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IMF: Easy Scapegoat, Wrong Culprit

9 min read.

In the end, it is up to Kenyans to hold their government accountable for the hardships it created. There is only so much the IMF can do, beyond suspending access to the loan or overdraft facility if the country is too lax in implementing agreed measures.

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IMF: Easy Scapegoat, Wrong Culprit
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The recent anti-IMF crusade certainly made the point that people are fed up with the current administration’s economic management. Kenyans On Twitter (KOT) can be a force, and quite often a useful one, especially when dealing with narrowly defined issues that their intended target – a corporate, or a government organisation – can easily address. Why the International Monetary Fund authorised another loan to Kenya, however, is a far more complex issue.

The following is a brief and hopefully accessible attempt at an explanation of the basics of how the IMF works. An important disclaimer: This article is not about the IMF’s specific policy preferences.

Not an Ordinary Lender 

The Fund has three main functions: Monitoring global economic risks, Advising members on the management of their economy, and acting as a lender of last resort.

The third function is the context for their most recent Kenya loan. This is crucial to understand: recourse to the IMF is almost always a last resort. Unlike commercial lenders or development banks, the IMF does not lend for specific projects or programmes. Nobody goes to the IMF to build a new railway or to buy mobile clinics (by which I mean barely modified shipping containers supplied by a company with no track record in medical equipment). You do so when you face a crisis and have few other options. At that point, you will by default have to make some difficult choices.

Kenya’s economy has been hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic which has reduced demand for Kenyan products and services abroad and slowed down Kenya’s economy domestically. At the same time, there is need for more government spending to address the crisis. This is not unique to Kenya. It is a global challenge.

However, while covid has certainly made Kenya’s economic challenges more difficult, it is not the only, or even the primary, reason for the current crisis, and for seeking IMF assistance. Even before the pandemic, the current administration had already created a situation in which it had few to no reserves left to deal with a crisis.

Revenue collection had been behind (clearly unrealistic) targets for years, leading to persistent large fiscal deficits that needed to be financed. This also indicates that budget planning had serious flaws. Furthermore, the rapid increase in debt, at commercial terms, often for white-elephant projects with inadequate-to-no returns, has required a larger percentage of the already scarce revenues to be diverted to debt service. Several observers, including David Ndii, have warned of this for years.

Covid exacerbated but did not cause Kenya’s problems. The reasons why the country is in the unsustainable situation of having to borrow to finance recurrent expenditures and service debt is of GOK’s making and would likely have led to a crisis even without Covid.

In short, what the IMF is offering is a crisis loan, and another loan for another white elephant. The current loan facility is intended to strengthen Kenya’s forex holdings and ensure that the government can continue meeting its payment obligations.

These are not minor reasons: If a country runs out of hard currency, trade will grind to a halt. Not everything can be simply replaced with local production. If GOK cannot pay its employees, this will have a ripple effect through a large number of families, and to the people and companies they typically buy from. As a crisis measure, the IMF loan is effectively the least-worst response.

Covid exacerbated but did not cause Kenya’s problems. The reasons why the country is in the unsustainable situation of having to borrow to finance recurrent expenditures and service debt is of GOK’s making and would likely have led to a crisis even without Covid.

It will also allow GOK to borrow more. Is this ideal? Certainly not. But there are few alternatives at the moment. At least in the short term, you should hope that Treasury will use the cheaper IMF money and the new borrowings enabled by it, to retire more expensive debt and meet its other current obligations.

In the medium to longer term, you should hope that Treasury pursues what is typically referred to as fiscal consolidation: to ensure that planned spending is more in line with revenue collection; that revenue collection is forecast more accurately; that less money is lost to corruption; and that GOK borrows sensibly.

What the IMF Doesn’t Do  

Making the IMF the bogeyman is problematic for several reasons. To begin with, it reduces the agency that Kenya and its citizens have, however imperfect. The misguided focus on the IMF lets off the hook the actors who are actually responsible for the current situation, and obscures paths that people can take to fix it.

Rasna Warah’s recent op-ed on The Elephant, SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan, repeats a lot of that misinformation.

She bases her arguments on two dated and widely discredited works: the disputed ‘Economic Hitman’ who tells tales of the 70s; and Naomi Klein, not an economist, and who has gone on to new recent fame as a conspiracy theorist and is generally not respected for the soundness of her research.

The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) were painful for a large number of people but invoking them is lazy without the acknowledgement of the historical background. SAPs, too, were imposed after countries had hit a balance of payments crisis (i.e. had run out of hard currency). They were used in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. decades ago, in different economic and political circumstances, during the Cold War. And even the IMF has some learning capacity. Subsequent instruments were modified to, for example, protect spending on social safety nets or redirect public expenditures towards areas that focus on the poor.

What the IMF is offering is a crisis loan, and another loan for another white elephant. The current loan facility is intended to strengthen Kenya’s forex holdings and ensure that the government can continue meeting its payment obligations

Then there is this hodgepodge of allegations: ‘Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as ‘conditionalities’) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.”

The IMF cannot create a crisis. It monitors economic developments and reviews member countries’ economies regularly in consultation with them. The results of these reviews are written up in the report on the Article IV consultations – so called because they are required by Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement. You can find them under each country on their website.

The IMF also doesn’t ‘carefully manipulate data’. They use the member country’s data and indicate the sources. In Kenya’s case, they were published by the Central Bank, Treasury, and the Kenya National Bureau of Standards. The Fund may disagree with the member country on the forecast (GOK, for example, often tends to be a bit more optimistic regarding GDP growth) but you can check the following year to see who was more accurate. This is also something that ratings and research firms do – take the data that a country publishes, feed them into their model and add their assessment to determine a country’s creditworthiness.

As mentioned, the IMF is a lender of last resort, so the loans that may drive a country into a debt crisis did not come from the Fund – it was all the borrowing elsewhere that created this situation. As a lender of last resort, the IMF also does not lend for infrastructure.

The IMF also does not need to ‘bring Kenya back into the fold’ because Kenya is a member country, and remains so. In 2017, the IMF suspended Kenya’s access to an emergency overdraft facility because Kenya did not pass the first review of the underlying agreements for this facility. This was leaked to the press in early 2018, just before the eurobond – the IMF had likely kept this quiet to not be accused of interfering in the election. Although Kenya failed the scheduled second and third review as well, lending resumed in 2020 with a loan to help address the pandemic’s impact.

The IMF cannot create a crisis. It monitors economic developments and reviews member countries’ economies regularly in consultation with them.

This bit is also not quite correct: “When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China”. Kibaki consolidated public finances that he inherited from Moi, and was far more cautious about borrowing in general, and about borrowing on commercial terms. This was reversed under the current administration. Under Uhuru Kenyatta, ironically once Kibaki’s Finance Minister, the percentage of concessionary loans fell, and the percentage of commercial loans, especially from China, shot up.

None of the above is secret information. The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is a useful resource to understand debt and fiscal data, and people like David Ndii have written about debt and fiscal trends, and the build up of risk, for years.

Or you could go to the bogeyman directly:

Out of 196 countries, only seven are not members, so the IMF sits on a treasure trove of data and research. The IMF’s website is a useful resource if you are interested in economic analysis, either generally or for a specific project (or to comment on IMF’s loan facility to Kenya). If you are not an economist, it will take a bit of practice using the IMF website: It is very technical, and IMF staffers write much like central bankers, i.e. their style is very dry and anodyne (It can take a while to figure out that when they say something is ‘not ideal’, that means it is really rather bad). You may need to look up some terminology, and it also helps to look up the specific instruments that the IMF uses.

Kenya’s most recent Article IV report, i.e. the write up of the discussion of the state of the economy, is here. You can read through the IMF’s agreed programme with Kenya here. If you want to talk about ‘structural adjustment’, you should take note of the details of what the IMF and the Kenyan government have agreed. There is no need to speculate because this information sits right there, in public view.

What About Conditionalities? 

Because the IMF is a lender of last resort and steps in when a country faces a crisis, the loan is typically accompanied by an agreement between the Fund and the member country on what the government should do immediately and with respect to structural changes to prevent the crisis from recurring.

This is a little like sitting down your drunk uncle and demanding some tangible changes after you’ve bailed him out time and time again so that his kids can stay in school. Except in this case the drunk uncle is a sovereign government that was – and I’m going out on limb here, given the problems with election governance – elected by the people to carry out their business on their behalf. This makes things a lot more complicated.

Because the IMF is dealing with a sovereign, elected government, it cannot take over the running of the country’s affairs (aside from the fact that this would not be practical for an organisation that serves most countries around the globe). Handing over to the IMF would invalidate the voters’ right to choose their representatives.

Because the IMF is a lender of last resort and steps in when a country faces a crisis, the loan is typically accompanied by an agreement between the Fund and the member country on what the government should do immediately and with respect to structural changes to prevent the crisis from recurring.

As the country is already in a crisis, there will necessarily be hard choices in the short term. Since the SAPs, agreements between the IMF and the borrowing countries usually include explicit clauses to ensure social protection, i.e. to ring fence money for healthcare and social safety networks so that cuts in spending have to be made elsewhere, or to continue investing in areas that would benefit the poorer demographics. This is also included in Kenya’s most recent agreement.

But in this, the IMF has to rely on the recipient country to adhere to the agreement since the Fund does not sit in Treasury approving GOK expenditure. If your country’s overall governance is weak – with, for example, an estimated 30 percent of the budget being stolen every year through dodgy contracting that enriches the rich instead of improving services for the general population – the IMF cannot fix this overnight. Rolling back corruption takes time, and is incredibly difficult, even if there is political will, which you can justifiably doubt. An increase in, for example, fuel taxes is considerably more immediate and achievable, which is important in a fiscal crisis.

In Kenya, that previously translated to the government ending a VAT exemption on fuel. This has a far-reaching impact that affected poor people more than the wealthy, and the resultant public protests led to a halfway solution of reducing the VAT to 8%, achieved through parliament. The important takeaway is that it is GoK that dug Kenyans into this hole, and limited the options for getting them out, not the IMF.

In the end, it is up to Kenyans to hold their government accountable for this and the hardships it created. There is only so much the IMF can do, beyond suspending access to the loan or overdraft facility if the country is too lax in implementing agreed measures, including “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”. As a lender of last resort, its main purpose is to provide support for short term stabilisation, with which a turnaround can be planned.

Further, not borrowing from the IMF, as a loud segment of KOT has demanded, would not prevent the pain of adjustment, and it might make it more severe, e.g. through international trade disruptions, and more government defaults on domestic payments.

So who should Kenyans shout at? 

The people they elected to manage the financial and other affairs of this country.

This includes MPs and other legislators. A big part of their job is to check the executive, including what the executive proposes during budget planning. It isn’t to go along with whatever nonsense is proposed, whether in the budget, or in a supplementary budget, or with respect to yet another increase of the debt ceiling, and to wait for “incentives” to vote them through. This is especially relevant for those measures agreed with the IMF.

Kenyans should also consider, and demand accountability for, how the ruling classes’ political shenanigans, such as the Building Bridges Initiative, affect public finances (referenda don’t come cheap).

Finally, they should focus their outrage and pressure on the lenders who continue to finance GOK’s profligacy and its particularly problematic projects, rather than on the institution helping to clean up the mess.

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Andrea Bohnstedt is an independent country risk analyst, focusing on economic and political risk in East Africa, mainly Kenya.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour migration as climate mitigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparations include No Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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