontlines where the war against the virus is being waged.
The role of NGOs in Tanzania has been made more interesting both by the Tanzanian government’s handling of the pandemic (which I discuss here), and NGOs’ responses (or lack thereof). So far, the responses of NGOs to the pandemic have been simply bewildering, opaque, and ambiguous. Part of this ambiguity, I think, is due to both the history of NGOs in Tanzania and the issues that they continue to remain deadly silent about. In this latter category is what seems to be an almost unanimous agreement among the NGOs, with very few exceptions, of forgoing what they claim to be their main mission, that is: to cultivate a culture of accountable governance as well as the building of strong democratic institutions in the country. This abandonment is disappointing and surprising at the same time, because during a crisis like the one we are in now, one would have expected that the NGOs, far from pretending as if they no longer exist, would double, or even triple, their efforts to force those in power to act more responsibly and deliver to their constituents.
But from the way things appear on the ground, it is as if the coronavirus disease has forced the NGOs to take some time off their work and give the government, whose handling of the pandemic has made Tanzania the laughing stock of the world, a free reign to act as it wishes. One area of concern is the way the government has entirely left people to fend for themselves amidst the crisis. In fact, instead of helping its people, the government’s asking the people to donate to it! The fact that no NGOs have so far called the government out means that the people have not just been abandoned by their government, but also by the organizations that claim to work on their behalf.
The NGOs have failed to condemn President John Magufuli’s statements and actions that threaten to put the lives of thousands at risk. These statements include the recent one he made during a televised address from his hometown of Chato, in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where the president has been “self-isolating” since the pandemic started. There he urged Tanzanians to consider inhaling steam from a boiling pot of water as a means to cure coronavirus, a suggestion medical doctors have nevertheless advised against. During the rare address, President Magufuli also dismissed the exercise to disinfect public spaces as “nonsense.” Earlier, President Magufuli took to Twitter to declare three days of national prayers “to help defeat coronavirus,” and his government even organized a national prayer to save Tanzania from the pandemic. All this had Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, concerned, according to journalist Geoffrey York who reported via Twitter. In another address, where Mr. Magufuli accused Tanzania’s lab technicians of conspiring with “imperialists” to sabotage the country by increasing the number of positive cases, something which led to the sacking of the national community health laboratory director Dr. Nyambura Moremi, the President said that his government would dispatch a plane to fetch the herbal treatment for the coronavirus touted by the president of Madagascar despite a warning from the WHO that a herbal tonic cannot cure the disease. (One observer of Tanzanian politics described the address as “totally reckless” and even called on people to boycott Magufuli’s subsequent addresses on the coronavirus pandemic lest they go bonkers.) Dangerous and irresponsible as these statements and measures seem, not a single NGO that works in the area of public health—and there is no shortage of them—uttered any public criticism of Magufuli.
Nor are the democratic-championing NGOs concerned by the government’s resolve to centralize the flow of information on coronavirus. No NGO, for example, has come out against the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority’s (TCRA) directive to members of WhatsApp groups to screenshot “fake information” posted in these groups and report it to authorities. No NGO seems bothered by the Tanzania Police Force’s irresponsible act to storm and interrupt a press conference by the main opposition party CHADEMA intended to give Tanzanians an alternative appraisal of the coronavirus situation from that given by the government. (The party was subsequently able to organize a press conference where its national chairperson Freeman Mbowe outlined twelve issues that he thought were fundamental in the fight against the pandemic.) The same silence on the part of the NGOs was noticeable after a cabinet minister suggested that people should consider using honey when responding to a spike in the price of sugar. (Following a backlash, however, the government later announced a cap on sugar prices.)
While everybody was busy examining their role in combating the coronavirus in the country, some of Tanzania’s “top-notch” NGOs were spotted presenting the government with a 79 million Tanzanian shillings check (about US$34,000) to help fight the virus. The NGOs did that while little or nothing at all was known in the general public of the government’s strategy or even how the money will be used.
I find the move disturbingly ironic, however, given the fact that this money was originally supposed to come directly from the donors to the government coffers but the “development partners” gave them to the NGOs because, as shown above, they are thought to be best placed to deal with social problems. It is also mind-boggling to find the NGOs donating to the government amidst a funding crisis that has hit NGOs across the continent. If the NGOs themselves are convinced that the Tanzanian government can deal with the COVID-19 crisis far better than they can to the extent of giving it money, what does it say of their ideological justification to exist? To their credit, since then a coalition of Tanzania’s NGOs released a position paper and “strategic areas” on COVID-19. In the paper, the NGOs confess to have been caught “unprepared” by the pandemic, something that hampered their ability to respond “promptly.”
A close friend of mine, who works in Tanzania’s NGO sector, thought it was a bad idea for me to go ahead with this piece, saying it was unfair to criticize the NGOs given the fact that I understand the political environment within which the organizations operate and the repression unleashed on them by the state. For a moment I thought this friend of mine was right because it’s true that they work in a tough environment. But then I thought: wasn’t this very attitude on the part of the NGOs to allow themselves to be pushed around by the government responsible for their own miseries, and ultimately, their failure to do what they were founded on?
This led me to revisit 2007, when acclaimed legal and development scholar Professor Issa Shivji published a book, Silences in the NGO Discourse, which served as advice on how Tanzania’s NGOs can remain accountable. He wrote then that if the NGOs are to live up to their missions, which include ensuring democratic reforms in the country, then their entire strategy of engagement with the state would have to change radically. For example, in place of stakeholder conferences, there should be protracted public debates, wrote Shivji. Where previously the NGOs used to dialogue with the state “in five-star hotels,” now there should be demonstrations, protest marches and teach-ins in streets and community centers to expose serious abuses of power and bad policies. “Democratic governance would be an arena where power is contested, not some moral dialogue or crusade for good against evil, as the meaningless term ‘good governance’ implies … You cannot dialogue with power,” the renowned author writes poignantly.
In the wake of the ongoing debate on the role and relevance of NGOs amidst a global pandemic, and the government’s ambiguous response, it appears that more than ten years since Shivji’s book, the country’s NGOs have not been able—or willing—to learn a lesson. Nor, telling from the way they behave amidst the current crisis, is there any indication that they will do so in the near future.
Videos2 weeks ago
Kenya: The ‘Deep State’ and the Kenyatta Succession
Long Reads2 weeks ago
Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel
Op-Eds7 days ago
Revealed: The CIA and MI6’s Secret War in Kenya
Videos2 weeks ago
Kenya, the CIA, MI6 and Counterterrorism
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
This Anti-Black Racism Must End
Politics2 weeks ago
Is the Kenyan Constitution on its Deathbed?
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Do Constitutions Matter? The Dilemma of the Radical Lawyer
Reflections2 weeks ago
To Be Black in America: One Tuesday Morning With George Floyd