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The Mushrooming of Car Boot Sales in These Corona Times

11 min read.

Many middle class Kenyans are converting their car boots into mini fruit and vegetable markets. In these times of coronavirus, car boot sales have become an adaptation mechanism: they give people an opportunity to earn some hard cash and maintain their sanity.

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The Mushrooming of Car Boot Sales in These Corona Times
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Amos Waweru is your typical consultant: he always carries his laptop and speaks the language of consultancy – strategic objectives, writing proposals, project management, conducting feasibility studies, etc. An enterprise development consultant for the last 15 years, Waweru’s consultancy portfolio includes consulting for international NGOs, both in Kenya and abroad “but that is when the going was good”. Now, thanks to COVID-19, things are different. “It is really tough now and I have had to make adjustments,” said the consultant.

With three teenage children, all in high school, dwindling consultancy work in the last two years, and now the lockdown, which has halted his work to a near standstill for the last three months, Waweru had to make some tough decisions. One of them was converting his Japanese-made vehicle into a car boot sales market. “I stayed at home for one full month the whole of April, without work, with a lot of time on my hands, and simply immobile – three things that I was not used to having in plenty”.

Waweru, a resident of Ruiru, conducted preliminary research among the women who sell vegetables at Ruiru’s open-air market. “Where do they get their vegetables, what types of vegetables do people prefer, how are they priced, so that with this information, I could work out the logistics of starting my own little vegetable market from the boot of my car,” said the consultant. The coronavirus has taken everyone by surprise and upturned many people’s sources of income, throwing people completely off-balance, observed Waweru.

Waweru had cultivated the high-flier image of a successful consultant who occasionally travels abroad. So he was initially bothered by what his peers would think of him selling vegetables from his car off a busy thoroughfare. “I’m very well-known in my church community and in my residential area of Membley, to be truthful, I was a tad worried of my image and whether it wasn’t going to suffer. I was afraid my esteem among my community would diminish”, said the consultant.

When deciding which types of vegetables he should be selling, Waweru found that leafy green vegetables were most in demand. So the next thing he did was to look for a strategic location to park his vehicle and start his business. “I did a little feasibility study around my location and found a bustling stage where the Eastern bypass and Kamiti Road intersect. Already, there were other people selling foodstuff off their vehicles and I decided to join them.” (This intersection is popularly known as the “OJ Connection” – people drop off as others board boda bodas or matatus to their various destinations.)

Waweru had cultivated the high-flier image of a successful consultant who occasionally travels abroad. So he was initially bothered by what his peers would think of him selling vegetables from his car off a busy thoroughfare.

The leafy vegetables Waweru started with included indigenous vegetables like kahurura, kunde, managu, terere, thoroko and osuga. “The market women told me they buy the vegetables from some Ruiru farmers who farm along the Ruiru River. I didn’t know there’s a lot of vegetable farming specialising in indigenous vegetables going on around Ruiru town.” After his interest in vegetable farming was aroused, Waweru also discovered that on the fringes of Tatu City, the mega real estate project coming up on the outskirts of Ruiru town, “there are huge farms where some people have been growing tomatoes on a large scale”.

Waweru set up camp at OJ Connection, but not for long. “I was always looking for better strategic selling areas, because, somehow, I wasn’t persuaded OJ was the best location for me.” He found one at Kimbo, next to the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce Squad command post, on Kiganjo Road, off the Thika superhighway. (The Recce squad is a paramilitary force that is specially trained in dealing with terrorism and other security-related emergencies.) The consultant’s gut feelings on change of location paid off: “I’d been doing brisk business at OJ, but I began doing even brisker business at Kimbo.” Waweru’s image worries have dissipated; he is making some money “to basically pay my bills and fuel the car”.

The car boot sales allowed Waweru to deal with two things: “earn some little money, to be honest it’s really nothing – it is from car boot to mouth”, and even more critical, deal with the problem of staying idle at home. “It was driving me crazy and I found myself picking quarrels with everyone. I cannot remember the last time I was marooned in the house for this long. I needed to get out, meet my friends, have a drink and just be out there.” As he was accustomed to, he carries his laptop with him and keeps himself busy, working on business proposals to potential clients as he waits for his customers.

The Kimbo-Recce Squad junction has become a beehive of activity: We counted more than 20 car boot sales vehicles. “A new vehicle has been pitching camp every week since I came here,” explained Waweru. “Somehow, it has become a magnet for people with cars to experiment with selling a variety of foodstuff from the boots of their cars.” The consultant said that at first the paramilitary personnel were apprehensive about people bringing their cars so close to their camp, but they became more relaxed about it, but warned the car boot sellers not to encroach too near the camp’s gate.

“This coronavirus pandemic has driven people to try out different and several possibilities of finding coping mechanisms of staying economically afloat as they strive to deal with the bad times”, said Waweru. “Yet the crux of the matter is that the coronavirus has just been the catalyst: the economic downturn began with President Uhuru’s second term. I’ll be open with you – President Uhuru’s years have been the worst for my consultancy. I’ve suffered greatly because I cannot even begin to compare his tenure with President Kibaki’s. During Kibaki’s time, I made good money and built myself.”

Some of the additional 20 or so cars that have since followed Waweru to Kimbo belong to teachers, a travel consultant and two matatu owners. At Kimbo they have created a car boot sales mini-market, selling everything from arrowroots, cabbages, eggs, onions, rice (of the pishori type) and tomatoes.

High school teacher Njenga teaches at a school in Kalimoni. After staying at home for a month and after realising there might be no prospect of returning to school sooner, he started thinking of what to do with the extra time that had been created for him. “We are still getting our pay, so compared to other professionals who may have lost their jobs or face a pay cut, we teachers have so far been spared both,” commented the teacher.

“But not used to being idle and immobile, the coronavirus lockdown was driving me nuts – I’ve never stayed at home from morning till evening, day-in day-out, weeks on end. I felt I was beginning to lose my marbles and I needed to be active and breathe out.” As a day school teacher, he and his wife, who is also is a secondary school teacher, had started a side hustle (a popular Kenyan cliché to mean an income-generating project for extra cash). They had invested in a 1000-chicken hatchery. “Instead of waiting for customers to come and collect their eggs at home, we used our car to market the eggs and even attract new customers,” explained the couple.

For some people, the coronavirus pandemic could as well be a blessing in disguise. “From our car boot sale at Kimbo, we’ve been doing good business. In a just a short time, we’ve been pushing between 10 to 20 trays of eggs in a day,” said the teachers. “I mean, before coronavirus, we only depended on our traditional customary clients. Now we’ve created a new market and hope to expand it. A tray of eggs consists of 30 eggs, so, even on a bad day, the Njengas can sell upwards of 300 eggs from their vehicle. At between Sh280 and Sh300 per tray, the teachers can make up to between Sh2,800 and Sh3,000 a day. “If you remove our expenses, we can’t complain too much.”

The other teacher, a lady who also teaches in a high school, has also been selling eggs. “There are enough customers to share, so it’s not a problem that I and my fellow teachers are selling the same thing in the same place. It’s a market of varieties. Let the customers have their say”. She also keeps a poultry farm where she rears chickens for eggs. The pandemic, opined the teacher, had opened her eyes to pursuing an infinite possibility: of selling her eggs from her car. “Even after the crisis is over, I’ll not stop my car boot sale. I’ve already seen the future and I like what I’ve seen: the car boot sale is a niche I had not contemplated. I’m not letting it go”.

For some people, the coronavirus pandemic could as well be a blessing in disguise. “From our car boot sale at Kimbo, we’ve been doing good business. In a just a short time, we’ve been pushing between 10 to 20 trays of eggs in a day,” said the teachers.

Two things have worked in favour of the teachers: The fact that they teach in day schools, which means they don’t have to stay in school all day, and they have not been paying cess to Kiambu County Government. Depending on the nature of business and what you are selling, the county government levies between Sh25 and Sh100 per trader per day.

A county official told me that for now, during the pandemic, they had decided not to charge the car boot sales traders. “We’ve understood the prevailing extraordinary situation to mean that the people are trying make ends meet.”

Just further afield, from where Waweru’s car was, Ben Kungu’s Toyota Hiace, complete with the tracking aerial aloft, was full of fruits and vegetables. Kungu had plucked off the seats of the vehicle to free space for his new venture. A travel and tours consultant, Kungu was hit hard. “Everything ground to a halt and I couldn’t get jobs for my ‘Shark’ [what the Toyota Hiace is popularly called].” His van then was essentially grounded and Kungu was out of a job. What to do in the prevailing circumstances? He decided to go to Ruiru’s open-air market, buy foodstuffs in bulk and in wholesale for resale. “It was both to make some money to fuel the vehicle and for my sanity. I felt like I was going crazy staying at home all day with nothing to do.”

Next to Kungu’s “Shark” were two other vans: the long-distance matatu shuttles known as “Box” because of their shape. When President Uhuru pronounced the cessation of movement in April, many long-distance shuttles that travelled outside of Nairobi County found themselves locked out of work. The owners of these two shuttles said that instead of parking them, like some of their compatriots had done, they decided to convert them into car boot sales markets and sell mostly cabbages from south Kinangop. “Once the cessation ceases, we shall resume our shuttle travel work. For now, let us make use of the vehicles in the most practical way we know how.”

“It was both to make some money to fuel the vehicle and for my sanity. I felt like I was going crazy staying at home all day with nothing to do.”

In Uthiru, an old trading centre off Nairobi-Nakuru highway, I met John Ndung’u. Ndung’u was donning a blue coat, and dusting off sweet potatoes that were spread in the boot of his car. “These sweet potatoes are the best in the market because they are from Kisii – sweet potatoes from this region are good because they remain dry and tough and are not watery,” said the former taxi driver. “They are fresher because I catch them from my supplier before he deposits the load at Marigiti Market in the city centre.” Trucks full of farm suppliers from north and central Rift Valley and western region pass outside Uthiru.

People nowadays prefer sweet potatoes to bread in the morning, said Ndung’u. “Bread has become expensive, but more fundamentally, the sweet potato is nutritious, very fulfilling and is good for school-going children. And there are more than one ways of preparing the sweet potato: you can roast it, you can boil it, you can even fry it, more like potato chips, all to create different tastes of this tasty African tuber crop.”

Ndung’u is the chairman of the Muthiga taxi drivers association. Muthiga, which is seven kilometres from Uthiru, is a popular meat-eating and beer-drinking joint. It has become so popular that it is referred to as Nairobi’s Kikopey. Kikopey is the famous mouth-watering, meat-eating stop on the same highway, but 120km away in Gilgil, Nakuru County. Ndung’u told me the coronavirus crisis had caught his members completely off-guard. Patronised by the moneyed wannabe who live around Muthiga and the adjoining areas of Kinoo, Kikuyu, Magina, Muthure, Sigona and Uthiru, Muthiga is busiest in the evenings and at night, making taxi-driving a profitable venture.

With the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, taxi drivers in Muthiga became redundant. They had to quickly think of what to do next, what with families to cater for. “We decided, for those who were interested, to temporarily convert our cabs into car boot markets, as we study the effects of this coronavirus and what those effects portended for our business in the coming days,” explained Ndung’u.

If you take a quick tour of the highway from Uthiru, all the way to Regen and Rungiri, you will see saloon vehicles parked besides the highway, with open boots selling all manner of foodstuffs. “Beginning from Corporation, 87, Kinoo, Muthiga, Regen, Rungiri, all the way to Kikuyu town, most of the vehicles you will see are taxi drivers of our association,” said Ndung’u. The cab driver said if the lockdown and the curfew are lifted tomorrow, he would immediately go back to what he knows best: taxi driving.

But Monica Wangari – who I found selling bananas, avocadoes, pineapples and pumpkins in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road – was not sure whether she would go back to her old job. “I was an insurance agent, working for one of the biggest insurance companies in Nairobi. Then coronavirus happened. Heads of department were asked by the MD to select which people should be laid off. I happened to be one of the people who were picked,” said Wangari.

Her family type car is a Vox Noah. Now, she wakes up in the morning, goes to Marigiti Market in downtown Nairobi, buys her foodstuff and parks her Noah on the dusty road that cuts across Thindigwa. “I couldn’t stay in the house. I tried in the first few weeks. I thought I was going to run mad.” At first, she had sought to sell off her wares on the Eastern bypass on the way to Windsor Hotel, “but I found there were too many vehicles and the competition was very stiff, so I opted to park in my hood,” said Wangari.

If you take a quick tour of the highway from Uthiru, all the way to Regen and Rungiri, you will see saloon vehicles parked besides the highway, with open boots selling all manner of foodstuffs.

Not far from where Wangari was parked, I met Catherine Nyawira. A professional cateress, her outside catering business was doing fine until coronavirus come knocking. “My vehicle was for delivering supplies. Little did I know I would convert it to car boot market.” Like Wangari, she opted to sell fruits, but with a bias towards pumpkins. “My pumpkins are from Meru, they are best: they are sweet and dry. Good for mothers weaning their babies off breast milk and for babies generally.” The coronavirus had hit her business hard, said Nyawira. “This is the new reality and it’s survival of the fittest.”

For Kennedy Kiarie from Kiambu town, this new reality is very real. He had been working in the hospitality industry as a sales and marketing executive for a leading hotel in Nairobi. Then coronavirus came. Hotels and restaurants were forced to close down. It was only a matter of time before the workers were asked to go home. He was one of the many employees who was asked to leace. His teacher wife’s salary couldn’t take care of the family and so he decided to convert their family car into a car boot sale market. Unlike Wangari, he does not fear the competition on the Eastern bypass: he has been selling fruits and vegetables just after the roundabout on the road heading to Windsor Hotel since April.

As a full-time Uber cab driver, Kimondo had to contend with the ever-increasing competition from traditional taxi cabs as well from other taxi apps. Yet he was not prepared for coronavirus. When it landed in Kenya, it hit him real hard. He found that he could not cope anymore: his clients had dwindled to zero. “With people not travelling, many cab drivers were rendered jobless, I being one of them,” said Kimondo. Kimondo is now growing vegetables like sukuma wiki and spinach in his small plot in the Mushrooms area, just behind Thindigwa. “I didn’t need to think twice. Once my cab business tumbled, I turned to my car and went off to sell my wares on the Eastern bypass on your way to Windsor Hotel”.

In these times of coronavirus, car boot sales have become an adaptation mechanism: they give people an opportunity to earn some hard cash and maintain their sanity. One could also surmise that the car boot market has in the short-term become an integral part of the food distribution network, ensuring that people living under COVID-19 and curfew still get their food supplies.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

The Politics of Self-Harm: Devolution and the Northern ‘Frontier’

For five decades after Kenya’s independence, northern Kenya’s political elite blamed the region’s underdevelopment on the central government’s failure to allocate adequate resources. Yet eight years after devolution, the level of development does not match the resources that have been allocated to the region.

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The Politics of Self-Harm: Devolution and the Northern ‘Frontier’
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COVID-19 has provided a useful lens through which to examine the capacity of counties to cope or break under the stress of this uniquely severe health crisis. While devolution is still nascent and while it must be recognised that no institution could possibly be prepared for a pandemic of this scale, yet even at this early stage a clear pattern is emerging; northern counties are poorly prepared for large-scale epidemics because of large-scale corruption and mismanagement.

When the novel coronavirus hit Kenya, it prompted a national stocktaking. It emerged that in northern Kenya there is only one county with a functionally equipped Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Eight years after devolution; this is an inexcusable dereliction of duty.

For almost 50 years of Kenya’s independence, the stock-in-trade of northern Kenya’s political elite was to blame the region’s underdevelopment on the central government’s failure to allocate adequate resources to the region. Everything could be packed into a convenient single narrative: we are marginalised by the central government. As a result, the political elite hardly took responsibility for their failure.

If marginalisation was caused by the national government’s failure to allocate adequate resources, significant amounts of money have been allocated to the counties under devolution, money which, had it been optimally used, could have transformed the fortunes of these counties.

Devolution as an antidote

Sirkal Saidia, government to the rescue, was the modus operandi of the leadership in northern Kenya, a call mostly made when an official from the national government visited. It was pervasive during President Daniel Moi’s era; at public rallies, a leader’s eloquent narration of the problems facing the area was celebrated and in fact recognised as the hallmark of a good leader.

This turned visits by former president Moi or other powerful political leaders into a spectacle as local leaders attempted to outdo each other in presenting the laundry list of problems afflicting the region. The list would always include a road here, a school there, and a hospital in between, that required fixing through the goodwill of the visiting national government official.

But central to devolution was bringing resources and power to the counties and hence closer to the people. This was heralded as the antidote to the decades of marginalisation. Yet eight years after devolution, the level of development does not match the resources allocated. There are of course areas where things have improved but overall, devolution has merely spawned a phalanx of local extractive “tender mafia networks” that have captured these marginalised counties and continue to subvert the benefits of devolution.

For the average citizen, the only thing that has changed is that their marginalisation now has a local flavour. The money meant for them has created overnight millionaires who are putting up all manner of grotesquely designed vanity projects like multiple-bedroom houses without electricity, marrying second/third wives, and purchasing vehicles worth many times the salaries of county officials. Some are so brazen that they flaunt their newly acquired wealth, a case of eating with their mouths open. 

There are deep parallels between how the Kenyan state was imposed from the top as a control tool, and how the county governments, with a few shrewd “businessmen”, determine what gets done or not. Devolution is moored not to the constitutional provisions or even the needs of the citizens but to these men. Devolution was reimagining governance away from the centralised, colonial, top-down extractive state—which gave way to the centralised post-colonial state— and towards a more bottom-up, people-friendly, accountable model.

But in northern Kenya, that vision has been perverted. The elite are engaged in industrial-scale corruption that makes the corruption of the pre-devolution days look like child’s play. Before devolution, the gripe was that those engaged in corruption were civil servants from southern Kenya who were not locals, for instance, junior civil servants deployed to Marsabit who owned top of the range vehicles which they would park in Isiolo, mwisho wa lami, from where they would be driven to Marsabit by a government driver, (probably a local) in a government vehicle, returning to their cars in Isiolo to drive home at the end of the day.

This was always rationalised as the behaviour of outsiders who cannot be deterred by social shame. But with devolution, and because of the weakness of the county governments, especially the governors, corruption has become deeply entrenched and the prime beneficiaries are the local political elite. In one case, a former governor had the government’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) installed in his bedroom rather than at the county office. This has eroded the trust and legitimacy of county government institutions.

In northern Kenya, as elsewhere, corruption has become the central activity with all its elaborate bureaucracy, processes and structures, and deception is used to make it look like a government process. The present pandemic, combined with a cholera outbreak in one corner, floods in another corner and locusts in yet another, has revealed how ill-prepared the counties are and by the same token also revealed the cost of corruption, leaving the Marsabit, Turkana and Mandera governors with no place to hide.

Northern Kenya counties feature prominently in the list of most corrupt counties produced by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption agency. Four counties in the region consistently among the top 10 most corrupt counties in Kenya when these three forms of corruption are considered: top ten counties by proportion of those who paid bribes, top ten counties by average number of times a bribe was demanded, top 10 counties by average number of times a bribe was paid.

Top 10 counties: Amount paid in bribe

Top 10 counties: Bribe is demanded

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is demanded

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

COVID-19 and the health system in northern Kenya

Reports of a COVID-19 case in Mandera sent a wave of panic across the northern region. This was partly because of the general anxiety around the lack of health facilities, which makes the region a sitting duck because the health infrastructure to deal with even controllable disease outbreaks is non-existent and the resources allocated are missing.

How, despite all these limitations, the people of northern Kenya endure is a story of luck and resilience. As a mode of production, pastoralism has not relied so much on the state’s service provision. Pastoralists have bent the market to their will and survive by sheer grit by developing complex social structures of livestock redistribution systems to cushion themselves.

A certain level of baked-in fatalism in the nomadic lifestyle, some of it often buttressed by an uncritical understanding or a downright misinterpretation of Islam—death is not to be feared—has also emerged. Immediately coronavirus was announced in Kenya, some of the more memorable television interviews were of elderly Cushitic men saying that death was inevitable and so there was no need for alarm. The uncertainties produced by the nomadic environment have made pastoral communities prone to shocks and epidemics which they have recorded in elaborate oral narratives. For example, the Gabra people have recorded all livestock and human diseases in the names of the years the epidemics occurred. Whenever epidemics erupt, past effects and coping mechanisms are revisited.

The ailing health sector

The healthcare infrastructure in most of northern Kenya survived on the benevolence of Christian missionaries’ networks of hospitals, dispensaries, and medical clinics spread across the region. Following devolution, Marsabit county government initially recognised the complementary role of the mission hospital, but as the years went by the county government sought to supplant the missionary investment by building their own hospitals in close proximity. The death of mission hospitals and the emergence of more but poorly equipped, ill-staffed, and poorly managed health facilities have contributed to the conundrum currently facing the north.

The number of dispensaries is a different matter; most of them are not operational. A key medical staffing officer recently acknowledged that Marsabit County alone needs at least 1,000 more staff to operationalise many of its newly built health facilities.

Data shows that northern Kenya has the lowest percentage distribution of health professionals with the number of doctors, nurses, and clinical officers being 2%, 2%, and 5% respectively.

Based on 2009 figures a 2013 survey shows the high vacancy rates in healthcare.

Based on 2009 figures a 2013 survey shows the high vacancy rates in healthcare.

Public health, corruption, and unsound investment

Most of the disease outbreaks in northern Kenya fall within the public health domain rather than clinical or veterinary medicine. Public health in Kenya has suffered since it was collapsed into a department under the Ministry of Health

There have been occasional outbreaks of viral diseases and epidemics in Marsabit county. Ebola, MERS, Rift Valley Fever and Zika virus have also been reported as being present in camels and bats in the vast county. However, the county lacks even the most basic public health infrastructure and in Isiolo, even old quarantine facilities like the Tuberculosis Village have been taken over by the county government. COVID-19 should have found a better health infrastructure. Marsabit takes its blood to Eldoret for testing. Even the limited available health infrastructure is saddled with corruption, poorly prioritised investments, and a lack of a sound turnaround plan which has further compounded the problem.

One year ago, a court ruling froze the account of an Isiolo businessman who had received Sh80 million by defrauding taxpayers allegedly through the construction of two oxygen plants in 2017 “yet no such facility existed in the county”. The deal signed between the Isiolo county government and a private company called Living Goods thus became a serious point of contention. Petitions to the senate committee and several inquiries and amendments later, Living Goods was given the go-ahead to run the community health services in Isiolo County.

In Marsabit, the County Assembly canceled the procurement of two lifts that were to be installed in a hospital that is yet to be built. Eight years after devolution, Kiirua Mission Hospital still runs a special unit for patients from Marsabit County; the number of referrals to the hospital is alarming. The county government has also launched ambitious health-related programmes like the 10,000 households National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) cover, building of health centres and one Level Four Hospital, and the 10 ambulances bought in 2015 at Sh172 million. The NHIF scheme has been largely a PR campaign and the health sector is still ailing.

Isiolo and Garissa Counties each have a Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) but according to Marsabit’s leadership, the two institutions cannot serve Marsabit’s long-term vision of meeting its personnel needs, and so a Sh200 million medical training college is being built in Marsabit County. This project will only be viably operationalised in three to four years but given the lackluster leadership could take much longer.

Services in fits and starts

The health sector is an “essential service”, as evidenced by COVID-19, yet the manner in which devolved units in northern Kenya conceive “development” so far seems to preclude this continuous service provision resulting in a fits-and-starts healthcare service. The construction of big hospitals is a good beginning, but it is also a magnet for corruption. The bigger headache for the health sector in northern Kenya is how to strengthen service provision through the timely purchase of medical supplies, proper management of ambulance services, and proper record keeping. 

The lack of basic health services is a recurring problem in almost all the counties of northern Kenya. In Mandera the county assembly health committee recently decried the lack of very basic health supplies. For a period of 9 months last year, Marsabit County lacked essential medical supplies like painkillers and antibiotics because of a Sh22 million debt to the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). Marsabit joins other countries like Nairobi, Murang’a and Narok, which breached a KEMSA debt repayment agreement.

Despite the chief purpose of devolution being to bring resources closer to the people, vestiges of marginalisation remain; distance from the centre is still a factor hindering the availability of basic health supplies. Stringent government procurement procedures are another obstacle to timely provision of supplies, as well as lack of qualified staff in the region to maintain an inventory of medical needs.

Additionally, despite the development of health service infrastructure, private interest is visible across northern Kenya with private clinics, maternity, and private hospitals run by health personnel most of whom are employed in public hospitals. This blurring of lines between the public sector and the private sector has turned patients into customers or clients, just like at the national level. Moreover, in northern Kenya medical doctors eventually run for elective office; Dr Mohammed Kuti, the governor of Isiolo County is a trained surgeon, and is a member of COVID-19 Control Committee, while his deputy Dr Abdi Ibrahim Issa is a medic. In neighbouring Marsabit, medical doctors ran for office as Members of Parliament.

The challenges facing the northern region are myriad but the issues raised here should not be understood as constituting a case against devolution but rather an argument for better devolution.

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The Fracturing of the Oromo and the Return of the Law and Order State in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s delicate transition is under severe strain. A ferocious burst of communal violence in July, sparked by the murder of a popular Oromo singer, and which claimed more than 200 lives, underscores the grave conflict risks this populous Horn of Africa nation faces.

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The unrest in Oromia is complex. Long-festering grievances, discontent with Prime Minister Abiy’s policies and a deepening fracturing of the Oromo, have combined to create a volatile situation. The escalating divisions, factionalism and contest for supremacy in Oromia packs enough destabilising power to upend PM Abiy’s transition.

Urgent steps must be taken to mend the intra-Oromo rift, improve inter-ethnic relations, and put regional and national politics on a less combustible course.

A mystery killing

The killing of the singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June triggered a bout of violence and protest, the worst since Abiy came to power in April 2018. A week of communal clashes in Addis Ababa, the capital, and in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous federal state, left close to 300 people dead. Protests engulfed much of Oromia and spread quickly to several cities with large Ethiopian diaspora communities in North America and Europe.

Businesses owned by non-Oromos were looted and shops torched. The government imposed a curfew, shut down the internet, rounded up dozens of opposition leaders and stepped up the brutal security crackdown in Oromia.

The deaths, mayhem and destruction were not inevitable; in hindsight, it is not too difficult to see how a measured, sensitive and less heavy-handed state response could have produced a different outcome.

By failing to institute an open and credible commission of inquiry into the death of Hachalu, coming out with inconsistent statements barely hours after the killings, and arresting opposition leaders, the government simply reinforced mistrust and inflamed sentiments.

The Ethiopian government has since lifted the internet ban and eased restrictions on movement. A semblance of normality is returning to many parts of Oromia. But tensions still remain high and ethnic relations are increasingly toxic.

Much of the current tense and ominous stand-off can be attributed to the series of missteps and knee-jerk responses by the federal authorities. But these factors, in of themselves, cannot explain the speed at which the situation deteriorated. Even without Hachalu’s death and the violent aftermath, a showdown seemed inevitable. To understand why, an analysis of the wider context is necessary.

From accommodation to coercive containment

The crisis in Oromia is emblematic of the inherent tensions, contradictions, and disjuncture between two forms of politics – the “vernacularised” and the national.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

Prime Minister Abiy inherited a dysfunctional state that had run out of road and was desperate for a new direction. Years of rolling mass protests in Oromia and Amhara states had brought the nation to a political impasse.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

The EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), once a strong and progressive party, had run out of steam and ideas; deeply riven by factionalism and power struggles. These divisions mirrored wider cleavages in society and the resurgence of competing ethno-nationalisms.

The economy was on the ropes, done in by a combination of frenetic growth, expensive infrastructure modernisation and unsustainable debt. The treasury barely had enough foreign reserves to cover a month’s worth of exports.

The challenges before the new PM were both complex and difficult. Over and above the onerous task of consolidating power, stabilising the economy, reforming politics and putting the transition on a solid footing, Abiy had to grapple with the weight of public expectations.

Abiy’s administration in the first few months in office was characterised by a conspicuously Oromo theme. The premier ditched the suit for the flowing white cotton Oromo outfit. He treated visiting dignitaries to lavish banquets at which Oromo chefs laid out the finest of traditional cuisines. He gave away horses to special state guests.

This overt display of Oromo pride was deliberate and went down well in Oromia. Beyond winning the hearts and minds of his people, the strategy had the potential to help him build a solid ethnic, regional support base, which is crucial in an ethnicised political system.

But to establish credibility and earn the trust of his Oromo ethnic group, the PM needed to do more. He released political prisoners, among them prominent Oromo leaders. He appointed a record number of Oromos to key posts in the cabinet, the army and the security services. He unbanned the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), reached out to exiled activists and facilitated their return home.

Consolidating Oromo support proved more complicated for the PM. Despite his popularity, he had to contend with a diverse array of factions and personalities with local and national political ambitions, and, in some instances, with a large following and influence.

Roots of Oromo nationalism and discontent

The Oromo are the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and make up roughly two-fifths (about 40 million) of Ethiopia’s total population of more than 100 million. They inhabit a vast geographical territory and are dispersed across much of south, central and western Ethiopia, as well as across the border in Kenya. Sub-families of the Oromo, such as the Boran, Gabra, Burji, Orma, live in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo and Tana River.

However, this sheer demographic size did not translate into political and economic power. The Oromos’ history has been one of marginalisation and exploitation.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

The Oromo are not monolithic. They are the most internally-diverse of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, with sub-groups differentiated by significant linguistic, religious and cultural variations.

These factors in turn inflect political dynamics and ways in which communities respond to political pressures

Dispersal over vast territories, diversity and heterogeneity makes Oromo society uniquely pluralistic and the least insular of all the ethnicities found in Ethiopia. These traits have been a major source of strength but also weakness.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

Religious pluralism, historically manifested in the peaceful cohabitation between different faith systems (Islam, Christianity and the ancestral faith, Waqqeffana), makes Oromo society the least prone to religious bigotry and militancy. It also explains why hard line strains of Salafi Islam have found Oromia unconducive to put down roots. This culture of tolerance is now under strain from evangelical proselytism and encroachment.

Divisive political co-optation tactics by state and rival political factions feed off these rich diversities within Oromo society and drive much of the tensions and fragmentations we are seeing today in Oromia.

No subject polarises Ethiopia today more than Oromo ethno-nationalism. The bloody violence and protests in the wake of Hachalu’s killing have made the debate even more heated, emotive and divisive.

To understand the drivers of Oromo discontent and nationalism, to untangle the underlying trends and dynamics, and to plot the potential future trajectory, it is critical for policy makers to widen their analytical lens and develop deeper contextual insights into its specificity.

Complexity

Oromo nationalism, not unlike other nationalisms, is complex and dynamic. It is fed by multiple streams, taps into a reservoir of potent, accumulated grievances and draws energy and sustenance from a rich repository of cultural memory and aspiration. The latter point is important, not least, because there is a misperception it is primarily/wholly driven by politics.

In fact, the political manifestation of Oromo nationalism is fairly recent and comes off the back of decades of struggle for cultural freedoms. Key demands of the Oromo cultural revivalist movement included the right to accord Afaan Oromo the same official privileges as Amharic and the freedom to openly observe traditional rituals (such as Irreecha).

Pride in Oromo identity and the need to affirm it inspired generations of young people. Hachalu was, therefore, the spokesman of this new generation – a proud, unapologetic and self-confident Oromo. His popular song Jirra struck a chord because its lyrics encapsulated those aspirations in one simple and powerful line: We are here!

It is worth bearing in mind that all ethno-nationalisms are forms of myth-making, constructed around romanticised notions of the past and links with a self-defined ancestral homeland, and impelled by powerful emotions.

Narrative

The current debate about Oromo nationalism comes against the backdrop of an increasingly febrile and polarised political climate. The language of discourse, reflecting these tensions, is emotionally charged and adversarial; much of the discussions, invariably, are as simplistic as they are decontextualised. More disconcerting is the fact that public opinion is increasingly being shaped by misperception – a narrative of mutual “othering” and demonisation.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence. This is especially the case among smaller ethnic groups that have borne the brunt of targeted violence.

The debate about the Oromo has assumed a reductionist dimension and is dominated by essentialism – a tendency to ascribe a category of problematic and negative “essences” to the ethnic group and its politics.

This strain of Oromophobia is now largely driven by an amorphous group of old elites, loosely described as neftegna. The term is controversial and contested. The animating force of the neftegna ideology is a set of exaggerated “patriotic” ideas that revolve around the imperative to preserve Ethiopia as a single, strong, centralised state. The Christian character of the Ethiopian state, though less accentuated, forms an essential part of the narrative repertoire.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence.

Oromo discontent in recent months has been inflamed by perception PM Abiy has bought into aspects of the neftegna narrative. Even if not true, the PM’s rhetorical appropriation of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianness) and the strident airplay it is getting on state media is polarising. It is a divisive term; a throwback to the imperial age when it was instrumentalised to subjugate and control Oromos.

There is nothing exotic about Oromo nationalism and protest. The sense of alienation, disillusionment and grievances activists articulate have their roots in real material conditions. The primary engine feeds on long-festering socio-economic and political factors – massive unemployment, wealth and income disparities, elite-driven land grabs, corruption and youth aspiration.

Ethno-nationalism and violence

There is no doubt that violent ethno-nationalism constitutes Ethiopia’s gravest threat in the short to medium term.

The last two years saw a resurgence of volatile strains of ethnic identity politics in Ethiopia that ratcheted up inter-communal tensions and stoked violence.

The most serious of these conflicts were in Oromia-Somali Regional State (SRS) borders, Oromia-Afar regional state borders, the Guji Oromo-Gedeo community border areas, the Amhara-Gumuz regional state borders, the Oromo-Benishangul Gumuz regional state borders, and the Oromo special zones in Amhara region. Hundreds were killed and the violence triggered waves of fresh displacements, one of the worst in the country’s history, bringing the number of IDPs to over 3 million in early 2019.

The upsurge in violence is not surprising. While much of it could be attributed to the disruptive power of Abiy’s speedy dismantling and opening up of the old state, subsequent state response played a significant role in compounding the crisis.

State-driven violence is a major contributor to localised violence in Oromia. Aggressive and hostile policing, mass arrest of activists, and indiscriminate and disproportionate use of lethal force to quell protests have all combined to create a combustible environment of siege that stokes counter-violence.

Oromo fracture

Oromia is today more deeply divided and unstable than it has ever been in decades. The region is now both an incubator (generating destabilising currents outward) and a barometre (to gauge the undercurrents of unresolved tensions in PM Abiy’s transition).

That the worst fracturing of the Oromo is occurring in a state led by an Oromo prime minister is ironic, and, arguably, an indictment. But before delving into the causes, two general pointers are worth noting.

First, Oromo politics was, and is, never monolithic. The region’s politics have always had a distinctly localised flavour, influenced mostly by a whole host of “structural” factors: strong sub-group loyalties and identities, geography, and an inter-generational divide.

Second, a convergence of two powerful political homogenising trends – one driven by national imperatives, the other by a “vernacularised” politics of resistance – aggravates the situation.

The multiple splits in Oromia partly reflect old regional cleavages. The traditional regional rivalry (Gaanduumma) between Bale and Arsi Oromos (the latter predominantly Muslims) now appears more pronounced. The Bale-Arsi rivalry constitutes a potentially dangerous fissure, in large part because it is assuming religious dimensions and is likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

There is also an emerging three-way split, partly animated by traditional regional identity politics but also stoked by intra-elite contestation: the Wollaga (where Lemma Megersa is from); Shewa (the seat of the Oromia regional state), and Jimma (home region of PM Abiy).

Abiy-Jawar rivalry

The power struggle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist and founder of Oromia Media Network, has in the last one year moved to the centre of Oromia’s unsettled politics. The intensifying battle for supremacy between the two men is the single most potent wedge factor currently feeding intra-Oromo fragmentation.

PM Abiy and Jawar were not always adversaries. Jawar’s media outlets and influential social media presence were instrumental in fomenting and directing the popular protests that eventually catapulted Abiy to power. The two men fell out quickly after Jawar returned from exile in the United States, began building his own political base and turned into the premier’s most vocal critic.

Abiy and Jawar share a common interest. They have national leadership ambitions and a desire to consolidate Oromo support ahead of the next elections. A solid ethnic constituency is a great advantage in an ethnicised political system, but even more crucial in competitive politics if it translates into votes.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

Jawar seems to enjoy significant advantage over Abiy in the contest for Oromo hearts and minds. His popularity has soared since he teamed up with Bekele Gerba, a widely respected Oromo politician, to lead the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). Unlike the PM, he is on the ground and not distracted by juggling competing priorities. He is more adept at grassroots politics and his “vernacularised” brand of politics has huge traction with a broad cross-section of Oromos disenchanted with state policies. This is especially true of the youth movement, Qeerroo.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

More important, Jawar’s initiatives to repair Oromo divisions and to intervene in easing localised tensions and conflicts endeared him to many Oromos. This contrasted with Abiy’s top-down approach and co-optation strategies that catalysed divisions. The PM’s use of mass arrests and draconian security crackdowns to undermine Jawar’s support base have, so far, not only been unsuccessful, but have also generated widespread resentment.

Their differences have progressively widened in recent months, but whether they have solidified into an organic ideological and policy split is debatable.

Federalism

The ethnic federalism model in Ethiopia still remains hugely popular. Bigger ethnicities see it as a system that protects their interests and privileges; the smaller ones see it as the only viable route out of marginalisation.

Much of the disenchantment with the system in recent years is driven by perceptions that it had become hollowed out, conferred no meaningful autonomy, bred its own inequities and stoked inter-ethnic tensions and violence. Yet, the preference, it would seem, of many, is reform, not dismantlement.

PM Abiy’s ambivalent and initial mild aversion to ethnic federalism seems to have hardened – rhetorically, at least – in the last one year. The PM is instinctively a centralist and the recent lurch into the traditional default narrative of his predecessors did not come as surprise. There was always an implicit anti-federalism tenor to his rhetoric and a bias for a centralised state.

But what alienates Oromos more than the PM’s views on federalism is the strident patriotic messaging that now accompanies it – on the imperative for a united and strong law and order state. This type of discourse tends to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with the “assimilationist nationalism” of the past.

The prime minister’s dissenting views on the issue of ethnic federalism seem not to have evolved much since 2018. In practice, his approach has shifted, somewhat. Whether due to electoral calculations, realism and political opportunism (understandable in an election year), he does appear more accommodating than many had expected.

The creation of Sidama Regional State, Ethiopia’s 10th ethnic federal state, in late 2019 may lend credence to this tentative “softening”, even though it is worth pointing out that the process to establish the state has been in train for many years.

Abiy’s anxiety about Jawar stems, partly, from awareness of his vulnerability on the ethnic federalism question. By being strong on federalism and making it a central plank of his national campaign, Jawar was in effect signaling intent to leverage his competitive advantage to the maximum.

Arrest

Jawar is loved and loathed in equal measure. Despite his huge popularity in Oromia, he has struggled to develop an appealing national profile and support base. His critics continue to exploit some of his past incendiary rhetoric and links with the Qeerroo to paint him as a narrow ethno-nationalist bigot wedded to violence.

His potential to grow into a national leader and his electoral prospects ought not to be discounted. He was beginning to develop links with opposition groups beyond Oromia. Crucially, his strong focus on federalism attracted national attention and galvanised important ethnic constituencies.

The arrest of Jawar on 30 June, and his trial, which is likely to last months (and possibly years if he is convicted), gives the Ethiopian prime minister the space and time, potentially, to reconfigure Oromo politics. This is a prospect almost certain to be complicated, if not likely to fail.

First, Jawar’s popularity has not waned; if anything, it has increased. Second, the massive security clampdown and campaign of mass arrests of opposition activists and leaders has dented the PM and tilted Oromia into a less sympathetic political terrain.

OLF splits

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), its ambitions, and, increasingly, radical brand of politics, adds another volatile and complicated layer to the fractured politics and insecurity in Oromia. The ex-insurgency’s combatants and commanders returned home in September 2018 under a general amnesty and negotiations facilitated by Eritrea. A botched integration process served as the initial spark that ignited open dissent against the regional and national government. This quickly morphed into a low-grade conflict, pitting regional troops supported by federal troops against armed factions of the OLF in late 2018.

The OLF’s swift transition from an ally of the Abiy government to an adversary can be attributed to several factors. The amnesty deal negotiated in Asmara was vague and done in haste. Important issues were either overlooked or not properly addressed. As a result, trust broke down quickly. Disputes over the troop integration process and the latitude of political freedoms allowed to its the leadership soon became problematic wedge issues.

A series of failed talks, peace pacts and mediation led by deeply-riven traditional Abba Gadda councils between November 2018 and April 2019 tipped the stalemate into a full-blown crisis and put the ex-insurgency on a fatal collision course with the federal government.

The decision by the OLF leader, Daud Ibsa, to join other opposition politicians and the youth movement, Qeerroo, and coalesce around a common Pan-Oromo platform under the umbrella of the Oromo Federalist Congress (led by Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba) was deemed especially threatening to both regional and national governments.

In response, Addis deployed heavy fire power to subdue the OLF dissidents. This made a bad situation worse, fomented the further breakup of the OLF into small competing splinter factions, made engagement and peaceful settlement difficult and compounded the overall security situation.

Regional spillover

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya. The immediate risk is massive displacement and a new humanitarian crisis in the Kenyan districts of Moyale, Marsabit and Isiolo.

It is also likely that conflict fragmentation in Oromia could lead gradually to proliferation of armed criminal syndicates. There are already many armed smuggling syndicates operating on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya.

Kenya worries in particular about the possibility of Oromia’s serious rifts sowing divisions within sub-groups of its own large Boran population.

Recommendations

The crisis in Oromia is complex, serious, and multi-layered, and its causes and drivers are varied. Left to fester, it certainly will become intractable, result in large-scale violence and undo PM Abiy’s wobbly transition.

The federal government, the Oromia regional administration, traditional authorities, political parties and civil society need to take concerted urgent action to defuse the crisis.

Below are some of the key areas where sensible and pragmatic policy interventions and change could make a big difference and mitigate risks:

  1. Put ethno-nationalisms on a benign course
    Oromo nationalism is inflamed and risks becoming virulent. It feeds off Oromia’s mass disillusionment, acute grievances and multiple fracturing. But the single biggest aggravating factor risking to radicalise it and put it on a violent course is state response (a self-fulfilling prophecy). To mellow Oromo nationalism, the following steps are worth considering:
  • A Pan-Oromo conference to de-escalate tensions, repair social cohesion, rebuild trust and address the roots of fragmentation;
  • A follow-up inclusive national conference with representatives from all ethnicities to improve relations, foster dialogue, and end mutually hostile narratives, demonisation.
  1. Invest more in conflict resolution and peacebuilding
    Ethiopia’s disappointing record in resolving and managing localised conflicts in Oromia highlights a number of crucial lessons. First, the state-driven, top-down conflict-resolution model is ineffective, and often conflict-inducing. It bureaucratises peacebuilding, diminishes local buy-in, sows social divisions, and imposes unsustainable settlements.Second, traditional councils of elders, when given sufficient autonomy and not co-opted by the state, are the most effective agencies with credibility to mediate and resolve conflicts. To improve outcomes, the federal government ought to:
  • Reduce its role, allow influential grassroots groups to take lead in local peacebuilding initiatives, allocate resources to sustain them;
  • Promote greater inclusivity in peace councils by encouraging credible elders, faith leaders to join;
  • Establish a national conflict advisory to monitor local unrest, improve knowledge on conflict drivers and provide early warning to regional and national governments.
  1. End state violence and repression
    Prime Minister Abiy has turned the crisis in Oromia into a law and order problem. His pursuit of lethal force to suppress Oromo dissent, the draconian curbs on media freedom and free expression, internet shutdowns, and mass arrests have put the region and the whole country on a perilous course. Unless there is a fundamental shift in Abiy’s current posture and renewed efforts to promote pluralism, inclusivity, civil liberties, and dialogue in Oromia, the situation will worsen. In concrete terms the government must:
  • Free all political prisoners arrested recently;
  • Pull out troops from Oromia and end all military operations;
  • Stop aggressive and hostile policing, and invest more in training police on de-escalation techniques.
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Politics

Cyberbullying: The Digital Pandemic

Global emerging trends suggest that cyberbullying is now recognised as a serious threat not just to the physical health of people, but also to their emotional well-being. Social network spheres in Kenya and around the world have become the new frontiers for not just gender-based and sexual violence, but also for the expression of toxic, patriarchal and violent masculinities.

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Cyberbullying: The Digital Pandemic
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Throughout the world, cyberbullying (the use of the internet and/or mobile technology to harass, intimidate or cause harm to another person) and online harassment have emerged as a new pandemic with devastating consequences for a wide spectrum of people, including children and adults, the powerful and the powerless, celebrities and media personalities.

The ever-growing and fast expanding reach of the internet, coupled with the rapid spread of information and communication technology (ICT), as well as the wide diffusion of social media globally, have presented new opportunities and challenges to online users. In fact, technology as we know it today is fraught with the good, the bad and the ugly. This technological revolution could rightly be described as a “double edged” sword, where the user is continuously balancing between risks and opportunities.

On the one hand, this technological revolution has shrunk our world into a global village where people can easily connect, share, and engage in conversations about issues that concern them. It can be used to support and fundraise for important global and national causes, create and inspire social movements like the blacklivesmattermovement, Metoomovement, Bringbackourgirls for the public and global good, and mobilise the world for humanitarian action, such as coming together to help the Haiti earthquake victims.

On the other hand, it has exposed the invisible evil world of cyberbulling and online harassment that have wrecked lives, caused deep pain and hurt to millions of online users, destroyed relationships, and affected people’s integrity, health, well-being and career development. It is increasingly becoming apparent that cyberspaces have become violent and ungovernable civic spheres.

Technological advancements have led to the emergence of new forms of violence, such as online trolling, sexual harassment and gender-based technologically-driven violence against both men and women, although women and young girls are particularly on the receiving end because they are more vulnerable. Cyberspaces are today characterised by online anonymity. Technologically-mediated violence nowadays is performed using electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and computers.

While gender-driven sexual violence is viewed as the norm by many people, this traditional form of violence has recently gained a new space and currency and is now part of the online violent experience. Traditionally, bullying had been a preserve of school compounds and sports arenas, but it has now moved to media spaces where online anonymity allows bullies to hound their prey with their predator tactics unperturbed. Bullying is a form of abuse that is based on an imbalance of power. In fact, it can be defined as the systemic abuse of power.

Bullying is often defined as an aggressive, intentional act or behaviour that is carried out by a group or an individual repeatedly over time and space, against a victim who cannot defend himself or herself.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, is a form of bullying that has recently become more apparent as the use of electronic gadgets continues to expand. Here, it is defined as the intentional use of the internet and social media platforms to degrade, demean, belittle and embarrass another person. It employs electronic forms of contact and can take many forms that include, but are not limited to, unwanted trolls, sharing of unwelcome content, sexual harassment or threats of sexual violence, such as threats of rape, cyberstalking, body shaming, sending or publishing or sharing of nude pictures, death threats, hate speech, and professional sabotage with the aim of stripping someone of their sexual or personal integrity.

Bullying is a form of abuse that is based on an imbalance of power. In fact, it can be defined as the systemic abuse of power.

Global emerging trends suggest that cyberbullying is now recognised as a serious threat not just to the physical health of people, but also to their emotional well-being. Yet, despite much awareness about this serious challenge, it seems that the problem will continue to grow if no concerted effort is taken by the relevant authorities.

Cyberbullying in Kenya

In the past one and half decade or so, Kenya has undergone a significant ICT revolution. Kenya has been ranked as the second leading innovation hub in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa, according to the 2019 Global Innovation Index. Similarly, internet penetration in Kenya currently stands at 90 per cent, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA). Broadband internet take-up, as of September 2017, rose by more than 14 per cent. Consequently, the number of internet users has increased from 45.5 million to 51 million users, with the popularity of mobile internet being the biggest factor behind this meteoric rise and expansion.

Thanks to increased internet connectivity across the country, more Kenyans than ever before are using social media platforms to share, communicate, interact and generate important conversations on topical issues in the Kenyan public sphere. According to a survey conducted by the Google Consumer Barometer, about 90 per cent of Kenyans go online to visit social networks platforms, which include Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Snap Chat and Twitter, among others. In addition, 80 per cent of Kenyans use the internet to check emails and access instant message services.

The ever-growing and expanding appropriation of the internet and other communication technologies in Kenya and across the African continent has, unfortunately, led to the proliferation of cyberbullying. While cyberbullying is on the rise globally, in countries with weak policies like Kenya, it is becoming a nightmare for many people.

In April 2020, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked Kenyans as “the worst bullies on Twitter”. In the UNODC survey, Kenyans were described as having the capacity to “come together and attack their common enemies, as well as deconstructing both real and perceived enemies”. The survey stated that Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) will attack anybody – the famous and the-not-so-famous “with little regard for truth, fact or any benefit of doubt that can be given”.

The survey further observed that “various brands like CNN and New York Times now have to think twice before they tweet about Kenya”, and noted that “today no country dares start an online feud with Kenyans unless they have a well-functioning mental healthcare system”. Countries that have suffered the wrath of the #KOT army include China, Nigeria and South Africa.

Like all other forms of violence that are prevalent in Kenya, including gender-based, sexual and political violence, cyberbullying is not only rife, but continues to thrive in Kenya’s ungovernable online space, even as it keeps evolving.

The survey further observed that “various brands like CNN and New York Times now have to think twice before they tweet about Kenya”, and noted that “today no country dares start an online feud with Kenyans unless they have a well-functioning mental healthcare system”.

Academics, business leaders, the clergy, female leaders, judicial officers, media personalities, politicians, performing artists and senior government officials, among others, have all been cyberbullied by faceless predators who hide behind their anonymous identities.

#KOT cyberbullies are notorious for having harassed a wide spectrum of Kenyans. Some of the more well-known Kenyans who have been victims of cyberbullying include Chief Justice David Maraga, who has been trolled and bullied online. Chief Justice Maraga recently shared his frustration about trolls and bloggers who torment public figures by portraying them negatively with a view to destroying not just their integrity, but also their careers. #KOT also ran President Uhuru Kenyatta out of town, forcing him to close his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

While oftentimes such trolls and memes on public personalities tend to be hilarious, even entertaining, much of the bullying take the form of personalised attacks, which are humiliating and vicious. Hence, cyberbullying crosses the line between freedom of expression and human rights and ethics.

Why are people so mean?

Current research suggests that the youth, especially young women, are most vulnerable to cyberbullying, with 6 to 10 per cent of women and men in developing countries aged between 18 to 24 years who regularly use the internet indicating that they had suffered online abuse at one time or another.

Why are cyberspaces becoming such violent, unsafe and ungovernable arenas? Why are people being so mean to each other? How can we understand and explain cyberbullying?

Firstly, bullying and violence are a normalised part of our public and private culture. As bullies used to be found in schools, they now seem to have relocated to cybernetics, where the anonymity of this space has enabled these “keyboard warriors” to wreck peoples’ lives. The motivating factors of cyberbullying could be anger, boredom, frustrations, jealousy, revenge, or the fact that some bullies derive pleasure from hurting other people.

With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns that have trapped many people in their homes, cyberbullying seems to have spiralled. Therapists and psychologists are pointing to the increased mental health issues relating to anger, anxiety and stress that are being experienced by a wide spectrum of people cocooned in their houses. Already the UN, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Kenya Police have sounded the alarm about increased levels of domestic and sexual violence.

Cyberviolence against women and girls could be considered a pandemic that now affects one in three women who are said to have experienced some form of cyberbullying and online harassment, according to recent studies. A study commissioned by the African Development Bank suggests that up to 70 per cent of women have endured cyberviolence and that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.

Studies further suggest that while more males are exposed to cyberbullying related to physical aggression, more females are victims of cyberbullying that includes non-consensual sharing of intimate images, unsolicited sending of sexual and pornographic images and other forms of cyberbullying that entails sexualised behaviour.

Of the several women that I interviewed between the ages of 20 and 35, more than half of them said they had been, in one way or another, victims of cyberbullying and online harassment. They said people, both unknown to them as well those they knew (mostly ex-partners) posted their pictures online without their consent. Others intimated that men solicited for sexual favours online and when they were refused, they verbally and sexually abused or threated their victims online.

A study commissioned by the African Development Bank suggests that up to 70 per cent of women have endured cyberviolence and that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.

The young men I interviewed also spoke about being cyberbullied sexually and verbally by their jilted female lovers, who either threatened or actually published their intimate photos for revenge. One told me that he actually paid his ex-girlfriend money to take down what she had published, but this only helped to open up a new avenue for extortion and threats of further postings every time she needed money, forcing him to finally report her to the police.

Sexualised cyberbullying

Why are women’s bodies sexualized and demeaned not just by Kenyan society but globally? More importantly, why is this oftentimes not just tolerated, but also increasingly normalised?

There are several explanations for this: Violence against women is gendered as it is rooted in stereotypes about gender roles, sexuality and sexual norms for women. For example, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images or the threat to share such images is meant to humiliate and intimidate women. This occurs in the context of the patriarchal sexual double standard, which unfairly judges women – but not men – for enjoying their sexuality. It is often a coercive method used for controlling behaviour in on-going relationships that is breaking down or has ended.

Secondly, the underlying cause of violence inflicted through cyber-meditated violence lies in the hierarchical nature of how gender is socially structured. More importantly, it is disdain for women with voice, power and agency. At the same time, men’s disdain for feminism, which most of them do not critically understand, has pitted them against women. In short, violence and bullying are generally strongly linked with gender dynamics and sexuality and their construction and on-going contestations in the public sphere. The normalisation of male violence against women and girls, as well as the restrictive expectations about women and girls, are some of the key drivers of sexualized cyberbullying and online harassment of women.

There are clear gendered differences in the harassment itself. Men are largely attacked for their opinions but women are attacked for their gender, sexuality and appearance. The recent cases of Brenda Cherotich and Brian Orinda, who were alleged to have survived COVID-19 and became the face of survival in a pandemic that has scared the hell out of many people, were both heavily trolled on Twitter. Brenda’s case immediately assumed sexual overtones with sexual and nude pictures of Brenda circulated online. When TV personality Yvonne Okwara Matole spoke against this sexual violence against Brenda, she too was personally and sexually attacked. She was body shamed, trolled and bullied for speaking up against the rampant sexual violence against women and girls in Kenyan society.

Why is the cyberbullying and online harassment of women and girls sexualized? Well, it is simply a question of power relations and who holds the power at the time. It is not only men who are responsible for gendered harassment and it is not always directed at women; it is about one group experiencing loss of status and power to another group. Kenyan women are emerging and contesting not just political power, but economic, social and cultural power as well.

Bullying someone in a sexual manner is a typical and highly effective master oppression technique. Threats of sexual violence have always been about power, as well as a sign of a change of status between men and women. Today, many women are increasingly gaining a voice and agency, and are participating in public debates and conversations on various issues, such as governance, human rights and leadership. This certainly has given them visibility in the public sphere, including in media spaces, to the chagrin of misogynists.

These prejudices hinder women’s participation in public discourses and processes as many cower, self-censor, and in some instances, totally withdraw from public, civic and social media spaces. To properly combat cyberbullying, the government needs to recognise that technology-based violence is the new arena that is preventing women from achieving their full potential.

The experience of bullying is intensified in cyberspace because the perpetrator can hide behind a screen name and can act unhindered without fear of reprisal. In addition, the arena for the bullying is not just a playground, but part of a huge cyberspace spanning countries, cultures and even times.

A sharp rise in technology-related violence against women and its normalisation have made the internet a gendered space. Social network spheres, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat, are the new frontiers for not just gender-based and sexual violence, but also for the expression of toxic, patriarchal and violent masculinities. These social network spaces have become a nightmare for many people, especially women and girls.

A baseline report by the Kenya ICT Action Network on the challenges faced by Kenyan women on the internet lists non-consent, distribution of intimate images, sexual harassment, stalking, hate, offensive comments and body shaming as some of the most prominent violations of women’s rights and well-being. Female journalists between the ages of 25 and 35 are twice as exposed to cyberbullying and threats than their male counterparts.

Bullying someone in a sexual manner is a typical and highly effective master oppression technique. Threats of sexual violence have always been about power, as well as a sign of a change of status between men and women.

A 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) indicated that online societies judge women politicians more harshly than they do male politicians. The study suggested that on social media, women politicians were at the receiving end of sexual comments, with their appearance and marital status often being the subject of discussions on gauging their fitness for public office.

Cyberbullying puts a premium on emotional health, personal and workplace time and resources. The impacts of cyberbullying on women are psychological, social, physical, emotional, and economic. Anxiety and self-esteem affect young women in particular. For one, many younger women internalise this by self-objectifying themselves as either beautiful or ugly, or as an object to be looked or evaluated on the basis of their appearance. This has many consequences for the mental and emotional well-being of young women and girls who more often than not grapple with issues of self-esteem and confidence in a heavily patriarchal society that does not value women very much.

Enlarging women’s online engagement

Digital technologies offer people innovative ways to get involved in politics and governance issues. From receiving instant news notifications on political developments to engaging in online debates and discourses and expressing personal opinions on a wide array of issues, social media can enhance the political and civic engagement of women in a way that traditional media cannot.

Social media platforms allows women to speak up. They are the only forum where women have control and space. Other spaces for civic engagement may not always be welcoming of women’s voices. Thus digital spaces can be both empowering and dangerous for women. They can be spaces for mobilisation, for the formation of voice and agency, but they can also be spaces fraught with abuse and violence.

Cyberbullying, therefore, restricts the civic opportunities offered by digitisation. It restricts women from having a voice and agency online. Young people, especially young women, are hence discouraged and put off from taking part in political discussions and online debates and conversations.

In contrast, young men are more politically active online, posting their comments liberally, and reading and sharing articles on social networks, thus contributing to robust conversations on social and political happenings and discourses. Social media allows women and men to voice their opinion on a wide array of socio-economic political and cultural issues. With thousands of online resources posted every minute, social media could be a potential educatiional platform, especially when used responsibly.

However, cyberbullying or abuse has to be prevented so that women can fully participate in conversations about governance and human rights, among other topics affecting them. Participation of women, especially young women whose voices are less heard, could be important, not just for their visibility, but also for civic engagement. Women will only navigate their voice and agency if civic spaces like social media are made safe for them.

There is no gainsaying that social media has become an important tool for social and professional advancement, more so for women. Many women have built their businesses online and in the process have learned how to connect with others. Many find clients to buy and sell their products online. Others find platforms to incubate ideas, leading to hundreds if not millions of social enterprises that not only spur economic growth but directly empower young men and women economically. They have also learned how to improve their entrepreneurship skills online. No doubt then, social media has emerged as a great space to do business. This is important for women’s economic empowerment and visibility.

But the internet needs to be a safe place to enable young people to express their opinions and build their careers and social enterprises. Given that it is nearly impossible to govern gender- and sexual-based cyberviolence, such as cyberbullying and online harassment, without stepping on peoples’ civic liberties, including freedom of expression, it is important to rethink safe civic spaces for everyone, especially women and girls.

Cyberbullying and online harassment must not be normalised but must be fought to create a safe place for respectful, civil, ethical and lawful online conversations. However, this can only happen if online spaces could engender conversations that rethink the toxic masculine, patriarchal, and hypersexualized social and gendered norms about women and girls that currently prevail in Kenyan society.

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