Across East Africa there is pattern of disparity in the implementation of COVID-19 control measures. While there is no single template for the implementation of the respective containment measures, Uganda and Rwanda have taken proactive actions ranging from lockdown to swift public health measures that are showing early signs of bearing positive fruit in the form of minimal community transmission.
Kenya, on the other hand, despite having employed partial and targeted measures, such as swift contact tracing exercises and cessation of movement coupled with a dusk-to-dawn curfew that initially slowed down the spread of virus, has hit a snag. There are emerging signs of setbacks and weaknesses due to increased community transmission that have been attributed to the disjointed and unrealistic nature of Kenya’s COVID-19 control measures.
Comparatively, Burundi and Tanzania opted for an open COVID-19 control strategy alongside questioning or downplaying the World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 guidelines. The “genie is still in the bottle” as to whether Burundi and Tanzania are on the right or wrong path because the available data and statistics are at best still very sketchy. Their only comparison for now could be Sweden and Brazil who have also opted to follow a more open strategy unlike other European and Latin American states, respectively.
Sweden went for jugular by placing emphasis on personal responsibility, which Kenyan government officials tried to sell with noticeable setbacks. In their open COVID-19 strategy, only basic WHO COVID-19 health guidelines were enforced but the lockdown did not affect businesses, which remained open.
The approaches of Burundi and Tanzania can be classified as COVID-19 denialist or comparable to the poetic phrase “dancing with death”. WHO and critics of these two countries argue that the path taken by Burundi and Tanzania puts their citizens’ and their neighbours’ lives at an alarming risk. In their desired strategy, Burundi has ended up prioritising a tense general election and Tanzania has prioritised the economy amid a global pandemic.
Initial reports reveal that states like Rwanda and Uganda that implemented nationwide lockdowns are now reaping decreasing rates of new infections “significantly from 67% rise in the first week after the lockdown to a 27% rise in the second week”. In countries that employed “partial and targeted lockdown along with effective public health measurers”, initial reports indicate that they have been “more effective at slowing down the virus”.
Across East Africa, based on available COVID-19 data, Uganda too is categorised in the second option with credit going to her near-perfect public health measurers. If the ability to slow down the rate of communal infection within a country is a measure of success in slowing down the spread of coronavirus, then Uganda and Rwanda are worthy of reaping the benefits of lockdown measures. Although it’s early to argue confidently, but going by data available after two to three months of seeking to contain COVID-19, they have within that time recorded limited cases of communal infection.
A study in the US (yet to be peer reviewed) seeking to understand how delayed enforcement of COVID-19 measures might have been a factor in the surge and spike in the cases discloses “changes of disease transmission rates in US counties from March 15 to May 3, 2020”, It shows “a significant reduction of the basic reproductive numbers in major metropolitan areas in association with social distancing and other control measures”. Further, counterfactual simulations indicate that had the required COVID-19 measures been “implemented just 1-2 weeks earlier, a substantial number of cases and deaths could have been averted”. The study underscores the “importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling” the coronavirus pandemic. The study indicates that Uganda and Rwanda’s early and swift intervention resulted in a desirable curve compared to the rest of the region.
In the case of Kenya, there was a delay in enforcing enhanced COVID-19 measures (some of which were disjointed), which resulted in a non-flattening curve due to a surge in cases. The difference between Uganda and Rwanda on one side, and Kenya on the other, is the onset of communal transmission that Kenya is now struggling to contain with minimal success.
In the case of Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, many argue that their limited foreign interactions or exposure, unlike Tanzania and Kenya, does explain at some level their slow rate of communal infections. Others point to the aspect that lockdown measures did enable Rwanda and Uganda to curtail the infection beyond certain localities where COVID-19 was first reported.
Uganda has adopted a science-based containment strategy driven by past experience of battling other pandemics. In reality, Uganda has been in disease outbreak mode since 2018, and according to WHO, with success stories in tackling Ebola, yellow fever, measles and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
In short, Uganda didn’t wait for the first confirmed case to spring into action; the country drew on past experiences in battling previous outbreaks like Ebola and yellow fever. When the first case was confirmed, WHO credits Uganda for moving first with “placing a lot of emphasis on risk communication and community engagement to promote good health practices among members of the public”. Uganda knew well that without public understanding and ownership of the process, setback and reversals would keep mounting.
In the case of Kenya, there was a delay in enforcing enhanced COVID-19 measures (some of which were disjointed), which resulted in a non-flattening curve due to a surge in cases.
In contrast, Tanzania has within the same time criminalised COVID-19 discussion across media platforms, especially on social media. In Kenya’s case, the norm has been to lecture and dictate to the public about the dangers of the pandemic.
Before lifting the lockdown measures, Uganda, like Rwanda, opted for the science-driven route of informing the masses of the planned next phase. The government engaged 200 survey teams to conduct a rapid assessment exercise to establish the prevalence of COVID-19 among communities – a move based on derived data that sought to know it if it was right to relax some of the measures.
The Rwandan Health Ministry opted to “trust the process”. Rwanda’s decision to partially lift the lockdown was reached after a countrywide health survey across 30 per cent of health facilities in the country. Among the survey samples were 4,500 employees who had continued to work during the lockdown and others who had over time shown COVID-19-like symptoms. The survey, according to Rwanda’s Minister of Health, revealed either minimal or zero communal transmission. Therefore, it seemed wise to partially lift the lockdown.
In Kenya, the disjointed COVID-19 control measures have not been informed by any publicly known survey or large-scale mass testing. In sharp contrast, Rwanda directed hospitality businesses to keep contact details of all their customers should there be a need to trace them in case of any COVID-19 infection or exposure. Rwanda has a comprehensive COVID-19 approach that shows that political will does count when it comes to enforcing measures.
Uganda and Rwanda’s swift action in containing the spread of coronavirus has drawn attention to the remarkable gains registered by authoritarian and autocratic regimes. Some argue that the citizens of Rwanda and Uganda have little or no room to defy government-enforced directives as the price of defiance is substantially high.
Before lifting the lockdown measures, Uganda, like Rwanda, opted for the science-driven route of informing the masses of the planned next phase. The government engaged 200 survey teams to conduct a rapid assessment exercise to establish the prevalence of COVID-19 among communities…
In contrast, Kenya’s evolution of COVID-19 control measures into the province of “law and order” rather than public health resulted in public apathy, and in some instances, open defiance. Police brutality against civilians during the curfew hours (which has resulted in the death of at least 15 people) further broke the trust between the people and the government.
Kenya’s COVID-19 strategy, which has borrowed heavily from “partial and targeted” lockdown strategies, hasn’t shown the desired success. A plausible explanation could be the disjointed nature of public health measures despite successful contact tracing. The reversals emerging in Kenya also have more to do with the pushback from the population that has felt belittled or somehow lectured upon to adhere to the measures.
Kenya’s inexperience in handling pandemics points to the challenges of its political leadership and its failure to prioritise the well-being of citizens. While the Kenyan public has been castigated for its “lack of discipline”, the shaky roll-out of health measures puts into doubt the commitment of the leadership to contain the crisis.
Tanzania and Burundi have followed the “open strategy” similar to that of Sweden and Brazil. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cut a resolute posture of a COVID-19 denialist. Tanzania has placed a ban on reporting on or updating COVID-19 cases in Tanzania; the last COVID-19 update was on April 29 and by then fatalities stood at 21 people.
In comparison, Sweden, which has employed “open strategy” or “softer lockdown” of keeping schools, restaurant and business open, has produced one of the “world’s highest death rates, relative to population.” However, the Swedish government has declined to change strategy. COVID-19 fatalities stood at “6.25% per million inhabitants per day in a rolling seven-day average between May 12 and May 19” and slightly below global COVID-19 fatalities that stood at 6.6%. Sweden emerges as the “highest in Europe and just above the United Kingdom which had 5.57% death per million” (Reuters, 19 May 2020).
In contrast, Kenya’s evolution of COVID-19 control measures into the province of “law and order” rather than public health resulted in public apathy, and in some instances, open defiance. Police brutality against civilians during the curfew hours further broke the trust between the people and the government.
According to Kenya’s Health Minister, Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s fatality rate by mid-May stood at 5.6%, just below global fatality rate of 6.6% by a single percentage point, but still the highest in East Africa. (Health Ministry Press Briefing, 20 May 2020)
Despite Sweden’s open strategy, “only 7.3% of people in Stockholm had developed the antibodies needed to fight the disease by late April”, which is below the “70-80% needed to create ‘herd immunity’ in a population”, implying that Sweden, Tanzania, Brazil and Burundi’s open strategy will continue to hurt for some time.
A question that can’t be answered for now is if the open strategy will hurt more or less when compared with other nations that opted for lockdowns or targeted measures. By the end of May, Brazil, which had also opted for a sort of open strategy, “became the second country with highest COVID-19 infections behind USA”.
The perils of high-handed leadership
While there are a couple of factors fueling the surge and spike in COVID-19, one unmistakable commonality among the countries with the highest infections is that their “high-handed leaders have downplayed the severity of the crisis and embraced outlandish conspiracy theories, ensuring that outbreak is worse than it should have been”. In some countries, it is also difficult to get access to accurate and reliable data, so it is hard to ascertain if cases are rising or not. Therefore, in countries like Tanzania and Burundi, it has become difficult to assess whether fatality and infection rates are above or below the global average.
Shockingly, President Magufuli, a former chemistry and mathematics teacher, has emerged as an outright advocate for alternative approaches to the pandemic. He has told all and sundry that Tanzania will not be “ruled” by COVID-19 global politics and that the economy is “more important than the threat posed by coronavirus” (The Guardian, 19 May 2020). And he has thus resisted shutting down the economy and has gone ahead with permitting the tourism industry and schools to reopen with minimal COVID-19 prevention measures. WHO and critics of President Magufuli have suggested that his perceived COVID-19 denialism or delayed response might have exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus in Tanzania.
While Tanzania has given priority to economic concerns over COVID-19 threats, Burundi has sacrificed COVID-19 threats at the altar of a tense political transition. Although Pierre Nkurunziza officially died of “cardiac arrest”, there are those who suspect his death to be due to COVID-19. His wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza of Burundi, was flown to Nairobi for COVID-19 treatment on May 30th, which fuelled rumours of a correlation.
Burundi faces uncertain times ahead. It still remains in the COVID-19 denialist club. The leadership has disregarded any UN agency’s or foreign institution’s COVID-19 concerns. Since the confirmation of COVID-19 cases in the country, the Burundian government advised the population to observe strict hygiene procedures. Yet throughout the campaigning period, none of these directives were adhered to, with even Burundi’s key government leaders calling on the masses during the election campaign not to fear COVID-19.
The late President Pierre Nkurunziza bragged that Burundi was the only country where public and religious gatherings were still happening and that God would protect Burundians. In reality, Burundi has one of the worst political climates in Africa, and within this context, the population faces serious repercussions if they publicly acknowledge suspected COVID-19 infections or deaths.
Amid COVID-19 concerns, Burundi went ahead with general electoral process including campaigning with minimal observance of social distancing, notwithstanding the risk of te spread of coronavirus. In essence, reminiscent of previous elections in Burundi, the months leading up to the vote were marked by violence among political groups competing for power.
It was during the tense general election that a WHO representative and three WHO experts coordinating COVID-19 responses were expelled from the country (Al Jazeera, 14 May 2020). And they were only a few among a long list of expelled experts that included representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
While Tanzania has given priority to economic concerns over COVID-19 threats, Burundi has sacrificed COVID-19 threats at the altar of a tense political transition. Although Pierre Nkurunziza officially died of “cardiac arrest”, there are those who suspect his death to be due to COVID-19.
The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Burundi to find the leadership in government and the participating opposition completely entrenched in survival mode and showing little regard for the welfare of the majority of Burundians. Prior to the 2015 coup attempt, Burundi had a vibrant civil society that had mobilised some of the most vocal mass pro-democracy protests in May 2015. All these civil society organisations and the independent media have since been scuttled and most of their professionals have gone into exile.
Therefore, to expect the COVID-19 pandemic to scare or move the will of Burundi’s leadership is to expect too much. This leadership has midwifed the final phase of a five-year violent political transition that has counted at least 1,700 among the dead and another 400,000 as refugees (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 24 September, 2019). All that many can hope for is that by the time the election campaigns were kicking off, communal transmission had not set in. Any communal transmission that might have happened then might have been accelerated by the campaigning and voting process that observed no social distancing.
At the moment, Burundi’s transitional and subsequent new government priority will be to settle in after a tense and unpredictable political transition that was preceded by five years of the politics of violence and intimidation.
With the COVID-19 pandemic not showing any signs of relenting anytime soon, pressure is mounting from populations on the governments of East Africa to ease or revise COVID-19 measures. In reality, all the East African states face socio-economic challenges that make efficient containment of their populations difficult to enforce (International Center for Not-For Profit Law, 21 May 2020).
The need for political survival is driving some East African leaders to act with precision, while others exhibit a hands-off approach that points to a contemptuous attitude towards their populations. Some believe that downplaying the COVID-19 threat will vindicate them. In Uganda and Rwanda, the fear of an authoritarian state is driving compliance, while in Kenya and Tanzania, the broken social contract between the people and their government is undermining the process.
In essence, the litmus test brought by COVID-19 is how far the respective East African leaders will go to protect their people. The genie is still in the bottle.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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