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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

14 min read.

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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Dr. Constance Smith is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, and author of Nairobi in the Making: Landscapes of Time and Urban Belonging. Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg.

Politics

Arror & Kimwarer Dams Saga: Fighting Corruption or Realpolitik?

The cases at the Milimani Anticorruption Court provide few concrete answers amid claims that the investigations into the Arror and Kimwarer Dams projects are politically motivated to weaken Deputy President William Ruto who is running for the presidency.

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Arror & Kimwarer Dams Saga: Fighting Corruption or Realpolitik?
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A joint investigation by IrpiMedia and The Elephant

Soon after Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto secured a controversial second term in November 2017, investigations begun into the procurement and financing arrangements surrounding the Arror and Kimwarer dams in the Rift Valley county of Elgeyo Marakwet.

The dams had been commissioned years earlier, and billions had been paid out but there was nothing on the ground to show for either dam. The Kimwarer project has since been cancelled, the Arror one scaled down, and eight defendants today face charges of conspiring to defraud the government of nearly Sh60 billion. However, there have been claims that the investigations and prosecutions are politically motivated and aimed at weakening Deputy President William Ruto who is running to becoming Kenya’s fifth president. Just this week, during the presidential debate, Ruto essentially said the dams were casualties of the 2018 fallout with his boss. This has been many times denied by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The two cases dealing with the dams at the Anti-Corruption Court in Milimani, Nairobi, focus on alleged irregularities in the tendering and contracting of the dams as well as alleged illegal payments made to two Italian companies. The crux of the ODPP’s case is that officials of Kerio Valley Development Authority and the national government colluded to grant CMC di Ravenna and its joint venture partner, Itinera S.P.A, a contract for the construction of the two dams for which they had not won the tender and that differed fundamentally from the terms advertised in December 2014, which called for proposals for the “funding, design, build and transfer” of the dams. The eight Kenyan officials in case No. 20 of 2019 and the 18 Italian companies and individuals in case No. 21 of 2019, are accused of executing a sleight of hand, initially pretending that the contractors would mobilize money from the Italian government to build the dams and then switching it to a commercial loan with the government as the borrower. Furthermore, instead of the borrowed money being deposited into the Consolidated Fund as the constitution prescribes, on the contrary, it was sent directly to the contractor. In the ODPP’s view, this is where the fraud arose.

The initial contracting model selected was Engineering, Procurement, Construction and Financing where the contractor also arranges financing for the project through tie-ups with financing institutions. They can be useful when contractors have better access to low-cost financing, including state-provided export-import financing. However, the Parliamentary Service Commission has noted that these contracts are vulnerable to abuse and in 2019 parliament suspended 20 dam projects, including Arror and Kimwarer, saying “Kenyans [were] not getting value for money in this model”.

According to the ODPP, the tendering process for the two dams was riddled with irregularities. In an affidavit sworn in February 2020 on behalf of the DPP, Police Constable Thomas Tanui states that, unlike the Arror dam, the Kimwarer project had not been approved by the Cabinet, as required by the 2013 Public Private Partnership Act (PPA). Further, in the course of the process, the tender documents for CMC di Ravenna were illegally altered at least twice to switch CMC’s joint venture partners from South Africa’s AECOM to a company only known as MWH, and then again to Itinera S.P.A. And while it was Italy-based CMC di Ravenna that made the bid, the tender was awarded to South Africa-based CMC di Ravenna, a different legal entity with whom KVDA signed Memoranda of Understanding regarding the two dams in December 2015 and February 2016 that were meant to end with the signing of concessional contracts within 8 months.

However, the MOUs expired without the concessional contracts being signed and instead, on 5 April 2017, the KVDA signed commercial contracts for the construction of both dams with the Italian CMC di Ravenna and its joint venture partner Itinera S.P.A. for a total combined amount of US$501.8 million, including 10 per cent contingencies that had not been negotiated for under the concessional agreements.

In his affidavit, PC Tanui avers that the dam projects were conceived as concessionary projects under the PPA but were surreptitiously converted into a commercial instead of a concessional contract. However, what the ODPP means by “concessional contract” and how that differs from a commercial contract is not clear. There’s no mention of a “concessional contract” in the PPA which defines a concession as “a contractual licence . . . entitling a person who is granted the licence to make use of the specified infrastructure or undertake a project and to charge user fees, receive availability payments or both”. While the law allows government agencies to “enter into a project agreement with any qualified private party for the financing, construction, operation, equipping or maintenance” of infrastructure, none of the 15 types of public private partnership arrangements it lists in its second schedule seem to fit what KVDA had initially advertised.

However, perhaps what the ODPP refers to as a “concessional contract” is a reference to the way the project was to be funded. According to press reports and Richard Malebe’s petition, the initial charges alleged that  the national government and KVDA officials as well as the Italian companies conspired to “entered into a commercial loan facility agreement disguising it as a government-to-government loan guaranteed by the Italian Government . . . ‘while knowing the tender document contained in the request for proposals for the development of the dams project was a concessional agreement where the intended concessionaire was to be the borrower and financier and not the Government of Kenya’”. In essence, by substituting the commercial contract for the concessional one, rather than an arrangement where Government only paid once the dams were delivered, with the contractor and financiers assuming all the risk, it was the public that was left holding the baby when things went wrong. If anything, the Kenyan public paid to insure the banks against government default, which insurance the ODPP says was illegally single-sourced.

A Treasury press statement dated 28 February 2019, signed by one of the accused, former Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich claims that the financing agreement for the two dams was “government-to-government” with the Italian government—represented by the 100 per cent owned Servizi Assicurativi Del Commercio Estero (SACE)—providing “insurance cover and financial support” amounting to close to 88 per cent of the total loan amount, with a consortium of four banks led by Intesa Sanpaolo said to provide the rest. The statement details “the Conditions Precedent”, which were payments apparently required before funds could be released to the government and the contractor. These include €7.83 million (Sh951 million) in fees and commissions and €94.2 million (Sh11.4 billion) in credit insurance to cover lenders for both dams. In addition, another US$75.2 million (Sh9 billion), or 15 per cent of the total contract sum for both dams was paid out to the contractor.

The Kenyan public paid to insure the banks against government default, which insurance the ODPP says was illegally single-sourced.

The Treasury claims these fees and advances were provided for and paid from the loan from SACE and the banks, not Exchequer funds. This aligns with a November 2019 note by SACE to the Italian foreign ministry which states that the agreement required the “payment of the sums due by the Contracting Authority to the CMC-Itinera joint venture through direct disbursement by the lenders on a current account of the contractor opened outside the State of Kenya” —a violation of the Kenyan constitution which requires all sums borrowed by the government to be deposited in the Consolidated Fund. However, according to both CMC-Itinera and a confidential analysis by the ODPP seen by The Elephant, the advance payment was for a total of €66.6 million (Sh8.09 billion), a discrepancy of nearly Sh1 billion. (It should be noted that the National Treasury appears to have entered into a facility contract with lenders in Euros, and payments appear to have been made in the same currency, even though the commercial contracts were in US dollars, which exposed taxpayers to losses through changes in the exchange rates. In this article, we have used the current exchange rates to reflect the amounts in Kenya Shillings.)

Further, according to business journalist Jaindi Kisero, SACE does not appear in the external debt register which raises doubts as to whether they were indeed the main lender. Also, the November 2019 note by SACE to the Italian foreign ministry says the insurance guarantee was “in favor of the Lenders for the entire amount financed”, which seems to say that all the money came from the banks. The ODPP analysis says that while the agreements make it clear that SACE was one of the financiers, the agency did not act as a party to them. It argues that the insurance premium was fraudulent because if the funds came from SACE, as the agreements suggest, it would have been a government-to-government loan which would require no insurance. It concludes that “payments made by GoK were made with the intention to siphon money from the country in the disguise of advance payment, insurance premium and commitment fees”.

Deputy President Ruto has claimed that only Sh7 billion was in question and that the government had a bank guarantee that protected every penny. The Treasury statement seems to back him up, at least as far as the guarantee is concerned, claiming the advance payment was backed by “a bank/insurance guarantee” which would be called “if the contractor is unable to deliver the service to the Government or runs bankrupt”. And in February 2022 Regional Development Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang told Parliament that Heritage Insurance and Standard Chartered Bank had respectively issued insurance guarantees for the advances paid to the CMC Ravenna-Itinera joint venture for Arror (Sh4.1 billion) and Kimwarer (Sh3.6 billion). He said the government had already recalled the Arror guarantee and was planning to do the same regarding Kimwarer, whose guarantee expires in June 2023. However, it is again unclear from his statement what currency the guarantees are in: dollars, euros or shillings. If in shillings, then it seems that up to Sh1.3 billion may not be covered.

The ODPP analysis says that while the agreements make it clear that SACE was one of the financiers, the agency did not act as a party to them.

It is unclear exactly how much Kenya stands to lose given the discrepancies in the currencies used. In total, according to the ODPP, €168.5 million (Sh20.5 billion) was paid between 4 May 2017 and 7 November 2018 to cover the insurance premium, various fees as well as the advance payments. The statement from the Treasury, as noted above, puts this figure at €102 million and US$75.2 million for a total of Sh23.5 billion at current rates. In addition, the external debt register lists Kenyans as being on the hook for the entire loan amount of €578.4 million (Sh70.3 billion) which stands to be repaid until November 2035. Yet it does not seem that any further disbursements have been made by the banks to the companies beyond the insurance premium, fees and commissions and the advance payment. Why the full loan amount would be reflected as drawn down in the debt register is a mystery. It is also noteworthy that Kenya has refused or failed to make any repayments on the moneys already disbursed.

The cases at the Milimani Anticorruption Court provide few concrete answers. There are currently two cases, consolidated from the initial four—two cases for each dam dealing separately with charges of financial and procedural irregularities. Each of the four initial cases had numerous defendants including directors of companies based in Italy who refused to come to Kenya to take plea, occasioning long delays. Eventually, all the cases were consolidated into two, with Case 20 of 2019 having 8 accused persons based in Kenya, and Case 21 of 2019 dealing with the alleged crimes of 18 Italian individuals and companies. This arrangement has allowed the Kenyan cases to proceed with the first witness out of 57 taking the stand in November last year.

One strange thing about the cases filed by the ODPP is that while they allege a conspiracy to defraud the government through the commercial agreements, there is little indication of the other side of that coin: how did the individuals involved benefit from the scheme? No one is charged with paying or receiving a bribe and there has been little evidence produced so far to warrant the many press allegations of corruption and kickbacks. According to a report in the East African Standard, Sh450 million was “wired by the Treasury to Italian firm CMC di Ravenna . . . was sent to an account in London then Dubai and later to Nairobi”. One of the report’s writers, Roselyne Obala, would later add that the same Sh450 million was part of a larger payment of over Sh600 million and that it was paid to an account in Barclays Bank in Nairobi. However, none of this is in the charges preferred at the Anti-Corruption Court. Further, it is unclear whether “over KSh600 million” refers to the much larger advance payments which, in any case, was (illegally) transferred directly by the banks in London to the companies. Further, the absence of prosecutions within Italy, which has a law criminalizing Italian companies paying bribes to public officials abroad in return for contracts, suggests that there is no evidence that a bribe was paid in this case.

There have been allegations raised that the prosecution of the dam cases was politicised, targeting allies of Deputy President William Ruto. In October last year, Rotich instituted a petition at the Milimani High Courts questioning why the DPP left out key personalities involved in the tendering process such as the former Attorney General Githu Muigai, solicitor general Njee Muturi and former Environment CS Judi Wakhungu. Rotich has also argued that he was not responsible for procurement of the tenders and was not the accounting officer at Treasury. “It is absurd that the respondents chose to charge me while the Attorney General is not charged in this respect. This is an indication of selective prosecution that cannot stand the test of objectivity and fair administration of action,” he argued in the petition. Others have pointed to the dropping of charges against members of the KVDA Tender Committee as well as some of Rotich’s co-accused, former Treasury PS Kamau Thugge and Dr Susan Koech, a former PS in the Environment Ministry, as proof of malicious prosecution.

It is also noteworthy that Kenya has refused or failed to make any repayments on the moneys already disbursed.

Regarding the latter accusation, it is notable that many of the former accused have actually become witnesses so it may just be a case of the DPP using the small fry to net the “big fish”. However, when it comes to why the former AG, the solicitor-general, and the various ministers who oversaw KVDA between 2014 and 2019 are not in the dock, the answers are not so convincing.

A bigger source of discontent is the lack of similar prosecutions over similar projects. For example, the contract over the Itare Dam in Nakuru, also in the Rift Valley, features the same set of characters—SACE, CMC di Ravenna, Intesa San Paolo, BNP Paribas—and was the first dam awarded to the Italians in 2014. After advance payments of Sh4.3 billion were paid out, the project appears to have collapsed. As Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika noted in February 2019, “It . . . seems as if there is no equal treatment of all the projects across the country.”

In 2013, CMC had signed a consultancy contract with Stansha Limited, owned by Stanley Muthama, the MP for Lamu West, in which Stansha pledged to help CMC in its bid for tenders for the construction of Itare Dam, which is under the Rift Valley Water Services Board, and Ruiru II Dam under the Athi Water Service Board, for a fee of 3 per cent of the contract value. For Itare, it came to Sh330 million. According to the ODPP analysis, on 25 November 2015, a Stanley Muthama identified as “Staff CMC Kenya office” participated in a high-level “clarification meeting” with KVDA officials regarding the tender for the Arror dam, one of the decisive meetings for the award of the contract. Among those at the meeting were Paolo Porcelli and Gianni Ponta, two CMC officials the ODPP has charged, among others, for having “conspired to unlawfully have the services of CMC di Ravenna-ITINERA JV procured by KVDA for the development of Arror and Kimwarer multipurpose dams”. There is however no Stanley Muthama being prosecuted by the ODPP in the Kenyan case and no suggestion of any wrongdoing with regard to the contracts.

There, however, seems to be a pattern emerging where CMC di Ravenna—which has been in economic turmoil for four years; in 2018 it owed creditors €1.5 billion euros—receives advance payments for projects it does not thereafter complete. In Nepal, a US$550 million contract for the construction of a hydroelectric plant was terminated in 2019 and the company ordered by an Italian court to return €15 million to a bank in Nepal that had financed the project. CMC had not warned the Nepalese bank of its financial problems and had not even begun the work.

In Kenya, though, the two Italian firms have also claimed the cases were politicised and lacked grounds. In December 2020, they filed a suit at the International Court of Arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce claiming they were victims of power politics between President Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto. They alleged that the cancellation of the tender was a ploy to weaken Deputy President Ruto’s 2022 presidential aspirations and are demanding US$115 million (KSh13.7 billion) in compensation for the cancellation of the contracts.

A bigger source of discontent is the lack of similar prosecutions over similar projects.

“It seems hardly coincidental that the highest ranking official to be investigated and charged in the criminal proceeding is Kenya’s Treasury CS Mr Henry Rotich, an ally of Mr Ruto,” stated the court document as reported in Business Daily. They claim that allegations of impropriety did not surface until two years after the contracts were signed and that KVDA had admitted that the projects had been politicised with an intention of terminating them.

In notes sent to the Italian Foreign Ministry, the joint venture complains of “delays in the payment of fees [by Kenya] to the Agent Bank with the risk of blocking future disbursements”. The companies blame the failure of the project to get off the ground on the failure by KVDA to deliver the necessary land, a claim repeated by Deputy President Ruto during the presidential debate in July. They also claim that import permit exemptions had not yet been issued.

President Kenyatta has also reportedly tasked AG Paul Kihara and Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua to negotiate with the joint venture to seek an amicable settlement although it is curious that Kenya would seek to pay off the very companies it accuses of conspiring to defraud it. The country has, however, trodden this route before. In 2014, President Kenyatta ordered payment of Sh1.4 billion to briefcase companies for termination of contracts to supply telecommunication equipment and bandwidth spectrum, part of the Anglo Leasing scam where billions were paid to fictitious companies for security-related contracts.

Further, in May last year, SACE wrote to the AG, the Treasury and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that Kenya could get a partial refund of its insurance premium but only if it committed to paying off the banks on whose behalf the country had taken out the policy. And the letter included a not-so-subtle hint that Kenya’s relationship with Italy was on the line.

They alleged that the cancellation of the tender was a ploy to weaken Deputy President Ruto’s 2022 presidential aspirations.

In brief, it seems clear that there were serious irregularities during the tendering and contracting for the two dams. KVDA tendered the projects under the PPA for a concessional arrangement but awarded a commercial contract under the Public Procurement and Disposal Act to a legally different entity from that which had won the tender without beginning the process afresh. Further, the arrangements to transfer money directly from commercial banks to the contractor seem clearly illegal and the shift from a concessional arrangement to a commercial one probably means Kenyans ended up paying more—including for unnecessary insurance. However, no money appears to have been paid out directly from the Exchequer, although the fees, commissions and advance payments have accrued a debt of up to Sh23.5 billion (at current exchange rates), less than a third of which may be covered by bank/insurance guarantees. Assuming the debt register is mistaken when it lists the entire loan amount, and that the guarantees by Standard Chartered Bank and Heritage Insurance are eventually honoured, Kenyans would still be, when we eventually get round to paying it, out of pocket by around Sh13.5 billion, the sum of the insurance premium (part of which we may get back), the various fees and commissions, and the exchange rate costs. As noted, no one has been accused of actually pocketing bribes. It also does not seem like either Kenya or the banks are pursuing a refund of the money paid to the joint venture in the Italian courts.

The biggest obstacle to a clearer understanding of what is happening with regard to the Arror and Kimwarer dams is the political whirlwind around it. Adding to the confusion is the language employed—terms like scam and kickbacks—suggesting that the officials involved pocketed bribes, whereas they are not actually accused of any of that. Further, journalists have tended to report the story much like the proverbial blind men of Hindustan—each accurately describing a part of the elephant’s anatomy, but not able to grasp the entire animal., It is to be expected that, even after the general election, the controversy surrounding the Arror and Kimwarer dams will continue to generate more political heat while shedding very little light.

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Election 2022: Will the Incoming Leaders Deliver the Promises of Devolution to the People of North-Eastern Kenya?

The leadership is simply not investing in priority areas. The livestock sector, the main source of livelihood and the economic mainstay of the region remains highly underinvested.

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Election 2022: Will the Incoming Leaders Deliver the Promises of Devolution to the People of North-Eastern Kenya?
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Kenyans will go to the polls on 9 August to elect their representatives at the national and county levels. The upcoming elections are the third in Kenya under the 2010 constitution that introduced devolution. Instituted in 2013, devolution sought to bring government closer to the people by devolving political and economic resources to Kenya’s 47 county governments, to better address the local needs of Kenyans. 

Just like the rest of Kenya, the residents of the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera where I was born and brought up, will once again go to the polls to elect their representatives: governors, members of county assembly, women representatives, members of the national assembly, and senators. Those who will be elected will be in charge of managing devolved resources at the county level for the next five years.

In the last decade, devolution could potentially have transformed the lives of the people of north-eastern Kenya but, unfortunately, this has not happened, despite the accrual of substantial funds and political power; the billions of Kenya shillings that have gone into the region have not brought improvements. On the contrary, some sectors such as healthcare and water service provision, have seen a decline or remained the same despite billions of Kenya shillings being pumped into these sectors in the last 10 years. Northeastern Kenya remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Kenya, lagging behind the rest of Kenya in almost all development indicators, and the people are among the poorest in the country. The majority lack access to basic services and infrastructure such as water and healthcare, good roads and electricity.

The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials. All indications are that massive graft, corruption, and misallocation of political and economic resources have stunt the region’s ability to take advantage of devolution and catch up with the rest of Kenya. Resources meant for the population are being misappropriated and the leadership has nothing to show for the ten years after devolution existence; blatant theft and embezzlement of public funds and misgovernance have been its defining characteristic in the last ten years.

This article is a review of devolution in north-eastern Kenya ten years after its inception. It focuses on the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera and is a reflection of the writer’s assessment of devolution in north-eastern Kenya over the last ten years. The situation described above is similar elsewhere in the larger northern Kenya in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River, Samburu, Turkana, and West Pokot, but this piece focuses exclusively on the three north-eastern counties.

The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials

Disclaimer: By highlighting the failures of devolution and how it has not delivered for the people of north-eastern Kenya, the writer is by no means advocating for the previous Nairobi-based centralised governance system where resources were shared only by a few at the centre (1963-2013), a system that had neglected and marginalized the region for far too long, denying it investments, the cause of the current predicament the region faces today.

The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history. National state oversight institutions mandated to fight corruption at both levels of government have been unable or unwilling to effectively carry out their oversight duties. Also, of importance to note is that, the widespread allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds are not unique to the counties of north-eastern Kenya but are also reported across most of the country’s 47 counties and this has greatly demoralized Kenyans.

Blatant theft of public resources

In north-eastern, county officials and leadership, including governors, executives and other public officials are stealing from the people. Over the years, the office of the Auditor General has exposed massive misappropriation of resources and irregular procurement rules. General public perception in the region is that the leaders are not serving the people’s interests, but are only enriching themselves with the resources they have been entrusted with, with impunity and zero accountability. As a consequence, the electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to will punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.

Over the last decade, and during the tenure of the last two county administrations, the elected governors have turned the north-eastern counties into family “fiefdoms” and “small monarchies” similar to Middle East monarchies where those who benefit most are the immediate family members, close friends and cronies. Nepotism and favouritism have become widespread, and governors and their appointed county executives use relatives, including extended family members and close friends as proxies to siphon off public resources meant to benefit citizens. Across the three counties, the governors and other senior county public officials have put close family members and relatives on the county payroll as ghost workers who have no job descriptions, actual portfolios or offices. Individuals who have previously never worked in any major capacity and have little experience are given high paying public jobs only because they belong to the right families or know the right people.

Governors, county executives and elected local leaders also use proxies and companies owned by friends and close family members to obtain lucrative multimillion contracts. For the five years the governor and the county executives are in charge, they and their proxies remain inaccessible and out of reach of the ordinary mwananchi.

A small portion of the loot is laundered in the region.  Much of the looted money is laundered in major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, where the county leadership uses the ill-gotten wealth to invest in residential properties and shopping malls. County governors and their executives have bought houses, apartments and palatial homes worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars in Nairobi’s upscale residential areas such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Parklands, Karen, Spring Valley and others.  One favourite estate among senior Somali county officials from northeastern is the South C neighbourhood, where a high number of county executives live and operate from, instead of their respective county headquarters. They either pay high monthly rents or have bought expensive apartments and houses. The Eastleigh neighbourhood the looted public money is “reinvested” in businesses in the form of shopping malls. Some use the looted public resources to marry second and third wives or to purchase vehicles worth many times their annual salaries as county officials, while others have used the plundered money to go to Mecca on pilgrimage and “contribute” to religious causes such as building mosques and Islamic madarasa schools. Governors, specifically, have moved some of their ill-gotten wealth abroad, especially to the Middle East and Turkey. Other favourite destinations include Dubai and Turkey where the governors have bought palatial holiday homes and apartments in cities such as Ankara, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere.

All north-eastern governors have offices in Nairobi where they spend a ood part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters. Governors and county executive members also hold county executive meetings in Nairobi instead of the county headquarters. You will also find that many county officials such as executive members, chief officers and members of county assemblies are ever present in Nairobi, operating from the city instead of operating from their respective county headquarters.

The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. Under the Jubilee government, the national government has since 2013 experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history.

Why is this the case? How are elites able to steal with impunity? The stealing that happens in the counties mostly happens through the flouting of public procurement rules, inflating the price of projects and at times even budgeting for non-existent projects. Kenya has been plagued by corruption since independence, but corruption and blatant theft of public resources has become commonplace since 2013 when the Jubilee Party led by Uhuru Kenyatta came to power. Under the Jubilee government, corruption cases involving the blatant theft of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money have become the norm since 2013. Pervasive institutional corruption at the centre has spread to the periphery through devolution and, therefore, political and economic devolution to Kenya’s 47 counties has only enabled the creation of another cadre of corrupt elites with the ability, through elections, to capture institutions and resources. What used to happen at the centre has been replicated at the county levels through devolution; county leaders plunder everything from nationally devolved county funds to donor contributions. They take for themselves and their proxies the most lucrative contracts. Development projects in the region have become contractor- and vendor-driven with the governors, deputy governors, county executives and elected members of county assemblies being the biggest beneficiaries.

The looting of public resources has largely been successful and continues unbated due to weak government oversight institutions such as the anti-corruption agency, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The lack of effective anti-corruption mechanisms and political will at the national level to fight graft plays a major role in fuelling graft and theft at all levels of government. Inessen ce, there is little to no risk of being held accountable and this explains why the leaders are unafraid. Not a single culprit who has stolen from the people in the last ten years is behind bars because of what he or she has done, despite large-scale corruption and mismanagement.

Poor service delivery 

The mismanagement, graft and elite capture of county resources has resulted in poor service delivery to the people of north-eastern counties.  A major challenge is that the leadership is unable to prioritize development that would transform and improve service delivery. Despite the billions in investment – cumulatively, the three counties received close to Shs100 billion in devolved funds over the last ten years – there is nothing much to show for it. Also, the leadership is simply unwilling to prioritize and invest in areas of public need where the impact would be greatest. Instead, funds are spent as they come in poorly thought-out contractor-driven “development” projects. As a consequence, crucial sectors such as livestock and water, healthcare, and education provision, where the needs of the population lie, have been ignored and, in some instances, the quality of services has deteriorated compared to the period before devolution.

In the counties, the easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment. Millions in resources have been poured into the construction of structures that now lie idle. For instance, it is quite common to build a structure in a certain village and label it “a health centre” or “a market” even as it remains unoccupied and abandoned. No health workers, equipment and drugs are deployed to the structure to make it an operational health facility. Office blocks are also be built which then remain unoccupied.

To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.

The leadership is simply not investing in priority areas. The livestock sector, the main source of livelihood and the economic mainstay of the region remains highly underinvested. The recent response to the drought emergency is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the county leadership in responding to emergencies and assisting people at a time of need. Last year alone, millions of head of livestock died after water pans and grasslands dried up following a severe drought season. The drought is even now ongoing. Had the county and national governments intervened and provided needed water and fodder for the livestock, the deaths of millions of head of livestock, which are people’s livelihoods, could have been prevented. The pastoralists had no one to turn to as the response from both counties and the national government was lacklustre; the pastoralists had to fend for themselves, buying water for their livestock from private water vendors at an exorbitant cost. On average, one water truck cost between KSh10,000 and Sh50,000 depending on the distance from water sources, which in many cases are at the county headquarters. I witnessed residents of Wajir County who live far from the county headquarters having to wait for “their turn” to receive water supplied by trucks contracted by the county government. In one village less than 50 kilometres from Wajir town, residents had to wait more than 14 days for their turn to receive water. And when the one truck arrived at the village of 300-plus residents, it could only provide water for the people but not their livestock. In many of the less accessible villages  in Wajir, help from the county government never arrived.

To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.

North-eastern is most water-stressed region in Kenya, the number one hurdle that the people of the north-eastern face. Obtaining drinking water for both people and their livestock is a major challenge. Unfortunately, the region’s leadership has not been willing to find a sustainable solution to the perennial water shortage, the most common response to “alleviate” the water problem in the last decade being the construction of expensive water pans and boreholes. The big ugly holes dotting the landscape serve as temporary rain water reservoirs, but do nothing to solve the perennial water problem in the region. The leadership prefers them because they are easy to implement as they do not involve much technical skill and are normally constructed at inflated cost. Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.

Ten years after devolution, and after receiving billions of shillings annually including in allocations for the water sector, residents of Mandera County headquarters do not have access to running water in their homesteads.  The Mandera leadership has been unable to tap the waters of River Daawa, which flows through the county headquarters for most of the year. The county residents rely largely on commercial water vendors.

The World Bank-funded Water and Sanitation Project meant to connect households to piped water, provide community water points, and improve sanitation services in Wajir Town, the Wajir County headquarters, is failing largely because of lack of county leadership, and elite competition for contracts related to the project.

Half of the homesteads in Garissa Town do not have access to running water. Those that do have access to water benefited from a water project that was undertaken in the town during President Mwai Kibaki’s 2003-2007 administration. This means that from 2013 to 2022 the Garissa County leadership has not done much to expand water provision. This is despite River Tana flowing right through Garissa Town to drain into the Indian Ocean.

The health sector is an area that has seen a deterioration in services during devolution. Hospitals and health centres have been incapacitated from lack of staff, lack of adequate medical equipment and essential supplies such as drugs and laboratory reagents.

The three main referral hospitals in the region are run down. Public health facilities have collapsed to the extent that they do not offer basic services such as CT Scans; citizens are forced to seek such services in private facilities at exorbitant prices. When medical equipment such as MRI machines and CT Scans break down, the authorities take months to have them fixed. As an example, when the MRI machine at Garissa’s main referral hospital broke down, it took the administration months to have it repaired. On a visit to Wajir Referral Hospital in Wajir town, I found that the hospital did not have staplers to pin papers together, staff in the maternity ward were using bandages to tie papers together, a situation that persisted throughout the period of one week that I visited a sick relative in the hospital’s maternity wing. Upon enquiry, I was informed by the staff that this had been the situation for weeks. They also told me that it was common for them to run out of other basic essentials such as cotton wool.

A call to the people of north-eastern counties

This is a wakeup call and a public appeal to the people of north-eastern Kenya to elect people of integrity in the upcoming election on 9 August. It is only the electorate who can stand up to and liberate their counties and resources from the thieving “leaders” who have captured and appropriated the county resources. The electorates should give priority to electing leaders of integrity who have a good track record. It is time to reverse the misgovernance and misappropriation of public resources of the last ten years.

Statutory government oversight institutions such as the EACC, DCI and the DPP have spectacularly failed to rescue the counties from the thieving elites. Despite the wanton theft and loss of billions, the corrupt are walking free and are not held accountability. On the contrary, they flaunt their ill-acquired wealth in front of the poor citizenry they have stolen from.

No single public official has been apprehended and convicted for stealing and misappropriating public resources in the last ten years. However, we should not lose hope. Hopefully, the next national government that will be elected in Nairobi in August will prioritize the fight against corruption and theft of public resources, and reform and empower anti-corruption agencies.

In the meantime, the citizens of north-eastern should not give up and resign themselves to their fate, but rather, use the power of the ballot to vote in good leaders who will serve them.

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Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy

Whoever between Raila Odinga and William Ruto takes the presidency of this country after 9/8 must find the moral courage to finally break with a colonial legacy that has relegated thousands of our co-citizens to a life of unending misery and despair.

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Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy
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The long-awaited rains are finally here and yesterday’s dry, cracked black cotton soil that we here call kagenyo has turned into a gluey, slippery mess that sticks three inches thick to the soles of your shoes. I am struggling to keep my sneakers on as I make my way up the path to Wanjĩra’s* homestead.

Wanjĩra greets me at her gate and stands there, not showing any signs of inviting me in. Her handshake is firm and her manner brisk, a big woman in a body fed mainly on stodge. Clearly, Wanjĩra is waiting for me to get to the point of my visit so, in the manner of country people, and to break the ice, I begin by observing that, thank God, the rains are finally here. Wanjĩra turns her head, points her chin at the field behind her wooden cottage and says that she’s wondering whether she should bother to start over again. She had planted the early-maturing Pioneer variety of maize seed in anticipation of the long rains but nothing had come of that and the shoots had died in the ground, beaten down by the unyielding sun. Will the rains be sufficient this time round? There follows an awkward silence; where does one begin when one is intruding on the already difficult lives of those displaced by politically instigated violence?

I had learnt only recently that there were internally displaced people living not five kilometres down the road from me, further inland, and I determined to find out their circumstances, concerned that there could be desperate cases—like those I had found at Shalom—living within my community. That is how I ended up at Wanjĩra’s gate, led there by her orphaned niece, a twenty-something young woman with an infant strapped to her back.

Wanjĩra was born and raised in Londiani, Kericho County. Like many Kikuyus of his generation, Mũreithi, Wanjĩra’s father, had been uprooted from his home in Mũrang’a and moved to a colonial village under the colonial government’s villagisation programme that, by the end of 1955, had “relocated some one million Kikuyu into 804 fortified, policed and concentrated villages from their scattered homesteads that were in turn demolished”. From here, having been fingerprinted and with a mbugi around his neck, “no longer a shepherd but one of the flock”,  Mũreithi was removed from the kiugũ, the cattle pen, as Wanjĩra sardonically described the village, shoved onto the back of a lorry and transported to Londiani on the other side of the country, never again to return to Mũrang’a. Mũreithi’s final destination was a settler’s farm where he earned a monthly wage of two shillings and fifty cents as a farm labourer. He married and brought up Wanjĩra and her siblings on that pittance but was never able to find the wherewithal to buy land of his own when independence came. A son had done well enough to purchase a quarter-acre in Karamton, Nyandarua County, and this is where Mũreithi was buried when he died.

Born in 1958 and now with a family of her own, Wanjĩra worked in the Londiani Forest planting trees in exchange for permission to grow crops in the clearings, while also slowly building up a herd of 38 cattle that she would graze in the forest. But the violence that broke out following the 2007 general election would prove to be the final straw for Wanjĩra and her family; she and her husband gathered up their eight children and fled Londiani. When the couple married, Wanjĩra’s father-in-law had made room on his one-acre piece of land for the couple to establish a home and raise a family. But beginning in early 1992, the family’s hold on life became increasingly tenuous as the clashes that broke out in late 1991 in Tinderet in Nandi District spread like wild fire to Londiani and other parts of the Rift Valley. The family hunkered down and survived the onslaught but found their lives once again threatened by the politically motivated ethnic violence that followed in the wake of the December 1997 elections. They survived that spate of violence too and carried on with their lives.

But a decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death. Living under constant threat of violence took its toll on Wanjĩra’s parents-in-law and both died within months of each other. Hardly were they buried on their one acre but Wanjĩra and her Kikuyu neighbours were surrounded by hostile youths blowing cow horns and wielding bows and arrows. The herd she had so painstakingly built over time was driven away before her very eyes and her home was razed to the ground. Wanjĩra and her family fled without a backward glance, her husband with three arrow wounds in his side.

A decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death.

Unlike the many displaced who ended up at the Nakuru Show Ground where disease was rife and the hardship beyond endurance, Wanjĩra and her husband took their family to Gatundu North. Someone had told them that they could live and grow their food inside Kieni Forest in exchange for providing labour to plant trees. From 2008 to 2013, the family joined those who had moved into the forest following the 1992 clashes, living under plastic sheeting in a river valley inside the forest, co-existing with marauding elephants as best they could until the government sent in the General Service Unit to evict them. Following a stand-off, the 805 families squatting in the forest were eventually paid 400,000 shillings each by the government in lieu of land, and it is this payment that enabled Wanjĩra and her husband, together with four other families that had also taken refuge in Kieni Forest, to buy land in Ndaragwa in Nyandarua County.

Like much of the land in this part of Nyandarua County that borders Laikipia East, the land on which Wanjĩra and her family finally settled had been occupied by a British settler in colonial times. The 3,400-acre ranch was eventually sold in 1964 to a group of Kenyans who ran it commercially for almost two decades, growing wheat and keeping livestock, before they subdivided the land among themselves. Over time, some of the owners have further subdivided their farms, bequeathing the parcels to their offspring or selling them to those like Wanjĩra’s family looking for land on which to (re)settle.

Just a kilometre or so down the road from Wanjĩra’s homestead, one such landowner sold some 30 acres of his land to the government to be subdivided amongst victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence, each family receiving two and a quarter acres. Waithiageni does not know exactly how old she is. Ndiathomire, she tells me, I did not go to school. But she thinks she was about eight years old when her father moved the family from Mũrang’a to what was then Kisumu District. Waithiageni’s father had left his family behind and moved to Nakuru to work on a settler’s farm. Come independence, he applied to be resettled on the Koru Settlement Scheme and moved his family there.

Waithiageni now lives by herself in a corrugated iron shack by the side of a dusty track, having been chased off her father’s 20 acres at Koru and losing her only son in the 2007/2008 post-election chaos. To survive, the now elderly Waithiageni depends on casual work, when it can be found, and on the kindness of her neighbour Nyagũthiĩ, a mother of two grown-up daughters who escaped the violence at Londiani in late 2007.

A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves. The closest source of water is a trek downhill to the Pesi River, the nearest school miles away and the health centre further beyond. No matatu comes this way and a boda boda ride to the trading centre along the Nyeri-Nyahururu road will set you back 300 shillings, a day’s wage in these parts. The 25,000 shillings they had each received to build a home and the 10,000 shillings start-up capital did not stretch far enough and eight of the twelve families left within the year to find a more hopeful livelihood elsewhere.

Kenya is a state party to the Great Lakes Pact, one of the few international agreements that address displacement in a comprehensive and holistic manner. Kenya domesticated the Pact’s Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons through an act of parliament on 31 December 2012. It establishes a legal framework for the protection of IDPs through the incorporation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into domestic law.

A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves.

Specifically, Section 9 of the IDP Act foresees that “The Government shall create the conditions for and provide internally displaced persons with a durable and sustainable solution in safety and dignity. . .” and that, among others, the following conditions for durable solutions shall apply: long-term safety and security; enjoyment of an adequate standard of living without discrimination; access to employment and livelihoods; and access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property.

In November 2013, Nelson Ributhi Gaichuhie, then Chairperson of the Departmental Committee on Administration and National Security, made a statement in parliament to the effect that the government had fully complied with Section 9 (3) of the IDP Act, saying that those affected had been provided with relief food and decent housing. However, to put it in Kenyan parlance, things on the ground are different. Eight years after they were dumped by the government in their new “home”, Wathiageni and her neighbours still live in what can only be described as hovels lacking even the most basic of amenities. Eight long years on, the government has yet to undertake the necessary surveying to allow for subdivision of the land into individual parcels and so, unable to work their land, and without title, they live huddled together on a bare patch by the roadside, walking miles each day in search of casual labour on other people’s farms.

As for Wanjĩra’s family, the 400,000 shillings that it finally received in compensation was just about enough money to buy two acres of land and put up a small wooden structure to house the family of ten. After years of ill health compounded by the hellish living conditions in Kieni Forest, Wanjĩra’s husband died in 2016 and was buried on his land. Her first-born son followed soon after. Her seven surviving children are now grown and two have established their homes on the family’s land. Wanjĩra says that, having lost everything in Londiani, rebuilding what the family lost without resources seems like an insurmountable challenge. On a neighbouring farm is a neatly tended field with onions planted in zai pits. Wanjĩra tells me the land is leased by a farmer with the means to bring water up from the Pesi River about a kilometre away. Wanjĩra hasn’t those means; she must wait for the rains.

The second of the Great Lakes Pact’s ten protocols that is particularly relevant to the internally displaced is the Protocol on the Property Rights of Returning Persons that requires member states to provide legal protection for the property of the displaced and establish legal principles on the basis of which they are able to recover their property. But while the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government appears to have thrown in the towel even before it has started. The following statement from Gaichuhie to parliament makes clear that the government has no plans to ensure that those who lost land and property recover them or are adequately compensated:

“Some of them have title deeds. Very few of them have not been able to go back to where they were living. But I can tell you that most of the IDPs were business people in major towns. That is why the Government has decided that rather than wait to buy land and give it to somebody who had a big supermarket in town, it would give such individuals Kshs400,000 to start businesses. So, not all the IDPs had land. Some of them were businessmen. Some had land for which they did not have title deeds”

The IDP Act became operational in 2013 but the constitution of the National Consultative Co-ordination Committee (NCCC), the body tasked with implementing the Act, was only gazetted in October 2014 and the Chair of the committee appointed in November 2014. Patrick Githinji, who had been appointed to the committee as one of the two IDP representatives foreseen in Section 12 (3)(i) of the Act, and with whom I spoke at length on the 3rd of August 2022, explains that the committee commenced its work in April 2015, and its first task was to vet the internally displaced still living in 65 camps across the country with a view to compensating them and shutting down the camps. This task was accomplished by mid-2016 and—with the exception of Muhu Camp in Nyandarua County and Donga Farm in Subukia in Nakuru County, because the land bought by the government for the resettlement of these IDPs is in dispute—all the camps were closed and 11,000 households were paid 200,000 shillings each, the government having argued that it could no longer afford the 400,000 shillings it had paid to Wanjĩra’s family and others in 2014.

While the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government seems to have thrown in the towel even before it has started.

The next task of the committee was to ensure the compensation of the so-called Integrated IDPs (that is, those living dispersed among communities, whether with relatives or friends or in rented accommodation in urban or peri-urban areas) who numbered 193,000 households according to government records. They were offered a paltry 10,000 shillings in compensation which they turned down. Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households. Of these, 30,000 households were never paid, the government having recalled the funds from the disbursing banks. As it turns out, Wanjĩra and Waithiageni are the lucky ones.

According to an undated confidential report of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya available online, the NCCC is no longer operational. This is confirmed by Githinji who says that although the term of the first NCCC was to end in December 2017, by September of that year the NCCC secretariat had been shut down and seconded staff recalled to their respective ministries.

Together with other members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya, Githinji eventually petitioned the Senate in October 2020, alleging that there were attempts to repeal the IDP Act. In their petition, the group also claimed that land bought by the government to resettle IDPs had been illegally allocated to non-IDPs or grabbed by individuals, and that many IDPs continue to languish in makeshift tents. They also accused the government of refusing to release the funds due to Integrated IDPs because of identification errors introduced into the records by the government’s own officials, and lamented that there was no government authority at whose door they could lay these claims.

Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households.

Upon receipt of the petition, the Senate invited the group to appear before the Senate Committee on Lands, Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Mwangi Githiomi in November 2020, where, following a two-hour meeting, they were advised to table a fresh petition using the Senate’s guidelines. This they did and it was agreed that the group would again meet with the Senate Committee after the Christmas recess, in February 2021. They have no news since.

By the time the IDP Act was enacted in December 2012, another 112,000 people had joined the ranks of the internally displaced, followed by a further 55,000 in 2013, over 220,000 in 2014 and over 216,000 by mid-2015 (even as the NCCC was finally sitting down to its task), most of them victims of inter-communal violence. Meanwhile, as recently as October 2021, members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya were appealing to President Uhuru Kenyatta to finalise the resettlement and compensation process for those IDPs that were forced to flee their homes in 2007/2008 before the end of his term. Both President Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto had made numerous promises on the campaign trail in the run-up to the March 2013 general election—while facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague—that all the displaced would be resettled within the first 100 days of their administration if they were elected.

In the face of government inaction, some of the Integrated IDPs who were denied compensation in 2017 have converged on Kianjogu, in Laikipia County, occupying land that was purchased by the government for IDP resettlement but never subdivided. They arrived in March/April of this year from Nyeri, Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and other counties across the country and are living in Kianjogu much as they did when they were first forced to flee their homes, massed together in unsanitary conditions and refusing to yield to threats from the government.

It would appear that the IDP Act was cynically enacted for the sole purpose of creating a vehicle—the NCCC—to facilitate the closure of the tens of camps strewn across the country and disband their residents; out of sight out of mind. If that is the case, then the government has circumvented its duty not only to address the plight of generations of IDPs, but to also provide assistance and protection to the newly displaced, and to put in place structures and measures to prevent further internal displacement. The outgoing government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto has instead chosen to perpetuate the generational suffering of Kenyans who were first forcibly evicted or were caused to leave their homes by the brutal and inhumane rule of the British colonial government.

Over the century since the Maasai were forcibly removed from their lands in the central Rift Valley in 1904/1905 to make way for white settlers, successive regimes have overseen the destitution of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan families. In the post-independence era, many have been forced to leave their homes by politically instigated violence where community is set against community, or by drought, famine, man-made disasters such as the Solai Dam tragedy and development-induced displacement. These hundreds of thousands of our co-citizens exist in the shadow of our lives and many lie in unmarked graves awaiting increasingly illusive justice.

The new government must, therefore, and with great urgency, operationalize the IDP Act and revive and properly reconstitute the NCCC so that it can continue with the arduous task of ensuring that durable and sustainable solutions are found for all the internally displaced. In finally beginning to properly address the plight of the internally displaced, the incoming government will not be without resources: in particular, a policy paper drawn up by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre dissects the IDP Act and makes concrete recommendations that, if applied, will equip the nation with an internal displacement response system that is fully operational.

It is unacceptable that over the almost sixty years of Kenya’s independence, successive leaders have built on the colonial legacy of dispossession and destitution of Kenyans. Whoever takes the helm after the 9 August general election must find the moral courage to put an end to the suffering of these Kenyans who, as much as anyone else in this country, have a right to expect a life lived in safety and in dignity.

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