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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab

Wealthy nations are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

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We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
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The sun dipped over the Nile in Jinja on New Year’s Eve. Shots were thrown back, toasts were raised, beer glasses clinking against each other. The night almost seemed like the usual run-of-the-mill end-of-year celebration, with the noticeably big exception that people kept their distance and the gates were locked to keep out roving members of the army looking to catch any reveler dumb enough to wander out mask-free past curfew and slam them with a myriad of charges until bribes were produced.

Now 2021 seems to be little more than the continuation of the cavalcade of horrors that kicked off the new decade. And once again the cynicism is proving justified. For the last couple of months, in various social settings, over various libations, statements of optimism had sprung forth regarding COVID-19 vaccine developments. These were invariably met with knowing laughter from someone at the table, an individual almost certainly all out of damns to give and sick of starry-eyed statements of global equity in these desperate and turbulent times.

And now, as if from some unexpected remnant of colonial history, it trickles out (not as a leading headline amongst the upstanding Western press) that the wealthy nations of the world are actively hoarding pre-orders of the multiple vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giants from which they sprang are largely avoiding sharing their advancements with the developing world.

It is not just the typical candidates that are guilty of this. By typical candidates I am pointing the finger at the United States, Britain, China, and France. But also at countries like Canada, which has pre-ordered enough vaccines to inject its population an estimated five times over. Are they also trying to stop the pandemic from affecting two generations of their ancestors and the local polar bear population? In fact, by mid-December last year, only 700 million doses had been secured for the entire “underdeveloped” world. That number is laughably low. Politics is being played well above people’s heads once again. Nothing has been learned, and mega-corporations are in lockstep with the very same austerity-measure-loving members of the Western political elite.

In essence, this means that pencil-pushing cheapskates in the big conference rooms of places with organizational titles like NATO, the UN and the EU are fully content to once again screw the developing world over if it doesn’t add a couple of hundred million euros to western coffers. Bailouts and massive pushes for research were fine for the good, upstanding, and largely white citizenry within their own borders. International cooperation to ensure worldwide immunity? Well, that might be a problem for those who pull the purse strings.

The only surprise with such behaviour is that there is any surprise at all within the global South. Is this not a continuing theme spread across years, regimes, decades, centuries? 2020 certainly didn’t shape up to be a boring year, dreadful though it was. It was almost enjoyable (albeit in a deeply perverse way) to watch the bullshit come flying from the mouths of nearly everyone in charge, including the deep tones of patriarchal condescension from powerful nations directed disdainfully at sub-Saharan African countries, even as their own fell into disrepair and chaos.

And isn’t it interesting that the entire global market and economic conditions truly were a series of well-constructed lies this entire time? Let me expand. In saying that the global state of affairs was a lie, it is a finger pointed squarely at the West. With a special round of kudos to the United States.

This lie has been easy to spot in media narratives, as they make little mention of smaller, less powerful nations rolling out their vaccine plans or how such goals will be attained. No. Instead, if the narrative remains that the powerful countries have defeated the virus, then it has been defeated. The rest of the issue can be quickly swept under the carpet. Out of sight, out of mind. What will the next phase look like? Will immigration restrictions on citizens of African countries get even more stringent? Will the song now be: “Well you have not been immunised against the pandemic, so surely how can you be allowed around our citizens who have?”

A darker-minded conspiracy theorist than I would almost view such a series of actions as intentional moves to quicken the crippling of “developing” nations from attaining that aspiration. Of course, citizens of such developing nations are still having their rights stripped back, curfews violently enforced, and media freedoms curtailed seemingly daily. Meanwhile, there are rumours that Kenya’s and Uganda’s rich and powerful are having their vaccines flown in on private planes. These claims are, of course, entirely unsubstantiated.

In the age of COVID-19, such governments have the perfect excuse to call on their darker nature and have their nations more fully in their grip, the economy be damned. In fact, this seems the likely option as during the daylight hours, most aspects of daily life seem to grind on utterly unimpeded. There is little logic to the current 9 p.m. curfew especially since bars, movie theaters and indoor restaurants are all allowed to keep their doors open and are largely operating as normal. With the pandemic however, one must be incredibly careful not to overstep the mark, unless they wish to face fines, jail, or more sinister off-the-record consequences.

Now, as the West and other wealthy countries stumble around in the dark in their own vaccination campaigns, one must ask, when exactly does this end for the unlucky “other” countries of the world? Are all others simply doomed to an endless half-decade of dodging curfews, watching the development wave recede and roll back and feeling the iron hand of whichever government figure decides to come down on them for breaking a newly rolled out “rule”?

Such arguments may sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist but make no mistake, this is a serious issue that needs addressing. A year into the pandemic, and many world governments have not exactly done much to shield their citizens from the vast hardships that come along with lockdowns, closures, and social distancing. It seems reasonable to bet that they will not figure it out any time soon. In some instances, it seems that the efforts can be viewed as a sort of willful ignorance. To be sure, the global healthcare system will drastically change for the better in the fallout from COVID-19, but the rate at which access to future advancements will trickle down to the developing world is unclear. It seems as though many actors chosen the more protectionist and nativist camps, abandoning the spirit of “global unity” that the NGO world likes to make bumper stickers about.

With vaccination campaigns seemingly starting in earnest (and some countries such as Israel already having vaccinated 12 per cent of the population as of 3 January 2021) one could be forgiven for rolling their eyes. This seems a familiar narrative: the vaccines are being distributed to some countries while leaving others well out of the scheme. Sure, the pandemic affects all the people of the world equally, but now that there is a solution within grasp, some people are proving to be much more equal than others. Most African nations now find themselves in the unenviable position of waiting around for the West to quit dawdling and get their act together.

The US for one seems to be stumbling from one rollout hurdle to the next, a hodgepodge of state governments interacting with federal, bad, and incompetent actors. The US vaccination effort had set a target of 20 million people having received their first injection by the end of 2020. The reality? Between three and six million, at most just thirty per cent of the number targeted. It isn’t too unreasonable to predict that the US will spend the whole of 2021 trying to grab the reins and steer the COVID-19 response back into a series of workable solutions. Even while putting the US campaign to shame, several other nations’ efforts aren’t exactly stellar either. The UK, home to arguably the world’s best healthcare system, reported issues with distribution in the latter part of 2020. All these factors slow down the efforts to get the vaccine distributed globally – if that was ever part of the plan to begin with.

In the future, it will become clear that there is some blame to be laid at the feet of East African governments as well, given their dubious relationships with foreign nations and their murky tendering procedures. In the years to come, when the many trials and errors regarding vaccine distribution in sub-Saharan Africa come to light, I’m willing to put money down that at least one country will fall drastically behind in the vaccination effort, having thrown its lot in with a questionable tender worth several hundred billion shillings, only for it to emerge that all that money went to the Sinovac vaccine made by China that only has a 50.4 per cent efficacy rate.

It is yet to be seen how exactly African state actors (and their respective publics) will react to this period of global chaos, whether they will start to move away from the neo-colonial overreach of Western governments considering their bungling of the pandemic or if the old guard will remain and carry on down this new decade. As I have mentioned in previous pieces for this publication, the pandemic has illuminated something to the youth within the United States; that all the systems that they were told to comply with were built on lies. A similar sentiment seems to be taking root within several developing countries; that the current guard isn’t really in charge of anything and that the systems need to be overhauled and made more equitable if they are to last. The vaccine buy-up by the West is just a symptom of a larger disease.

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Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?

If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even it has begun, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

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Death By Compromise: Will the Biden Administration Do What People Actually Want Or Play Politics?
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The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Trump’s inherent flaw is that he failed to tap into his own political potential. Yes, he is an uncouth racist who harbours American isolationist instincts and is hell-bent on division. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the fact that his greatest attraction was due to the economy. In essence, the real situation of many working people in the US had grown so difficult that out of desperation they threw in their lot with a two-bit huckster who claimed that he could make all their empty-wallet woes disappear into the ether of history. Now upper middle class liberals in places like Seattle, Washington, Madison, Wisconsin and the suburbs of New York City are scratching their heads and wondering just how, how could so many millions still vote for this abomination after all that has happened during his time in the White House?

There has been an outright refusal by many on the left to acknowledge that the Trump base are anything but hidden racists, now magically freed to unmask themselves by some sort of Orange Pied Piper. Now as the Trump camp closes shop and flies away from the White House in shame, Biden is beginning his presidential term under deeply bizarre circumstances. The election victory, the transition and the first few weeks of the Democratic administration were met with some jubilation, but overall the response to Biden’s victory was rather tepid, especially when compared to the response that greeted Obama.

So why the underlying feeling of trepidation? It could have something to do with the well-deserved hand-wringing coming from the left wing of the party, seemingly left out in the cold for the last several months (at least since they were largely locked out of the Democratic National Convention last August). They had been promised a seat at the table, but that chair appears to have been lost in the move. What does this mean exactly?

Well, the Biden team and cabinet is being packed with the same type of lobbyists, centrists, supporters of the Iraq war and even billionaire Democrats disenchanted with the Obama administration who helped to turn the tide against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 race. One Washington insider quipped that the cabinet picks for the Biden administration looked like a guest list for a bourgeois dinner party in the upper crust Washington DC neighbourhood of Georgetown. It includes some of the same minds that helped to walk back the Obama White House from a more progressive agenda. Already Democrats are walking back the very promises that brought them to power — such as promising US$2000 cheques and now floating “hopefully US$1400, because the US$600 sent in early January and the new round of US$1400 would equal US$2000”. This goes against Occam’s razor principle, where the simplest solution is usually the right one. In this instance, the smart thing to do would be to send the full amount immediately, because a desperate public doesn’t give a damn about technocratic reasoning and austerity measures. In America’s skewed political structure, the prospect of the Democrats staying in long-term control of the US government is tenuous at best.

For example, in a year absolutely stuffed to the brim with progressive sentiments and activism across the US, why did the Democrat-controlled House actually lose seats (narrowing their majority)? As projections were touted across the media for months on end, and innumerable polls read the tea leaves to project an utterly massive Democratic win in the US Senate, the forecasts proved utterly wrong. In the end, the Democrats took the Senate by flipping Georgia’s two seats in January, but back in November several infamous Republicans, projected as vulnerable, held onto their seats by wide margins of victory.

Now Biden is already falling into the trap of being too bipartisan — a concept that doesn’t yield results and doesn’t truly affect anyone’s day-to-day lives. Republicans sure as hell don’t do bipartisan. In fact, Mitch McConnell, the controversial Senate minority leader from the state of Kentucky, had given himself the awkward moniker of the Grim Reaper during the Obama years, focusing solely on killing off any legislation that the Democratic Party brought forward, resulting in stagnation, political fallout and economic destitution for millions — and all that was before the scourge of COVID-19 revealed America’s system to be a mere façade of a true empire.

If this is the way forward, then the US is truly in dire straits and Biden may easily face another Trump-esque arch-conservative again in four years, or perhaps even Trump himself; he seems intent on positioning himself as a media figure, holding continuous rallies, never admitting that he truly lost, and then riding down another escalator some time in June of 2022. If the Biden presidency is making excuses and is handicapped before even beginning, especially during this time, then maybe it is the modern Democratic Party that is truly in jeopardy.

To put it bluntly, there are absolutely massive problems facing the US right now, ones that could well put an end to its status as a global leader and reputation as a democracy. This winter has thrown tens of thousands into starvation, cast millions into poverty and consolidated power further in the tentacled grasp of a corporate elite. COVID-19 killed over 100,000 Americans during the month of January 2021 alone. Now the status quo has returned to Washington DC, but the Democratic elite are acting as though that is a good thing, not seeing that the writing on the wall has been there since the financial crisis of 2008, a groundswell of populism that will soon be hard to ignore.

Rather than doing away with archaic filibuster and trying to confer statehood on DC and Puerto Rico and instead immediately passing a massive economic stimulus package, the Democrats are dithering and posturing with austerity-tinged deals and half measures that accord Republicans some sort of input. There could be very serious repercussions for the left wing and the right wing in two years if political action is not taken to get both the economic crisis and the pandemic under control within the next few months.

Looking ahead, however, it seems as though once again the youth will be blamed for whatever future is to come in the political landscape. It will be claimed that they will not have voted in large enough numbers (despite the rates being similar for nearly every single election amongst voters under 30 since the 1950s). They’ll be called lazy, entitled, ignorant, and the argument will be made for incremental change by an assortment of millionaire octogenarian figures within the Democratic leadership.

The progressive wing has already been blamed by the more conservative elements of the party for it not being a wide enough victory, with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (who used to work for the CIA and represents some of the richest people in America) stating in a taped conference call in the days after the November general election that if progressive ideals (or the specter of socialism) are put on the ballot, then Democratic candidates will get “fucking torn apart in the 2022 election”. This despite the fact that it was the more centrist candidates who faced tougher competition in their election bids, and the further to the left a candidate was, the better they performed overall.

So why would a multitude of people vote in the next midterm elections in 2022 or the next presidential election in 2024? The phrase “getting turned on” inherently means that some effort has been made, something has turned you on to that idea or cause to propel you to join or vote for it. Such are the problems that the current party is grappling with. It is bogged down in partisan signaling and identity-based politics, while not actually advancing any progressive agenda, blaming the youth and the far left that could save them from their underperformance in the United States congressional races, and refusing to negotiate meaningful stimulus packages to revive a US economy that has been in the COVID-19-drenched economic doldrums since 2020.

The Democrats have pigeonholed themselves as a middling, tedious political entity, one that turns people off in droves and panders to the wealthier coastal suburbanites. The numbers don’t lie; while they had projected that adding Kamala Harris to the vice presidential slot would bolster their bloc amongst minorities, this didn’t play out, and Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans voted for Biden at a lower rate than they did for Clinton in 2016. The question goes unanswered: could voters be more concerned about their economic standing during a pandemic-induced depression than about the racial makeup of the candidate on the ticket? Such thoughts can easily get one removed from the good graces of the current Democratic establishment, even as the possibility of rallying their base seems to diminish by the day.

For starters, anyone vaguely on the left already despises Donald J. Trump, and felt that way even before the last 11 disastrous months. The Democratic Party didn’t need to convince anyone here, but the Biden team spent most of the primaries solely attacking Trump for being the useless self-obsessed goon that he is. They then proceeded to not hammer him nearly hard enough when the disaster truly arrived, instead leaning back into the tropes of tired-eyed neo-conservatives from the George W. Bush era (some of the same talking heads who pushed messaging for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars) and continuously beaming over advertisements coming from anti-Trump Republicans like the “Lincoln Project”. More centrist media outlets like MSNBC fawned over these “high-minded idealists” and simultaneously ridiculed left-wing figures for questioning if this would truly be a progressive administration.

This is an avoidable issue, but as the leadership within Congress (House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer) can’t be moved from their messaging, this slow-moving car is heading for a cliff. Biden can either push the pedal down to the floor and drive off to an untimely death or pull the emergency brake and change course.

Democrats could have run on the progressive economic policies that they tip-toed around during this last horrifying year. They could have at least pretended to embrace a sweeping set of policies unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. If they had, there is a very real possibility that their lead in the House would have increased and they would have at least been able to flip the Senate. They didn’t. Instead they bowed to outside interests and fucked around politically, even leaving stimulus on the table. Now, the same crowd that pushed for bombing Libya under Obama is back into the fold, all within the same umbrella of a “well needed return to normalcy”. Normal sucks in America.

The real middle class has been dying for a long time, but it seems the Biden administration can’t actually wrap their heads around this fact. Instead, it seems as though they’ll be content to simply reverse some of Trump’s uglier policies and call it a winning formula. In fact, that’s exactly what Biden did on day one of his administration instead of passing executive orders regarding COVID-19.

So, if the Democratic Party continues on the trajectory they are on, who exactly do they intend to turn on? If anything, millions have been utterly turned off by the state of politics in the United States, and if an individual doesn’t stand to actually benefit, what is the benefit of supporting a political party? Back to normal shouldn’t have been the banner of the Democratic party in 2020; it should have been like the title of a horror movie to be run away from as quickly as can be messaged by PR officials in the corridors of the United States capitol.

Tragedies earn their names by reflecting the failures that weren’t overcome although they could have been. In years to come, the fear shouldn’t be Trump himself per se — he was much too incapable to be an outright authoritarian, and too big a coward to really make such moves anyway. It should be the fear of those for whom Trump was the unwieldy flagbearer.

The worry should really be: who will come after Trump? With all of the so-called “rising stars” on the right wing in the US right now, someone will crawl out of the primordial ooze to usurp an aging Donald Trump. Could such a figure manage to turn on a large enough swath of Millennial and Generation Z voters distraught at the economic conditions brought on by previous generations, and in less than four years from now sweep to a landslide victory over Joe Biden/Kamala Harris/another middling Democrat who doesn’t inspire?

What if the next one is some kind of ultra-conservative Evangelical someone with all of the idealism of a Vice President Mike Pence and none of the soul-sucking lack of charisma? What kind of irreversible damage could such a figure actually do? Not all totalitarians are useless, some are altogether efficient.

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