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A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?

11 min read.

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol, they triggered a discussion on whether statues and monuments of those who helped Britain extend her colonial tentacles around the world should also be removed. Hopefully, this discussion will also lead Kenyans to review their monument landscape.

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A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?
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Britain is in a froth, and sharply divided, over the desecration or removal of statues of historical figures linked to slavery and empire.

What began as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, following the appalling murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis, swiftly morphed into attacks on statues and monuments in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and other towns and cities in the UK that implicitly venerate slavers and imperialists. Some were removed from their plinths, one was thrown into a river, others were vandalised, and a Union Jack flag on the Cenotaph, the national war memorial in central London, was set on fire. In Oxford, where there have long been calls to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the wall of a college, the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement (which originated in South Africa) was given new impetus, and large street protests were held. Some statues have been removed by local authorities “for their own protection”, such as that of eighteenth century slave-owner Robert Milligan, which stood in London’s Docklands.

Images of these events blazed across the media day after day have both incensed and delighted in equal measure. The British public learned more about its dark past in 48 hours (and rising) than in decades of being taught empire-light history in school classrooms. I was one of them. All we learned of empire was the victors’ story, and Britain’s “proud” role in the abolitionist movement. No wonder all this statue-smashing has come as a shock to the system – in every sense of the word. (Similar outrage over monuments linked to racial oppression and slavery has swept the US and other nations in the wake of BLM, but it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the wider phenomenon.)

The right-wing media, the Tory government and other far-right commentators have predictably dubbed the attackers “mobs”, “thugs” and “vandals”, with Home Secretary Priti Patel (the daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants to Britain who could well have been denied entry under her hard-line regime) vowing to find and swiftly punish those responsible. (That may prove tricky since many were wearing protective masks against COVID-19.) In Tory hands, playing to the Brexit gallery, it fast became a “law and order” story. The courts were granted powers to fast-track prosecutions of demonstrators within 24 hours of an incident, “amid mounting concerns that Britain is facing a summer of disorder” (The Times, 12 June).

We are good at summers of disorder. Every dull English summer seems to require a new moral panic. In the middle of COVID lockdown, this uproar has almost come as light relief, not least to the mainstream print media, which is struggling to survive. The right-wing tabloid Daily Mail devoted its front-page lead and 7 inside pages to the story on 10 June, and the issue was still taking up the entire two-page spread of readers’ letters two days later (including an edited letter from me, calling in part for changes to the school history curriculum). At a time of COVID crisis, this was extraordinary. Every national newspaper has covered it too, with the downmarket Daily Star poking fun by giving away cut-out paper “statues” of famous people for readers to shout at if they so wished. (It’s a “free” country.)

The broadcast media has also covered the story extensively. A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated. “I absolutely relished the toppling of the [Colston] statue in Bristol. He was a really toxic symbol,” she said. (More on Colston below.)

For the prosecution, we have Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, leading the charge. “Where are the police?” cried this arch Brexiter on Twitter. “Where are you Boris? Do we have a leader?” And, next to a photograph of a graffiti-daubed statue of war-time premier Winston Churchill: “Boris Johnson is supposed to be a Churchill fan, but he says and does nothing. He is not half the man.”

A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated.

In the Telegraph (9 June), Farage accused “our craven leaders” of “failing to stand up to a Marxist mob which wants to tear down our history”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded a few days later, fuming that his hero had been dubbed a “racist”. (Boris wrote a much-derided 2014 biography of Winston Churchill, on whom he clearly models himself.) This was pretty rich coming from a man who, in his former career as a journalist, described Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared niqab-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes”, and said of colonialism in Africa: “The problem is not that we were in charge, but that we’re not in charge any more.”

I will say more about far-right white youth rage in a moment, but it takes its cue from Boris, Fa-RAGE (as I prefer to call him), and links to Brexit-related frustrations. Brexit is meant to have happened on 31 January this year, but curiously, those who voted for it seem angrier than ever.

How it all began: Slaver Edward Colston

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol on 7 June, dragged it to the harbour and threw it in, police wisely decided not to intervene. This, and police refusal to intervene in similar incidents elsewhere, is what Farage (plus fellow Brexiters and Tories) are so incensed about.

Colston, a rich merchant and MP, was venerated as a benefactor and philanthropist, with schools, a concert hall and streets named after him. (Some have been renamed.) Bristol residents had been calling for the statue’s removal for years, and had presented an 11,000-signature petition to the council. But nothing had come of asking nicely, hence some decided it was high time to sling Colston’s hook themselves. His reburial in a watery “grave” was itself laden with symbolism, since it was from this harbour that Colston’s slave ships sailed. They carried more than 100,000 West Africans to the New World between 1672 and 1689. More than 20,000 slaves died en route and were thrown overboard – something the slavers welcomed because they could claim insurance.

The Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset police, Andy Bennett, defended his force’s actions that day, telling the BBC he understood that Colston was “a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years”. He said he understood their anger, and the symbolism of the statue. He went on: “You might wonder why we didn’t intervene and why we just allowed people to put it in the docks – we made a very tactical decision, to stop people from doing the act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do, in terms of our policing tactics, was to allow it to take place.” (A furious Priti Patel reportedly gave him a dressing-down.)

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”, and has called for a “city-wide conversation” on the future of the statue (which has now been hauled out of the harbour). It may be placed in a museum, along with demonstrators’ placards taken from the scene of the “crime”. He added: “I’d like to make sure that conversation is informed by good history.” Hence he is putting together a team, including local historians, to make a study of statues, memorials, street names and the like, so that future decisions are based on “good history, good understanding”.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”

Other targeted statues of imperial, fascist or slaver figures are listed on a new website called Topple the Racists (www.toppletheracists.org). They include Lord Nelson (as in Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square), Robert Clive (of British India infamy), Scotland’s Robert Dundas (son of a man who deliberately delayed the abolition of slavery), Jan Smuts, the architect of apartheid, and Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouts movement. The latter also has links to Kenya: he is buried in a Nyeri churchyard, near a cottage in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel where he spent his final years. Baden-Powell is accused of atrocities against Zulus during his military career in South Africa, and for his flirtation with fascism. In his 1939 diary, he wrote: “Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book.” Former scouts travelled to Poole in Dorset to protect a statue of their idol, which has been placed under 24-hour protection. They cut ridiculous figures: middle-aged men in shorts, brown shirts and woggles (a device used to fasten scouts’ neckerchiefs), vowing to follow the scouting motto: “Be prepared!” Kenyan scouts have also pledged allegiance to their founder.

Far-right youth

Those ripping statues from their plinths, or “vandalising” them if removal is physically impossible, are white, black, and all shades in-between. But the racism in critics’ hysterical responses is palpable. Far-right white supremacist youths have waded in, joined by older beer-bellied men, with supporters of Tommy Robinson (a notorious far-right Islamophobic activist) and groups like Britain First vowing to “defend” and “protect” monuments from “commies” and the “unwashed”. Self-styled “Tommy Teams” rushed to scrub the graffiti off monuments, including Churchill and the Cenotaph, and stayed to “protect” them since the police were not doing so at that stage.

In some provincial towns, they also collaborated with angry older men, many with military backgrounds, to “protect” monuments, including war memorials. Posting videos of their exploits on Twitter, they spoke of protecting British heritage, and defending historical icons. Bragging of their manhood, they asked (as Farage had done) where the “real men” were.

As I write this, far-right groups from across the country had travelled to London to “protect” the monuments from BLM, which had planned more demonstrations in the city. Police boarded up major monuments to keep both BLM protesters and their opponents away; these included statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Boris Johnson called the boarding up of Churchill “absurd” and “stupid”, conveniently forgetting that he had done the same with certain monuments when he was mayor of London.

Priti Patel publicly denounced the current London mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan (a hate figure to far-right Islamophobes, Tories and Brexiters), who had ordered the protective measures. The government also hates the fact that Khan has set up a commission to review all monuments in the capital, while more than a hundred Labour councils across England have pledged to review monuments on public land. In a bizarre twist, the far-right protestors gave Heil Hitler salutes before Churchill, a man revered for fighting fascism. Having denounced supposed BLM violence, it was they who ended up getting drunk and fighting the police. The word “Eng-er-land” (their chant) is trending now. Angerland?

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection not unlike that which produced the Mods and Rockers, two rival youth groups that rioted in seaside towns in southern England in 1964, though in some ways, today’s youth alienation is worse. (One could write a whole thesis on this alone, and no doubt scholars already are.)

Throw into the mix the economic crisis which will hit the poorest, including Brexit-voting, communities, hardest. The UK is said to be heading for its worst economic depression in 300 years following COVID, and is likely to fall off a cliff once Brexit is fully implemented. The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-“woke” rhetoric of right-wing politicians and media commentators who call on “true patriots” to show their allegiance to Britain and British “values”, the failure of Brexit to deliver yet (if indeed it ever does), and the frustration of weeks of COVID lockdown: all this and more stokes the anger of particular groups. In their insecurity, Tommy’s boys – and some girls – have long clung to perceived icons of national identity. (Their Twitter profiles feature images of Churchill in particular, bulldogs and St George flags, though in fact St George wasn’t English and never set foot here).

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection…

But let’s not get too carried away with the perceived threat to society, which is how the Tories want to frame all this. Sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, identified how certain figures, groups or events periodically spark moral outrage, and are scapegoated as “evil” threats to civilised society. Cohen noted the Mods’ and Rockers’ overwhelming sense of boredom. Street clashes or the prospect of them were as thrilling then as they are now – “just simply being present in a crowd was an event…” Having studied white street gangs in the 1970s, I know that putting the boot in (and crime in general) is very exciting when you are working class, young and bored. If you can film the bovver on your phone as it happens, take selfies and tweet to the world, that’s all the more satisfying.

Turning briefly to Kenya

The imprint of empire’s boot is still visible on the monument landscape of Kenya, though there have been some notable changes down the years. The Nairobi city centre statue of Lord Delamere was removed at independence to the Delameres’ Soysambu estate, but the Vasco da Gama pillar is still a major tourist attraction at Malindi. Street names have changed: for example, Victoria Street became Tom Mboya Street. Many South Asian street names have been Africanised.

The statue of Queen Victoria that previously stood in Jeevanjee Gardens, a public park Nairobi, was beheaded by unknown vandals in 2015. I am told by A.M. Jeevanjee’s great-granddaughter, the historian, activist and writer Zarina Patel, that the county government later removed the rest of the monument, which now lies in a storeroom. “Who did it, and why remains a mystery,” she says. “Was it politically motivated? That would be understandable because Queen Victoria represented an unjust colonial power.”

However, she has concerns that one of the conditions her forefather made when handing over the gardens to the then colonial government was that the statue should never be moved. In so doing, he hoped to protect the gardens from future land grabs. In 1991, Zarina campaigned successfully against an attempted grab of the park by “the highest powers-that-be in the land”, adding, “of course they have never been identified”.

Zarina Patel welcomes the arrival of statues commemorating Dedan Kimathi and Tom Mboya, and the Mau Mau Memorial in Uhuru Park, which she hopes will set a trend. She also believes that the Nyayo monuments in Uhuru Gardens, erected by former president Daniel arap Moi, will be moved at some point.

What is her take on colonial-era monuments, and those glorifying post-independence leaders? “The statues celebrating colonists and dictators are part of Kenyan history – rather than destroying them I think they should be kept in some suburban parks or museums with explanatory texts to give them proper historical context; so that our future generations can be reminded of the battles we have fought for freedom, justice and democracy.”

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

And what do we do about tourism centred on colonial nostalgia, starting with Karen Blixen? Why is Karen the suburb still on the map of Nairobi? Why is the Norfolk Hotel (among others) still proudly branding itself as a white settler hang-out, and every safari lodge and camp in the Mara selling a Blixenesque sundowner fantasy? This type of tourism generates huge sums, but at what cost? It reinforces the notion that Kenya is one big Happy Valley playground, a safari-suited hyper-real theme park (see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) where racy white mischief can still be had, at a price. I’ve even seen Japanese tourists in pith helmets at Elsamere, Lake Naivasha, who had no idea how uncool they looked. If I find all this embarrassing, how do Kenyans feel?

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

Maybe it’s time for a national conversation – led by citizens, not government – on what Kenyans would like to see changed or removed. If the conversation is anything like the one convulsing Britain right now, be prepared for a huge row. A very healthy one.

I concur with those who see this as an unmissable opportunity to re-educate global citizens about the past. The destruction or removal of monuments from sight is not the answer; they should be moved to a dedicated museum, with educational materials (textual and audio-visual) providing deeper context. Use them for debate, alongside alternative narratives. Fill the monument landscape (if you must) with new figures who more accurately reflect your diverse societies and the best of your ideals. Then bin the current school history curriculum, and replace it with something fit for purpose in the post-post-colonial twenty-first century.

Postscript

Latest news from Bristol: a statue of the Jamaican poet, playwright and actor, Alfred Fagon, was doused with a “bleach-like substance” on the night of 12 June. It was erected in 1987, in the largely black and mixed-race area of St Pauls, on the first anniversary of his death. Fagon was the first black person to have had a statue erected in his honour in the city. One of his first plays, No Soldiers in St Pauls, explored the social tensions between the police and the black community in 1970s Bristol.

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Dr Lotte Hughes is an historian and former journalist who has written extensively on Kenya. Her books include Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure (2006) and, with Annie E. Coombes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya (2014).

Politics

Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pool Offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braced for a Crackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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