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Plunder and Theft: Ways of the African Oligarchs

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How kleptocrat rulers in African countries sell out their resources to international partners, deprive citizens and enrich themselves

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While displaced families in refugee camps were exposed to TB, pneumonia and a range of other respiratory diseases – which could be COVID but no one knew because there were no tests available –, the pandemic meant good times for quite a different group of people in northern Mozambique.  From dollar budgets made available by international development partners to the exploited and conflict-ridden province of Cabo Delgado, the province’s ruling party leaders helped themselves to stays in beach hotels, lavish catering, supermarket goods and ‘COVID awareness’ dance music. A list of provincial expenses, obtained by the ZAM Kleptocracy Project, shows that donor-funded COVID 19 money went straight to such ‘official events’ for the province’s elite, while practically none of it was used to buy tests or treatment for the sick.

A good share of it likely went into local leaders’ pockets, too, for instance when the Hotel Sarima in Cabo Delgado’s capital, Pemba, was issued a budget of US$ 172,000 for three ‘COVID workshops’ formally costed at five hundred dollars each, but pocketed ‘only’  US$ 20,000 from the provincial authorities. ‘The rest is still with the province’, in the words of the hotel manager, Anifa Gonzaque. What ‘with the province’ meant was a question that could only be answered by provincial health director Anastacia Lidimba, who had signed the Hotel Sarima contract, but, even after the question was put to her four times via different channels, including personal Whatsapp and the provincial press spokesperson, Anastacia Lidimba refused to answer it.

Diamonds and supercars

There were more such instances in Cabo Delgado. And in the rest of Mozambique. And in Mali, where a former minister in charge of COVID funds suddenly said the fund had disappeared and just as suddenly appeared to have loads of cash for a new election campaign, while refusing to comment on any link between the two. At the time of writing, US$ 800 million in total COVID expenditure in South Africa is under investigation for possibly corrupt use; an amount close to a quarter of US$ 4,3 billion granted to that country by the IMF in emergency COVID relief.

With regard to other public expenditure, separately from COVID funds, similar theft and wastage of taxpayers money and aid dollars plague Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Liberia. The ZAM Kleptocracy Project, a soon to be published new series of investigations by investigative journalists in nine African countries, exposes how political elites line their own pockets by selling out their countries. To do this, the kleptocrat rulers use the state systems that were once established by colonial regimes in their countries, literally carrying on the same resource extracting and plunder practices of their colonialist predecessors. Investigations from Uganda and Nigeria show that top politicians and bureaucrats even steal from own citizens in schemes that siphon off money: from civil servants’ salaries to payments for public services such as marriage certificates.

Other self-enrichment by kleptocrat elites ranges from the pocketing of COVID and other development grants to foreign loans and from diamond proceeds and social welfare budgets to inflated visa and passport costs billed to citizens.

In Zambia, journalists Charles Mafa and John Mukela found that politicians, top bureaucrats and ruling party officials benefit from expensive foreign loans for agricultural projects, while the repayment and interest on the loans is carried by poor farmers. In Nigeria, investigative editor Theophilus Abbah uncovered how visa and passport contracts with international tech companies create wealth for those on top of the deals, while the country loses out. His colleague Taiwo Adebulu unearthed a network in the same Ministry of Interior that extorts citizens who need marriage papers. In Uganda, in an investigation done by John Masaba, teachers often don’t even receive payslips for their salaries, which means that, when these salaries are stolen by bureaucrats higher up, they have no paper trail to track their money. Liberian citizens, likewise, watch politicians flaunt their mansions and supercars on social media, while, as Bettie Johnson Mbayo notes, the local anti corruption commission states that they simply have no way to track the origins of these assets.

Engineered to plunder

The series, which will be published by ZAM over an eight-week period and kicks off with a ‘follow-the-money’ exercise that focuses on COVID aid funds in Mozambique, Mali and South Africa, underlines that not merely individuals, but entire systems, are corrupt. In the case of the COVID investigation, this can even include, as David Dembélé in Mali shows, an entire circus of banners, posters and workshops, organised by the kleptocrat state to make donors think that the country is taking the COVID 19 threat seriously.

All the while, the bulk of aid and tax moneys made available to the kleptocratic states simply fattens and empowers those in charge. In the three countries of focus for the COVID 19 emergency funds investigation, only a fraction was spent on actual medicines, treatment facilities and health workers’ needs while in Mozambique, several millions of the aid money went to arms purchases. In Mali, likewise, the bolstered regime heightened its surveillance of health workers to prevent critical voices exposing ‘the deaths in tents in the sand.’  Meanwhile, the former deputy boss of the Nigerian Immigration Service, Daniel Makolo, lost both his job and his house after writing a memo about the  siphoning off of state funds by a partnership of foreign companies and top bureaucrats.

The investigations raise questions about ‘anti corruption’ measures that have been taken in African countries in the past. It appears as if countless ‘good governance’ commissions and speeches, like in Liberia, stay mainly where they originate, that is, on paper. In Uganda, even ministers seem reluctant to take action to clean up their offices. ‘There are these corrupt people in my department,’ in the words of the Ugandan minister of Public Service. ‘But we try to train and reorientate them’.  In the same country, as in Nigeria, online fixes – a digital payroll, a digital public service appointment service-  have turned out to be just as cosmetic as long as the corrupt  stay in charge of the computers.

In Mali, no ministry even answers the phone while the Mozambican Finance Ministry spokesperson, Alfredo Mutombene, states in response to Estacio Valoi’s questions that he ‘will only be able to find misuse of funds after all the state’s auditing mechanisms will have been deployed.’ In all countries of focus such auditing reports are issued year after year, mostly without anything changing or any culprits held accountable.

Uncancellable contracts

The ZAM ‘anatomy of kleptocracy’ project begins to lift a veil of the mechanisms and processes in African state machineries that enable and reproduce continuous corruption. It portrays plunder systems so entrenched that nothing changes, even when individual ‘rotten apples’ are arrested. In Zambia, the judicial system has seen two ministers who amassed ill-gotten wealth for all to see, in court for corruption recently. Both were left off the hook; and one is still even a minister. In Nigeria, neither a parliamentary investigation nor a series of court cases could reverse a situation where taxpayers money was funnelled off to international companies in which top bureaucrats had a stake; this is still happening today. Though the fraudulent bureaucrats in question were criticised and their prosecution was called for by parliament, nothing happened; even the parasitical ‘uncancellable’ contracts, whereby money from citizens for passports lands in private pockets, still stay in place today.

STREAMER Citizens are targeted with anger and victimisation

All the above is paired with callous exploitation and deprivation of own citizens, as well as with equally systemic oppression of these citizens’ complaints and protests. In Uganda, according to a parliamentary commission report unearthed by John Masaba, corrupt bureaucrats are so powerful that they are able to doubly victimise teachers who complain about salary theft. In Nigeria, engaged couples who try to book their marriages by using the proper online appointment procedure, are met with anger and repercussions, with bureaucrats withholding their certificates until they do pay the bribes and go away.

While good civil servants who genuinely try to do their jobs are often silenced and victimised, like in the Nigerian case of Daniel Makolo, those lacking ethics have solid careers. This is shown most starkly in the same Nigerian case, where a private tech company in the passport fees fraud took the country to court to force it to pay even more taxpayers money into the scheme. During that court case, bureaucrats with a stake in the corruption testified against their own country, enabling the ‘damages’ claim, with no repercussions befalling them afterwards.

Poisonous partnerships

Dissecting and analysing the corrupt and exploitative state mechanisms encountered by the journalists, the investigations unearth several categories of what they call ‘poisonous partnerships’  between kleptocrat regimes and their global ‘associates’. First among these are the appropriation and sell-out of natural resources, – which is after all an activity for which these state systems were set up by colonisers in the first place-, now under the control of ruling parties or military. Secondly, there is the literal selling out of countries into indebtedness, with the bill to be paid by citizens: in Zambia, ruling politicians now take loan after loan to -inter alia- fund overpriced and top heavy agricultural projects, with the proviso that these loans must be paid back by poor farmers, while the project bosses who asked for the deals are seen building mansions for themselves.

The klepto states also invariably also invite criminal syndicates to enter through the large loopholes on all levels in the system, in a dance of collusion with the officials ‘inside.’ The journalists cite examples that range from Zimbabwe’s diamonds to the COVID support grants in South Africa, reported on by Nazlee Arbee.

The poisonous partners, – ranging from financial donors to tech companies and from outright criminals to diamond-, wood-  and other natural resources buyers,-  support the regimes in question, but don’t contribute to actual development of a state that can deliver services like health care to its citizens. Charity -real or perceived-, the enrichment of a political elite, plunder of resources, exploitation of citizens and continued underdevelopment are factors in all the investigations. The most poignant example of this is perhaps the Nigerian passports and visa scheme, where both the state budget and citizens pay double fees into a constitutionally illegal ‘public-private’ partnership, while in the end, the job of protecting the borders is not even done. In Nigeria, armed militias and bandits still leave and enter the territory as they please.

Aid and underdevelopment

Questions raised by the Kleptocracy Project range from the possible failure of previous anti corruption fixes to the reasons why measures like management controls – firing directors who don’t supervise the work of subordinates, for example- , or abdicating as a minister, seem to be out of the question, while financial scrutiny is limited to reporting after the fact. How do these states function and how, if at all, can they be transformed to a real public service? What is the actual role of international partners vis a vis the postcolonial regimes in Africa? Are money streams to those states, in either loans or charity, still to be pursued? Does aid help development or does it entrench the status quo, as Kenyan activist Nanjala Nyabola said recently when she tweeted that vaccine donations to ‘Africa’ presented an ‘active study in how aid causes underdevelopment’ and that donations make it difficult to ‘pressure our governments to prioritise health’?

Nyabola’s observation is supported by the project’s findings in Mozambique, where politicians were quite happy to party with aid money because, as a state spokesperson put it, ‘our partners take care of our health needs anyway’ and in South Africa, where president Ramaphosa protested against ‘vaccine hoarding’ by the west, while budgets that could have bought vaccines last year had disappeared. In coming months ZAM will be following up on these observations and questions. What do the Kenyans who recently protested against extra IMF loans to their ‘pocket filling’ leaders, have to say on the subject? How can solidarity with Ugandan activists, who are arrested with police vehicles funded with Dutch development aid money, take shape?

Investigative journalism

On the bright side, the increasing practice of investigative journalism in Africa already seems to be making a difference. Though authorities in many African countries habitually do not respond to calls for comment, the incessant questioning during this project has started causing what might be called a remote response. After Taiwo Adebulu’s requests for comment, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior announced that it ‘would penalise any official of the federal marriage registries found culpable of corruption’ while in South Africa, the head of the social welfare institution SASSA publicly described the challenges in her department in a weekly newspaper after Nazlee Arbee had bombarded the same department with questions. In Uganda, the parliamentary committee on education announced an investigation into the disappearance of civil servants’ salaries and the imminent arrests of thieves in the education department.

While similar measures and investigations have been announced time and time again, with no tangible results, the jittery reactions to journalists’ queries may indicate an incipient awareness among the powerful in the respective countries that demands for change and accountability are not likely to go away any time soon.

Editors note: Click on the link to read all the stories from the Kleptocracy project.

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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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