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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Choices Facing Kenya and the Kenyattas

8 min read.

A combination of factors will force some of the most consequential choices our hardened elite have ever made and what they do now will determine what Kenya will look like in the coming decades.

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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The Choices Facing Kenya and the Kenyattas
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Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) – a fraternity not to be messed with on global social media – recently took on the IMF following the announcement that the Fund had approved another US$2.34 billion facility for the Kenyan government. The loan is intended to mitigate the fiscal crunch that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. #KOT’s concern was that the current ruling elite is so corrupt that not only have they stolen and misspent what they had previously borrowed, leading to a public debt portfolio of US$70 billion and rising, they will steal and misspend this new amount as well.

The IMF was forced to respond virtually – which was interesting – explaining the governance conditionalities attached to this latest facility. The Fund’s explanation did little to calm Kenyans and the debate still rages; for many, simply put, the IMF is being asked why it is serving whiskey to an alcoholic on condition that the alcoholic only takes a tot a day and imbibes “carefully”. Kenyans on Twitter believe they know their government better; they are likely right. Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned, the IMF toolkit is  limited – the austerity spanner, loan wrench, conditionality screwdrivers and advisory nuts and bolts, these have been used before, in the 1990s, but this time the consumer is far more sceptical, and with good reason.

We are in the middle of major political realignments as we head into the 2022 general election, with President Uhuru Kenyatta currently serving his last term but clearly keen on a transition that will leave his family’s influence intact. The overall behaviour of the regime, and the elite at its core, is imbued with an assumption of impunity; they have since independence eluded accountability. This impunity gene in our politics can be traced back to the creation of Kenya by the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA), a group of businessmen with a royal charter to grab, tax, kill and essentially enslave the population at will. A combination of corruption, profligacy, incompetence, rapacious personalised accumulation, spiralling debt and now the devastating COVID-19 epidemic has – ironically – created the circumstances for the elite to think its way out of a crisis of its own making; as they say, never let a good crisis go to waste. Indeed, others have been here before.

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Some senior civil servants – and even the president himself, so I am told – are known to be fans of Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 and share it liberally among colleagues. If they have read it, it is not always clear that they have understood it. A number of Asian countries – notably Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Thailand and Malaysia – used the crisis conditions following the Second World War to change the behaviour of their elite and transform their economies and societies. As Ken Ohashi – one-time Senior Economic Advisor to the Kenyan Presidency – explained in a feature carried in The Standard, the East Asian success stories emerged significantly out of a shift away from an “elite-favouring, rent-seeking centred economy” to economies structured to advance when individuals and companies come up with new ideas and are spurred by fair competition. Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore in particular took a dramatic shift away from our elite’s rent-seeking model of business.

In South Korea, President Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a military coup in 1961, ended the Kenyan style of corruption-oriented business by the political and commercial elite. He called in leaders of the traditional, largely family-owned businesses (the chaebols) and essentially forced them to become internationally competitive manufacturers. Ultimately, the majority couldn’t survive in an environment where they could not manipulate government policy and fiddle the books. But the Samsungs, Hyundais etc., flourished and are global giants today. As Ohashi argues, “Corruption never disappeared, but it ceased to be the mainstay of business strategy . . .  Taiwan and Singapore managed to revamp the fundamental business culture in a similar way and created an environment in which most companies focused singularly on producing competitive and increasingly higher-value products.”

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In Kenya’s history, the Jubilee regime has been the most sophisticated at managing the perceptions of its performance. Jubilee’s launches of bridges, roads, government programmes and other initiatives are slick and the speeches well written. This is true even when they are launching the same project multiple times. They have also spent more money than any other previous regime doing this. However, in the digital age, they have ultimately struggled and the narrative their media managers try to sell is so far removed from reality that the entire enterprise – even augmented by the likes of Cambridge Analytica – has collapsed in on itself.

This demonstrates the impact social media has had on the political terrain not only in Kenya but all over the world. As governments have become increasingly authoritarian and as the globalisation model has faltered, social media has become a space that is freer than the streets, particularly for the youth. As a result, more and more governments across the developing world have resorted to private intelligence, PR and other reputational management companies to manage this space while others, especially during elections, simply switch off the internet, a tactic that Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Benin, Rwanda, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have resorted to in the recent past. However, this is not so easy in economies with a reasonably developed service sector and a relatively high use of financial technology.

In Kenya we have several governance balls in the air at the same time: elections (traditionally our season of grand theft); President Uhuru Kenyatta’s transition as he serves out his final term amid talk of changing the constitution and even holding a referendum to effect the change; spiralling corruption and debt; and the return of IMF conditionalities of the kind last witnessed in the 1990s. This time, however, and as I mentioned above, the IMF is confronted with a totally new demographic across Africa. It is overwhelmingly young – below 35; increasingly interconnected by technology; mistrustful of the World Banks and IMFs of this world, and also more aware of the inequities that the elites have wrought in the pre-pandemic era of globalisation.

Kenya’s political elite: hardened and resilient mystifiers

Still, Kenya has one of the continent’s most experienced and resilient political elites. They have over 50 years of experience in political wheeler-dealing, skulduggery, deal-making and sharing the loot from public coffers – uninterrupted by coups, major social meltdowns or grand economic experiments. The odd thing about the corruption perpetrated by an even minimally coherent elite is that it produces a stagnating political stability so long as there is enough loot to share around. It is not an ideal situation and it is fraught with deepening inequality and declining public trust in governance institutions and in the politicians themselves. Still, the guys at the top can hold on and even sustain a hegemon on the basis of backroom deals, understandings and accommodations. And with the right foreign friends this job is made even easier.

Currently, there is considerable bewilderment about the Kenyatta succession as our politicians position themselves for the 2022 elections. Part of this is deliberate mystification. Newspaper headlines sometimes seem to derive from a single photo of politicians at a meeting posted on Twitter where it’s not at all clear what the discussions were about. The mystification is also in part caused by the fact that there are no ideological or significant policy differences between the different competitors for the presidency. Even COVID-19 – the disruptor of the century – hasn’t changed their modus operandi.

The odd thing about the corruption perpetrated by an even minimally coherent elite is that it produces a stagnating political stability so long as there is enough loot to share around.

The pandemic has stripped naked the governance models of all nations and it has been surprising to see what is hidden underneath all the constitutions, institutions, platitudes and political theatre. It has led to a resurgence of authoritarianism where democracy was already in recession globally and there is disquiet that some states will fail. Add to this the fact that China is now a risen power and for the first time, under President Xi, is directly marketing its technocratic/meritocratic authoritarian model as an alternative to liberal democracy which is noisy and free but which can, as a result, be slower in delivering public goods and has, in recent years, produced dangerously comical leaders in some of the most developed countries in the world. China will clearly play a significant role in defining the post-pandemic geopolitical reality.

For our ruling elite, however, the confusion is compounded by the 2010 Constitution which has placed severe limitations on their capacity to disrupt both each other and the governance institutions for their personal political ends. Indeed, the 2010 Constitution was written specifically because of the elite’s penchant to manipulate the previous constitution to their political advantage, as witnessed from 1964 to the late 1990s. Some have described it as a “rule book for naughty boys”, full of self-executing provisions and with a level of detail in terms of institutional design that betrays a lack of trust on the part of its drafters that the elite have any real fidelity to the spirit of the document.

Kenyatta Inc.

What our current elite does now will determine what Kenya will look like in the coming decades. It is thus that Uhuru Kenyatta, who should be a lame duck by now, continues to play an energetic role in his own succession – not necessarily because of his grip on political matters but because of the Kenyattas’ unique private commercial achievements. In fact, there is some concern that all the realignments and political shenanigans could make the 2022 polls more destabilising than previous transition elections. Traditionally, incumbency elections in Kenya – where a head of state is going into elections to compete for another term – are the most violent, as was the case in 1992, 1997 and 2007. Transition elections, on the other hand, when a head of state is serving his last term, as in 2002 and 2013, are far more peaceful.

The Kenyatta family enterprise, whose foundation is built on land acquired during President Jomo Kenyatta’s tenure between 1964 and 1978, is now a highly diversified fledging multinational, with Brookside Dairies as its flagship and significant international shareholding. These commercial interests have been expanded, diversified and consolidated during Uhuru Kenyatta’s tenure as president. Chapter VI of the constitution on Leadership and Integrity – especially those of its provisions that touch on conflict of interest – does not exist in our political reality.

Meanwhile, public debt has accumulated so rapidly under the Kenyatta regime – Kenyans believe that much of it has been misappropriated – that the mess in public finances no longer has a technical fix, only a political one. Indeed, the outrage expressed by Kenyans on social media at the IMF’s US$2.3 billion facility was caused by the belief among many that this money will also be stolen. Some of the conditionalities the IMF has insisted on in apparent good faith – such as the reform of key state-owned enterprises – were particularly controversial because of the conviction among some that this was a green light for them to be taken over by the very people who precipitated the debt crisis in the first place.

Chapter VI of the constitution on Leadership and Integrity – especially those of its provisions that touch on conflict of interest – does not exist in our political reality.

Local real estate company Knight Frank estimated that by last year Kenya had over 3,000 dollar millionaires. The question that looms over the succession and transition currently underway – and which may explain why it is so confusing – is this: a small group of families have emerged from the last eight years spectacularly wealthy; how do they protect this wealth going forward? Similar questions faced elites in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, etc., especially after the Second World War, but the elites in those countries ultimately chose a generally inclusive form of meritocratic governance.

There are many elites who, having accumulated wealth which they wish to protect in perpetuity, choose to securitise and militarise their politics – essentially throw liberal constitutions out of the window and hold on to the power to steal through a mixture of manipulation, bribery and force. There are those who would argue that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is a vehicle to politically engineer the elite out of the structures imposed on them by the current constitution and essentially emerge with a political deal that serves all their political and commercial interests. Others argue that the elite inclusivity that informs the Building Bridges Initiative – expensive as it will be – is just what Kenya needs. This is a considerably more uncertain model than, say, the Taiwanese or South Korean ones, where the elites fashioned a political and constitutional arrangement that served not just their own interests but those of the entire population as well. Securing the peace and prosperity of the masses is the surest protection for the wealth of the elite.

The combination of factors – the impact of COVID-19; upcoming elections with all the realignments they imply; a volatile region; increasingly unmanageable debt; and, most importantly, the demographic challenge of a now thoroughly disillusioned youth who no longer believe politicians or trust their own governance institutions – will force some of the most consequential choices our hardened elite have ever made. Multinationals like the Kenyattas’ need political predictability and policy consistency unless they are in the extractive sector, selling alcohol, drugs or cigarettes rather than perishables like milk and yoghurt.

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John Githongo is one of Kenya’s leading anti-graft campaigners and former anti-corruption czar.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour migration as climate mitigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparations include No Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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