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Manufacturing a Crisis: How the Executive Is Failing the Judiciary

9 min read.

Efforts by Kenya’s Executive to undermine the Judiciary point to a regime that is intent on concentrating decision-making power within itself. Part of the reason why the Judiciary is under pressure is because Parliament is not playing its constitutionally-mandated role in checking the Executive’s power.

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On 8 June 2020, the head of the Judiciary in Kenya, Chief Justice David Maraga, publicly accused the Executive and President Uhuru Kenyatta of grave constitutional violations, including disregarding court orders, failing to approve the appointment of new judges, and generally acting in a manner likely to suggest that the president’s agenda was to diminish the stature of the Judiciary.

In mid-2019 the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) recommended 41 individuals to be appointed a judges to the president. The JSC is an independent constitutional commission that was created to ensure the independence and accountability of the Judiciary, to oversee judicial appointments, as well as to receive and investigate complaints against judges. The JSC was set up in response to a long history of the Executive’s dominance over the Judiciary.

To date, none of the 41 recommended individuals has been appointed. The Executive cites integrity questions as regards some of them, as well as sitting judges, saying that he is not a mere rubber stamp for the JSC. The Judiciary, on its part, maintains that under the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, the president has no power to refuse names recommended to him by the JSC, that the Executive is attempting to claw back powers taken away from it by the constitution, and that the delay in effecting the appointments is one of several measures the Executive has undertaken to undermine the Judiciary’s efficacy.

Legal commentators have pointed to the centrality of the Supreme Court in resolving election disputes and discerned intent by the Executive to fill the Judiciary with appointments that are more in line with its point of view. The Executive has defended its position by pointing the finger back saying that the Judiciary is the author of its own misfortunes, often citing a historical legacy of case backlogs, on the one hand, and delays in prosecution of corruption cases brought by the Executive, on the other.

Why is this happening now?

In a potent and unprecedented display of judicial independence and might, the Supreme Court of Kenya famously annulled the 2017 presidential election and ordered a re-run. The incumbent’s laudable acceptance of the judgement was nonetheless beset with ominous overtones directed at the Judiciary to the effect that there would come a time of reckoning. Subsequent behaviour and public statements by the Executive indicate a perception on its part that the Judiciary is a hotbed of activists rather than neutral arbiters. Furthermore the Executive has accused the Judiciary of being a hindrance to its efforts in fighting corruption, a matter this author has previously discussed.

Efforts by Kenya’s Executive to undermine the Judiciary point to a regime that is intent on concentrating decision-making power within itself. Part of the reason why the Judiciary is under pressure is because Parliament is not playing its constitutionally-mandated role in checking the Executive’s power.

Public spats between the two branches of government are surprising given the existence of formal mechanisms of communication. The National Commission on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) is a high level co-ordination mechanism established by statute whose members include the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecution. That these parties have often chosen to ventilate their differences through the mass media is indicative of a communications breakdown.

Furthermore, as a result of the political détente between Uhuru Kenyatta and his main rival-turned-collaborator, Raila Odinga (popularly known as “the handshake”), there does not currently exist an effective opposition in Kenyan democracy. As a result, it would appear that the Judiciary is the last remaining institution capable of standing up to the Executive, keeping it honest and maintaining checks and balances. However, the Judiciary is not adept at playing political games. It communicates mainly through judgments which are long, complex and take a long time to emerge. As such, it is likely to suffer in any public conflict with the Executive, which has a well-oiled public relations machine adept at swaying public opinion.

Public spats between the two branches of government are surprising given the existence of formal mechanisms of communication…That these parties have often chosen to ventilate their differences through the mass media is indicative of a communications breakdown.

Surprisingly enough, a factor behind the current impasse could be that elections in Kenya, and indeed in Africa, have not consistently been free and fair. It has been argued that in order for a sitting regime to encourage judicial independence, two things need to happen. First, the regime needs to believe that elections will be held regularly. This happens in Kenya. Secondly, the incumbent regime needs to believe that it could be defeated in a subsequent election. Such a mentality is likely to exist if elections are ordinarily free and fair and widely regarded as such. Since the primary responsibility of ensuring this falls upon the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which has been found wanting in the past, not only is the Judiciary bearing the burden of a weak Parliament, it is also bearing the brunt of a weak electoral body.

Why is this concerning?

The current situation has a variety of potential consequences, none of which are particularly appealing. It negatively impacts the performance of the Judiciary. If judges are not appointed and sufficient finances are not availed, this exacerbates the existing case backlog and undermines the existing process of institutional reform within the Judiciary. If court orders are not obeyed, this undermines pubic confidence not only in the Judiciary but in the institutional framework established by the constitution. If the political class is encouraged to ventilate grievances outside of the constitution, this is likely to lead to civil strife, particularly come election time.

The Executive will find its war on corruption more difficult since judicial independence is an essential tool to keep bureaucrats and politicians in line, particularly when to do so overtly would be politically costly or even just expensive in terms of expenditure of manpower and finances required for oversight.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) was and remains a key actor in establishing the rule of law in Kenya. Political wars could split the LSK, resulting in a division of the bar along political lines. In the latest campaign, Nelson Havi cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate and defeated his main rivals, Maria Mbeneka and Charles Kanjama. The period preceding the election resembled a political campaign, with large sums spent on slick PR campaigns by candidates who represented opposing sides of the political divide. A live debate among the candidates was held on national media prior to the vote. A divided bar would undermine a key player in the struggle for democracy and accountability in Kenya.

The way forward

There is nothing particularly surprising about the current tension between the Judiciary and the Executive. Indeed, it might be argued that such tensions from time to time are healthy and that without them the Judiciary would not be doing its job.

When politicians criticise the Judiciary, they often demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the law. Indeed, rarely will a politician even bother to state the section of the law that they allege the Judiciary to have violated. Furthermore, there is always the tacit implication that the rule of law should be subordinate to the objectives of the Executive branch. This perspective returns Kenya to colonial times when the Judiciary existed to serve the purposes of the Executive. It was treated as an arm of the civil service. This view was further cemented during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes prior to the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. The Executive would do well to realise that the Judiciary does not exist to offer services to it. It exists to pass judgements in accordance with the law.

Generally speaking, the Judiciary enforces individual rights, while Parliament exists to provide negotiated solutions to social issues. In enforcing individual rights, the question arises “against whom?” As Kenya is finding out, individual rights need to be enforced not only against other individuals but frequently against the government itself. In early May 2020, for instance, the government evicted more than 7,000 people from the Kariobangi informal settlement in Nairobi after giving a two-day notice and notwithstanding the existence of a court order barring the eviction pending the hearing of a case brought by a local civic group. The interim court order was not an unintended consequence of the system; it is a feature that was very deliberately designed to be part of it.

The Judiciary can help the Executive achieve its aims, particularly where these are difficult to obtain politically. A good example is the war on corruption. The alliance, however, needs to be one borne of separation of powers. Increased authoritarianism by the Executive will not help and neither will judicial activism.

It must be said, however, that the Executive, in making claims of judicial activism, has not satisfactorily demonstrated whether and how the Judiciary has failed to enforce or has gone against the letter and spirit of the constitution or whether the constitution perhaps needs to be amended.

Parliament, the IEBC and the BBI

Part of the reason why the Judiciary is under pressure is because Parliament is not playing its role in checking Executive power. Whereas courts may be better at enforcing individual rights, legislatures are better at negotiating conflicting values. If the court renders something unconstitutional, there is then a burden on Parliament to see whether that thing is in the public interest and requires legislative change or not.

Upon the successful conduct of free and fair elections (a duty given to the IEBC), it is Parliament that bears the primary responsibility of representing the people of Kenya. However, parliamentarians of both houses are disinclined to be overly concerned with their constituents simply because they owe their positions to state largesse dispensed during lavish campaigns. The problem begins before the election though, at the stage of political party primaries, which resemble a process of nomination rather than election and are characterised by widespread irregularities, candidate intimidation and outright bribery.

The Judiciary can help the Executive achieve its aims, particularly where these are difficult to obtain politically. A good example is the war on corruption. The alliance, however, needs to be one borne of separation of powers. Increased authoritarianism by the Executive will not help and neither will judicial activism.

Thus, from the very beginning, parliamentarians are ill-equipped to play a representative role. A large proportion of Kenya thus feels marginalised at the national level. This is exacerbated by the incumbent’s legitimacy issues arising from the conduct of the last election. This gap in representation is real and is what the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeks to fill.

Why does the BBI exist? Primarily as a response to the crisis of legitimacy that President Uhuru Kenyatta suffered subsequent to the last general election, its nullification and the opposition boycott of the re-run. In its Introduction, the BBI report states that Kenyans are weary (and presumably also scared) of divisive politics, and of tense and violent elections that produce a winner who is unacceptable to a large portion of voters.

Returning to Parliament: the constitution may have been reformed. However, the current statutory (as opposed to constitutional) regime that we inherited not only from the past regime but going back all the way to the colonial regime remains largely intact. The colonial legal regime was meant to exercise a high degree of control over the governed. It granted a large degree of discretion to administrators, such as chiefs, that the Judiciary could not touch. Upon independence, successive regimes found such a legal order convenient to their purposes and have sought to retain it. Therefore, there remains a large legislative agenda incumbent upon Parliament to bring Kenyan laws in line with a constitution that returns power back to the people. As may be observed, the more authoritarian a regime is, the more it will seek to establish a compliant Parliament that ignores this responsibility.

Parliament has been ceding key functions to the Executive. Importantly, the critical role of budget-making has increasingly been abdicated to the Executive. It may be expected that without oversight, the Executive would tend towards greater and greater spending. Indeed, what has been witnessed is a huge and growing public debt, inflated and unrealistic revenue collection targets, and consequent pressure on the Kenya Revenue Authority to be as aggressive as possible in raising revenue.

If Parliament abdicates its role in checking the Executive, and leaves this role entirely to the Judiciary, it sets the stage for excessive judicial intervention and renders the Judiciary more prone to attacks of overreaching. This has happened elsewhere. Following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the High Court ruled that the power to begin the process of exiting the European Union lay with Parliament and not the Prime Minister. Tabloid newspapers, inevitably pro-Brexit, saw this as a delaying tactic and labelled three judges as enemies of the public. This undermines constitutionalism as a whole.

Parliament needs to play a bigger role in evaluating the constitutionality of legislation, particularly where this legislation is of great political impact or when there is a conflict between the Judiciary and the Executive. Parliament has a large budget (some say too large) and it seems fair that some of this money be directed towards the kind of research and technical expertise it would take to explore these questions more fully.

If Parliament abdicates its role in checking the Executive, and leaves this role entirely to the Judiciary, it sets the stage for excessive judicial intervention and renders the Judiciary more prone to attacks of overreaching. This has happened elsewhere.

The implications of a weak Parliament go well beyond putting pressure on the Judiciary; they undermine democracy as a whole.

The politics of patronage as a whole, of which both the ruling party and the opposition are guilty, means that areas vote as a bloc and remain resolutely divided between the opposition and the government, almost always on tribal lines. The politics of patronage entrenches ethnic divisions, discourages independent thinking and prevents powerful leaders from being challenged in their own backyards by their own supporters.

Conclusion

The 27th of August 2020 marks ten years since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution. Now is an appropriate time to reflect on whether the Executive has honoured its constitutional mandate in its relationship with the Judiciary.

The foregoing discussion shows that the current tension is to be expected, given Kenya’s past and the powers and duties imposed upon the Judiciary by the constitution. Moreover, there are constitutional means of addressing the conflict that have not been used so far. Again, this is to be expected, given that the constitutional regime is relatively young and its strictures and institutions are yet to come naturally to a political class that often equates faithfulness to the constitution with an attack on its freedom to act.

It is clear that there is a consistent attack by the Executive upon the Judiciary through a variety of means, including the targeting of individual judges for recrimination, the withholding of funds, the failure to abide by the decisions of the Judicial Service Commission, and the disregarding of court orders. This is extremely concerning when seen in light of the fact that in two years, the country will hold a general election. The attacks are likely to result in a chilling effect upon the resolve of the Judiciary to hold the Executive accountable to free and fair elections.

The undermining of public confidence in the Judiciary is likely to result in a public less likely to side with it in a public relations battle rigged in favour of the Executive. Time and again, this country has witnessed that the alternative to judicial arbitration of electoral disputes is violence. If President Uhuru Kenyatta considers peace in Kenya a priority, his administration must obey the constitution and foster judicial independence.

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Chege Waitara is a legal practitioner and commentator based in Nairobi.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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