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Uhuru’s Wheelbarrow Woes

12 min read.

As President Uhuru Kenyatta plots how to woo the recalcitrant Kikuyus back into his political fold, a gleeful Deputy President William Ruto seems to have stolen his thunder with a mere 500 wheelbarrows.

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Two days to the third Sagana State Lodge meeting, called by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the absence of his deputy William Ruto on 30 January 2021, 41 central Kenya MPs sent a no-holds-barred letter to Uhuru. The Sagana meeting came hot on the heels of a “state of the nation address to the Kikuyu people” at State House, Nairobi, on 18 January.

The 51-minute question and answer session — in reality a monologue from President Uhuru — was broadcast live on all the Kikuyu-language radio stations. The president was for the umpteenth time beseeching the Kikuyu voter to unquestioningly and unequivocally accept the logic of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), whose latest moniker is Building Billionaires Initiative.

The Building Bridges Initiative was birthed immediately after President Uhuru and Raila Odinga shook hands on 18 March 2018. Three years into the handshake, President Uhuru’s backyard has shunned the document and basically ignored the President’s pleas to support it. The exclusively ethnic meeting with the Kikuyu radio and television presenters and the Sagana State Lodge baraza were a concerted effort to bring the Kikuyu rank and file to his side.

Among the salient issues that were contained in the MPs’ 12-page letter, four stood out for me:

“In Nyamakima, Gikomba, Kamukunji and on Taveta and Kirinyaga Roads, businesses have closed as besieged traders relocate to the rural areas to dress their wounds.”

“In the bitter cold of a freezing July [sic] at the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, hardworking Kenyans in Ruai and Kariobangi were woken up in the terrible turmoil of heavy machinery pulverising their homes, businesses and little hustles.”

“It has also been noted that you’ve never visited any part of Mt Kenya region to say thank you.”

“For eight years, between 2011–2018, you consistently and persistently cautioned us that Raila Odinga was Kenya’s foremost problem and pleaded with us to send him home for the country to move forward. The successful effort you made to persuade the people to render Raila Odinga unacceptable in Mt Kenya cannot be undone in your lifetime.”

That letter specifically addressed the Kikuyu people’s economic problems after the 2017 presidential elections that saw Uhuru’s win on 8 August 2017 cancelled by the Supreme Court of Kenya on  1 September only for him to win a pyrrhic victory 56 days later, on 26 October. Sworn-in on 28 November, Uhuru’s victory could not hold – hence the handshake just three months later. President Uhuru would later tell his Jubilee Party members that he could not have effectively ruled the country with Raila still in the opposition.

Kikuyus are the largest ethnic community conducting business in Gikomba, Kamukunji and Nyamakima and on Taveta and Kirinyaga Roads. The “hardworking Kenyans in Ruai and Kariobangi” referred to in the letter to Uhuru are Kikuyus. The “you cautioned us” statement also refers to the Kikuyu. But did not the president himself address an ethnic matter in an ethnic language, couched as a national question? The MPs might as well have written their letter in Kikuyu.

Three years into the handshake, President Uhuru’s backyard has shunned the document and basically ignored the President’s pleas to support it.

The Nyamakima debacle was reported in The Elephant in 2019. In July 2020, The Elephant published a piece about the Kariobangi North evictions. The brutal, state-sanctioned demolitions – the letter speaks of a “freezing July” but the evictions actually took place during a very cold month of May — were visited on the hapless impoverished ghetto dwellers. Thoroughly embarrassed, the government asked the Internal Security Principal Secretary’s office to identify all the victims of the evictions and indemnify them quietly away from the glare of the public and the press.

The 41 MPs were not invited to Sagana because they do not belong to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wing of the Jubilee Party, dubbed Kieleweke, but belong to Tanga Tanga, a tag that connotes a loiterer. The MPs’ letter was a deft move by politicians who have detected dissent from rebellious peasants against President Uhuru and smelt a rat on a waddling president who is serving his lame-duck years and could therefore afford to tell him off without fear of recrimination. (In October 2019, The Elephant published a story titled The Rebels Within: The politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya.) 

Immediately after his December holidays in his Murang’a County, on 30 December 2020, Senator Irungu Kang’ata  penned “a letter to my president”. The long winding letter was just about one thing: “Mr President, you’re unpopular and not wanted in Mt Kenya region. And you know why. Period.” A month and a half after the letter was leaked to the press, Kang’ata was replaced as Senate Majority Whip by Kiambu County Senator Kimani Wamatangi on 9 February 2021. Kang’ata had replaced Nakuru County Senator Susan Kihika in May 2020; she was removed because she belongs to the Tanga Tanga team.

The address to the Kikuyu nation boomeranged on the beleaguered President, even as he hoped to frame his monologue as an “us vs them”, “us” being the Kikuyu and “them” being the Kalenjin. “How could the President have the audacity to tell the Kikuyu poverty stricken fellow that the government loses KSh2 billion every single day?” posed Stanislaus Njogu of the Kĩama Kĩa Ma (the Truth Council).

“The Kikuyus were very furious; if Uhuru thought he was impressing them, he had scored zero points,” Njogu, an elder from Kiambu County said after listening to the president calling them andũ aitũ (our people), Kikuyus decided that “Uhuru nĩ kwĩyarĩria ekũĩyaragĩria na kũoguo ecokeria.” President Uhuru had been talking to himself, therefore, he can as well answer himself. Njogu said many Kikuyus wanted President Uhuru to desist from using the royal “we” when referring to them, “we are no longer together”. The mzee said that is what some of the council members had told him.

The MPs’ letter was a deft move by politicians who have detected dissent from rebellious peasants against President Uhuru.

Kĩama Kĩa Ma, which is led by engineer Patrick Mwiru from Gatundu South, is a much bigger and more credible organisation than the Wachira Kiago-led Kikuyu Council of Elders. It is more active, more broad-based, has both a youthful and an older membership, the majority from Kiambu County.

The statement on the daily theft of KSh2 billion had particularly infuriated ordinary Kikuyus: “Gũtirĩ mũici na mũcũthĩrĩria,” there is no thief and onlooker, said a middle-aged man who had just paid his dues – a sacrificial lamb – to the Truth Council in order to be initiated as a junior elder. “So, Uhuru’s aware of the exact cash that is being pilfered daily from the state coffers? Therefore, he knows who does it? What has he had done about it? That money is probably stolen by himself and his cronies. He can’t keep telling us Ruto is a thief – did we elect Ruto or Uhuru?”

Mũtahi Ngunyi, nowadays a State House operative, recently told me that Ruto being referred to as a thief by Kikuyu political barons was a shot in the dark: “Kikuyus grew up being called thieves, big deal, the word thief to a Kikuyu is not an abomination, to tell them that Ruto is a thief is to remind them that, indeed, he’s one of them. Try something else.”

The junior elder said President Uhuru had failed the Kikuyus miserably and for that they were hell-bent on punishing him. “Gĩathĩ kĩa ngũha gĩthiragĩra gũtũ.” The resolve of a tick (a parasite) to draw blood from a cow ends up at the ear. “It seems the Kikuyus’ resolve to seek revenge on Uhuru is total,” said Njogu. “Right now, they are behaving like the proverbial tick: they won’t rest until they draw blood.” Njogu said the leadership of the Truth Council will not publicly voice their dissent against the BBI, but it is not happy. It doesn’t want to pick a fight with Uhuru, not now, but the followership which is mostly made up of middle-aged men was taking no prisoners.

“After ruining our lives, Uhuru now wants to impose Raila on us,” said the junior elder. “The hatred for Raila among the Kikuyus is total: we’ll never accept him. I’m a true Kikuyu and will never vote for him. If Raila is such a fanciful idea to [Uhuru], how come he has yet to bring him to us? It is because he is unsellable – now more than ever before. Ruto’s a thief, uh huh? We like thieves. Kaba gũciara mũici gũkira kĩrimũ.” It is better to sire a thief than an idiot, said the junior elder.

The junior elder said President Uhuru’s association with David Mũrathe leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many Kikuyus. “Murathe is a scam, he’s a loudmouth and no sane Kikuyu pays attention to his utterances.” He alleged that Murathe had sold the Gatanga seat to Kanu in 1997, and for that, Kikuyus, especially those from Murang’a County, had not forgiven him. Kanu –  then led by President Daniel Moi –  is anathema to Kikuyus.

One June evening last year at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Murathe went for a drink at Castle Inn in Garden estate. Some Murang’a moguls who patronise the club found him seated at the counter alone. Once ensconced in their corner, they summoned the manager and told him to evict Murathe. These tycoons are the kings of downtown Nairobi, overseeing multi-million shilling businesses that include real estate and major distributorships of both alcoholic and soft beverages, among others. The moguls, who on a quiet evening, in a single sitting, can write a cheque for tens of thousands of shillings, call the shots at the club. Murathe was asked to leave immediately, his unpaid bill notwithstanding.

Maina Kamanda, a nominated MP and a vocal BBI proponent who has accompanied Raila several times as he tries to make inroads into the hearts and minds of the Kikuyu, is also held in contempt, especially by Kikuyu traders in Nairobi. “They consider him selfish and a sectionalist,” said Njogu. Although he hails from the greater Murang’a, Kamanda’s home is today in Nyandarua County, near Ol Kalou town, where he bought land and where he is mostly to be found when not engaged in politics.

“Kamanda is a spent force, he neither speaks for Kikuyus in Nairobi nor Murang’a,” said a street vendor from Murang’a County. “If he is still interested in politics, he should run in Nyandarua. We’ll never elect him here in Nairobi, and he can’t be voted in Murang’a after dissing his ancestral home.” Njogu said it was odious that President Uhuru should ask Kamanda to accompany Raila to address Kikuyu rallies: “Kamanda draws only scorn and distaste from Kikuyus.”

President Uhuru had treated Merus recklessly and shabbily, said a Kĩama Kĩa Ma Meru elder. “I’ll tell you this, Merus are very annoyed with Uhuru for taking us for granted. Even after some of us voted for him thrice, he hasn’t found it fitting to at least say thank you. He hasn’t visited the area, he just moved on with his life after getting the Meru votes.” He could not but be nostalgic about President Mwai Kibaki’s days. Kibaki was Kenya’s third president between 2003 and 2013. “Kibaki was an honourable old man, he knew how to say thank you and we loved him. How we miss the days he was President.”

The notion that President Uhuru had “neglected” the Mt Kenya region, especially the region occupied by Embu, Meru and Mbeere people, was also echoed by Joseph Nyagah in a conversation we had weeks before he died on 11 December 2020.

If President Uhuru’s radio interview was a “car crash”, the outcome of the Sagana State Lodge meeting was even less soothing to struggling Kikuyus. “You mean Uhuru has just acquiesced to the greedy MCAs?” said Muchiri, a Nairobi businessman. “He can find KSh4 billion to give to politicians to buy cars, but he can’t find money to stock medicine in hospitals? We’ll be waiting for these MCAs next year, 2022 is not a century away and for Uhuru and his BBI, he can bribe the MCAs all he wants, we’ll not pass the damn document.”

Njogu said Kikuyu hatred for President Uhuru had gone grassroots. “The angriest are those that voted for him twice in 2017. They cannot now believe that he’s wining and dining with Raila.” The mzee said that Kikuyus consider this to be the ultimate insult. “After poisoning them against Raila for such a long time and to now tell them that he’s the man they should work with was just mindboggling.”

Faced with the threat of being taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2012, Uhuru Kenyatta whipped up ethnic Kikuyus in a well-choreographed tribal mobilisation the likes of which had not been witnessed in modern Kenya. By election day on 4 March 2013,  Kikuyus were so filled with anti-Raila venom that they could have died or killed for Uhuru. “Uhuru succeeded in dangerously balkanising the Kikuyus, telling them that Raila was planning to send him to the ICC once he takes over as President of Kenya,” said a lawyer from Kiambu County that I interviewed in 2012. That lawyer is one of the writers of the BBI (II) document that proposes a powerful presidency.

Thiya ndĩthũire mũmĩũragi ta mũmeanĩrĩri. An antelope hates those who expose it to danger more than it does its predators. “Kikuyus have always been wary of Raila’s intentions if he ever took state power,” said Njogu, quoting to me the above Kikuyu idiom, “They have a lot of misgiving about him: from truly believing that he will revenge against them for the sins committed against his father [Jaramogi Oginga Odinga] by [Jomo] Kenyatta to weirdly believing that when he says he will fight institutional corruption, he actually means that he will ensure they are cut to size, that is, crash their businesses and riches.”

If President Uhuru’s radio interview was a “car crash”, the outcome of the Sagana State Lodge meeting was even less soothing to struggling Kikuyus.

Njogu said Kikuyus like reminding themselves how Raila crafted the narrative of “‘41 [tribes] against one’, inordinately exposing his malicious intentions against the Kikuyu people.” In the lead-up to the hotly contested 2007 presidential election that pitted President Kibaki, running on a Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket, to Raila who was running on an Orange Democratic Party (ODM) ticket — with Ruto as Raila’s de facto running mate — the 41 vs 1 came to be viewed as the opposition’s official mantra.

During Raila’s recent meet-the-Kikuyu-people Githurai Market tour, the wary Kikuyus could be heard saying “tũramuonera eitini,” meaning, “we are aware of Raila’s dubious intentions”. Raila arrived at the Market at 10.30 a.m. on 28 January 2021 and went straight to the Migingo area. The market is divided into several areas such as Posta and Family Bank. Migingo is now ring-fenced because it had encroached on railway land, but it is still expansive and it can hold a meeting.

At Migingo Raila was welcomed by the market leaders led by Joseph Wanyoike and Peter Kamau. They told him about the need to construct a bridge to connect to the railway line area that was separated by the fence. Ever since the fence was erected, people have to walk a long distance to cross over to the other side. Raila promised that the government would build the bridge. It was a short meeting and he moved on to the roundabout area where the masses was waiting.

Raila spoke to the crowd atop his vehicle, cautioning them not to be confused by the “wheelbarrow” narrative as he extolled the virtues of BBI. “Will you allow that man of the wheelbarrow to sow his retrogressive politics here?” Raila upped his rhetoric. The waiting crowds answered him by chanting Ruto’s name interspersed with shouts of “wheelbarrow”. The crowd did not allow him to continue speaking, with some yelling, “you cannot feed on rhetoric.”

The crowd exasperated Raila and he accused Jubilee Party-nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura of inciting them. On 9 February Mwaura was demoted and stripped off his senatorial position by the party.  Mwaura had indeed visited the market area on the eve of Raila’s visit and incited the people. “Nĩmwakĩmenya rũciũ nĩagoka, mũkĩmenye ũrĩa mũkamwĩra.” You are aware (Raila) is coming here tomorrow. I hope you’ve planned what to tell him.

Mwaura, whose entry into the political limelight was through the opposition ranks when he was nominated as ODM MP in 2013, was to shift gears and join the ruling Jubilee Party in 2016, where he was rewarded with yet another nomination in 2017. Keen to enter elective politics, Mwaura seems to be preparing to contest the Ruiru constituency seat in Kiambu County. He has defected once more – this time within the Jubilee Party ranks –  and thrown in his lot with the Tanga Tanga team. His bashing of the BBI has greatly displeased the president, who must have sanctioned his sacking.

In October 2020, Ruto too had gone to Githurai Market. The market is a catchment area, which represents a cache of votes because of its huge population that straddles Nairobi and Kiambu counties. The deputy president came along with 500 wheelbarrows and 100 mkokotenis (push carts). He had certainly done his “market survey” (pun intended). The wheelbarrow is the most sought-after piece of equipment at the bustling market. Because of this, it is also the most stolen item. Traders who do not have their own wheelbarrows hire them for KSh50 a day and in the evening, they pay an extra KSh20 for storage overnight. Each of the wheelbarrows that Ruto delivered came with an umbrella to protect the trader from the vagaries of the weather.

“Detractors of the wheelbarrow can say all they want,” said 30-year-old trader Peter Mungai. “For all the 10 years I’ve lived in Nairobi, I’ve earned my keep from this wheelbarrow.” Mungai started hawking watermelons on a pavement next to the market. Then in 2019, a brutal eviction by Nairobi County askaris led to the loss of goods and equipment including wheelbarrows and push carts. Mungai bought a new wheelbarrow and now hawks sugarcane.

“Hawking sugarcane has a much wider radius than melons,” explained Mungai. “I’ll tell you this: I voted Uhuru two times in 2017, but look at his gratitude. I don’t want to know about BBI, its promises and lies, I’ve no need for it. Make no assumptions, I went to school, I can read and comprehend. In the 10 years I’ve lived in Nairobi, I started a family, all because of this wheelbarrow. In 2022, I’ll be voting for Ruto, because I’m a wheelbarrow hustler.”

“Uhuru and Raila and indeed anybody else can criminalise the wheelbarrow. What have they ever given? I don’t want to speak much, some of my friends were lucky to get a wheelbarrow from ‘thief Ruto’. They can hustle and deliver something to their families in the evenings. Meanwhile ‘thieves Uhuru and Raila’ can continue selling BBI, telling us it will bring us [Kikuyus] goodies. It is good because our children will feed on something called promises hidden somewhere in the BBI, which must wait to be passed by a referendum.”

The story of the wheelbarrow, in the words of Mungai, indeed cannot be spoken about much here. It is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that at Githurai Market I met a 27-year-old Kenyatta University BA graduate. From an impoverished peasant family, he did not waste time looking for a non-existent job after graduating with an upper second in economics. He landed at Githurai Market and started carrying the market women’s goods as a kua, a man who carries a load on his shoulders.

“Look at me, I’m a lanky fellow, but was I going to further burden my mother with my survival problems? She had already done much and I’ll be eternally grateful for ensuring I got some education. At the market, the women call him Ka-Waithira, son of Waithira, because that is how he calls himself. From kua, Ka-Waithira graduated to a wheelbarrow owner and made his work easier. “I’m now looking to investing in a push cart, because it carries much bigger and heavier loads.”

Ka-Waithira told me he had expanded his skills to include balancing accounts for the market women: “You’d be shocked to learn the kind of money these women handle. I was.” In his spare time he also explains simple economics to the women – supply and demand theory, economies of scale, the difference between macro- and microeconomies. “I really have no time for Uhuru and BBI. He has hugely let my mother down. She believed in him and it nearly killed her because of depression. Githurai, as you’ve seen for yourself is a ‘hustler nation’. Uhuru has only been interested in advancing his family’s fortunes and the Kikuyus have become the wiser. Do you think I’d be languishing here at Githurai Market if I came from a well-connected family or I schooled at St Mary’s?”

As President Uhuru Kenyatta plots how to woo the recalcitrant Kikuyus back into his political fold, it is evident that his work for in the next 16 months is cut out him. For now,  he has to contend with a gleeful Deputy President William Ruto who seems to have effortlessly taken over his backyard.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Moving, or Changing?

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.

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Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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