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The Kenyan Elite and the Constitution

14 min read.

Kenya’s constitutional history did not develop in a vacuum. To understand the recent limitations placed on the powers of the executive by the 2010 constitution, the case for viewing Kenyan politics in the long durée remains compelling.



The Kenyan Elite and the Constitution
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Uhuru Kenyatta seems to be Kenya’s least powerful president – at least as suggested by a number of recent developments.

Kenyatta has spent much time and energy during his second term in office defending the basis of his Building Bridges Initiative, otherwise known as the BBI. He has also had to defend his rekindled dalliance with his closest challenger for the presidency in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, Raila Odinga.

Uhuru’s famous March 2018 handshake with Raila is not only wreaking havoc within his own Jubilee Alliance party, but has also made his Mt. Kenya political base restive. The climate of intolerance that he attempted to create – unleashing the security agencies on recalcitrant members of his party –  following his détente with the leader of the largest opposition party in parliament, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), seems to not have yielded much for him, after all. Kiambu Woman Representative, Gathoni wa Muchomba, is now the latest supporter from the president’s base to decamp to the Tangatanga movement, the Jubilee wing associated with the Deputy President William Ruto, which has opposed the handshake and the BBI process.

For several months following the handshake, Kenyans grew accustomed to an increasingly irritable and angry president, demanding but not quite able to command full loyalty, especially within his party. The country became used to bitter public diatribes that the president unleashed in his mother tongue, targeted at people who disagreed, or criticised his leadership. Uhuru Kenyatta continues to be on the defensive regarding his under-performing administration and his expensive mega-infrastructure projects. With his party the Jubilee Alliance declared damaged by his deputy president, Uhuru constantly distances himself from what he now describes in public as “politics”.

Now, whenever Uhuru speaks at the launch of various “development” projects, the president is careful not to mention the Big Four Agenda – affordable universal health care, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing –  a dim prospect given the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic record that preceded it.

Not only has the judiciary complicated the progress of his BBI plan, but the entire legal fraternity has been up in arms over Uhuru’s decision not to appoint six judges out of a list of 40 that was presented to him over two years ago by the Judicial Service Commission. While the president has insisted that the six judges have outstanding integrity issues — based on information he claims was provided to him by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) — the newly-appointed Chief Justice, Martha Koome, together with her predecessors, David Maraga and Willy Mutunga, have all insisted that the president must appoint the 6 judges or disclose the evidence he claims he has against them.

Since 2013, for Uhuru and members of his administration, the space for making and swiftly implementing public policy has been severely constricted. The requirements for public participation and the involvement of multiple players in the governance process have slowed down the wheels of authoritarian-technocratic rule.

Uhuru’s administration has also had to grapple with constant public criticism, especially when he fails to abide by the law.

Broadly, this is the result of the ramifications of a public language of rights, public participation and consultation, which has been given prominence across the country by the Kenya 2010 constitution.

Limiting the executive branch

While recent analyses and other writings celebrating the 13th May 2021 ruling of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division of the High Court of Kenya in David Ndii and Others vs the Attorney-General and others — widely referred to as the BBI judgement — have been informative and measured, they have elided a crucial understanding of how politics actually works in Kenya.

While focusing on the judgement’s attention to Kenya’s constitutional history since independence, the commentators have glossed over a critical political matrix that underlines Kenya’s constitutional and legal transformation. This is to say that Kenya’s constitutional history did not develop in a vacuum, and that to understand the recent limitations on the powers of the executive, the case for viewing Kenyan politics in the long durée remains compelling.

In her analysis of the judgement, Ambreena Manji highlights the emphasis that the judges, who declared the BBI process unconstitutional, put on Kenya’s constitutional history, arguing that the BBI judgement should be considered historic in two ways: in its elaboration of the basic structure doctrine and in its historical reading of the struggle for constitutional reform in Kenya.

Recent analyses and other writings celebrating the 13th May 2021 ruling of the High Court have elided a crucial understanding of how politics actually works in Kenya.

But the question still remains: why was it possible for Kenyans to bequeath themselves a progressive constitution that limited executive authority in 2010 and not, say, the 1970s, a time of hyper-amendments, and where the “Imperial Presidency” had already emerged?

How then was it possible to write a constitution that seemingly stands against the interests of a political elite whose ideological origins (and for some, biological origins) can be traced to the 1960s, and who were still in power in 2010 and still are? How were Kenyans able to protect the constitution from destruction by the political elite?

Kenya’s constitutional and legal transformation, I argue, is the outcome of Kenya’s own aggressive politics of ethno-regional coalition building, where elites claiming to represent certain ethno-regional communities have become useful in legitimising the political regime.

Put differently, the current transformations in Kenyan politics — where limits can be placed on the extent of the president’s power — are part of the contradictions inherent in the very system of elite domination that historically produced the “Imperial Presidency” under the previous constitution.

Allow me to explain using historical analysis.

The era of elite consensus 

As mentioned, the ideological origins (and for some, the biological origins) of Kenya’s current political elite can be traced back to the 1960s.

The power of Kenya’s post-colonial elite to dominate the rest of the population and key sectors of the economy, and to maintain socio-economic inequalities, has best been exemplified when there are high levels of trust amongst the political elite, or essentially, high levels of elite consensus regarding the “rules of the game”.

Following Kenya’s independence in 1963, elite domination rested on the reification of Jomo Kenyatta as Baba wa Taifa (father of the nation), an alliance, or consensus of ethno-regional elites, the demobilisation of opposition forces, and the ability of those elites to reproduce their political and economic power, while precluding fundamental socio-economic reforms.

It was in this context that, from 1964 to 1992 — the year of the return to multi-party politics — the constitution was amended over twenty times. The amendments served to empower the executive branch of the government at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. At the height of this madness (in 1990), the Office of the President (OP) had a staff of 43,230, representing a ratio of 1 in 6 civil servants. The OP became a parallel government, with considerably more executive power than actual ministries. According to the BBI judgement, the constitution had been “stripped of most of its initial democratic and social justice protections” such that the country “had effectively become an authoritarian state.”

The situation was not improved by the fact that Kenya had emerged out of colonial rule with a profoundly unbalanced institutional landscape.

Parliament, political parties and the judiciary were largely underdeveloped compared to the executive and the bureaucracy. For purposes of mobilising the population for development and for political legitimacy, the ruling party — the Kenya African National Union, or KANU — was immediately replaced by the bureaucratic machinery that was directly answerable to the head of state. In fact, it was the provincial administration, answerable to the executive and with a demonstrable capacity to exercise top-down political and administrative control across the country, that was responsible for the maintenance of law and order, keeping the entire population in check, and maintaining the socio-economic inequalities that have been a hallmark in Kenya’s economic trajectory since independence.

Why was it possible for Kenyans to bequeath themselves a progressive constitution that limited executive authority in 2010 and not, say, in the 1970s?

Before the colonial government departed, it ensured that it had demobilised the Mau Mau and left the instruments of power in the hands of elites who would be sympathetic to British interests. This is why, shortly after he became Kenya’s first Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta — who had been declared by a colonial governor as “Kenya’s leader unto darkness and death” — rushed to Nakuru to urge white settlers not to leave the country.

Inside the smoke-filled room, Kenyatta dismissed recent clamours for the redistribution of land and wealth by many of his supporters as “young blood boiling” that he would soon quell down.

Kenyatta went on to assure his audience – many of whom had been alarmed by the impending independence – that he was a farmer like them, that they had something in common, the subtext suggesting that he was a “responsible” African leader.

These managerial arguments were not a simple placating of white settlers.

By the time Kenyatta was addressing his newly embraced compatriots in Nakuru, the colonial government had already co-opted sympathetic African elites into the bureaucracy, the legislature and the private-property-based economy. A coalition between the executive branch of government, the allies of colonialism, and representatives of global capital thus emerged, and Kenyatta was keen to deepen that arrangement. This also meant that colonial loyalists and representatives of transnational capital would come to reap the full benefits of independence. It was during this time, the late 1950s and early 1960s, that these elites not only took control of the means of production, they also assumed the political and institutional capacity to reproduce their dominance in the decades to come.

In particular, the ability of this alliance to reproduce itself over the years since independence lay in its capacity to demobilise popular forces and progressive movements, especially those elements of the nationalist movement that questioned both the social and economic inequalities of the post-colonial state. The ability to demobilise opposition forces lay in the strength of the bureaucracy that was itself beholden to the elites that had taken over the executive branch in the early 1960s.

Representative institutions, such as parliament and local governments, were downgraded and diminished. Amendments to the constitution made easy, in this context, became a sharp tool in the exercise of authoritarian power. This is why, bequeathed a Westminster-style parliamentary system of government in 1963, Kenya quickly became a republic with an executive president in 1964.

The independence constitution had also made provisions that took considerable power and significant functions of government away from the Nairobi-based executive through a system of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. By 1964, the majimbo system had been dismantled.

The ability to demobilise opposition forces lay in the strength of the bureaucracy that was itself beholden to the elites that had taken over the executive branch in the early 1960s.

With majimbo gone, the independence senate lacked rationale, and it too was abolished. Just before this happened, the Kenya African Democratic Union, or KADU, the main supporter of majimbo, had folded, citing frustration from the executive.

By abolishing the regional majimbo governments, and getting rid of the senate, the parliamentary system and the first post-colonial opposition party, the post-colonial elite pact of domination was complete.

The era of elite fragmentation

Daniel Arap Moi — whose political base was outside the central region that had dominated politics since the early 1960s — grew more and more paranoid when he became president in 1978.

First and foremost, Moi knew very well that he did not command the respect that Kenyatta had commanded as the founding father, but in addition to this, the resources that Kenyatta relied upon to reward other elites who eventually legitimised his rule became thinner during Moi’s time.

An attempted coup in 1982 poisoned the chalice, and Moi resorted to more strong-armed tactics. He began interfering with elections more brazenly, and eventually surrounded himself with a coterie of loyal political cronies who did not carry much political weight in their own regions.

With the return to multi-party politics in the 1990s, the core that had held together the elite pact of domination during the 1960s and 1970s gave way. This ushered in a period of elite fragmentation, which was combined with the instrumentalisation of ethnicity and violence in the political marketplace.

The situation was not improved by the fact that Kenya emerged out of colonial rule with a profoundly unbalanced institutional landscape.

In an attempt to maintain his grip on power, Moi resuscitated the majimbo idea in the Rift Valley, Western and Coast regions. While the majimbo idea regained prominence in these regions, its ethnically-exclusivist language engendered massive violence that targeted Kikuyu peasants and Luo workers, especially during electoral periods, in an attempt to evict them from these regions.

A brief coalition of Luo and Kikuyu elites in 2002 removed Moi from power. But the next president, Mwai Kibaki, assumed power under Kenya’s former top-heavy constitution, that which had created what we now remember as the “Imperial Presidency”. Kibaki had won the 2002 elections on a platform of constitutional reform, but differences quickly emerged in his coalition — the National Rainbow Alliance, or Narc — regarding what would be the new constitutional order.

The differences revolved around two main questions regarding the structure of government. The first question was: should Kenya adopt a presidential or a parliamentary system? The other question was: what should be the extent of decentralisation?

One of the Narc coalition’s partners, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that was led by Raila Odinga, favoured a parliamentary system, but with a dual executive, that is, a president with a strong prime minister, and extensive provisions for decentralisation, that is, a three-tier system involving eight regions akin to the majimbo system of the 1960s.

The other coalition partner, the National Alliance Party of Kenya, that was led by the then President Mwai Kibaki, favoured a system with a single executive, that is, the president as the primary holder of executive authority, and a modest form of decentralisation, preferably deconcentration.

Kibaki’s group, of course, was in control of the executive branch, and as such, worked to ensure that the Bomas of Kenya draft (named after the venue at which it was deliberated), and which had provided for the system most favoured by Raila Odinga’s faction of the Narc coalition, was altered.

The Bomas deliberations had begun in the twilight years of Moi’s rule and were continued by Kibaki during his first term in office, becoming Kenya’s National Constitutional Conference, a people-led, constitutional review process. However, the draft that was presented at the 2005 constitutional referendum was not the one agreed to at Bomas.

Tampered with by the then legal advisor (the Attorney-general) of the executive branch, Amos Wako, the draft that became known as the “Wako draft” retained a powerful president and watered down the provisions on decentralisation.

Essentially, the “Wako draft” rebuffed the greatest assault on the power of the executive since Kenya gained independence.

As a result, it was defeated by a vote that was mobilised by a new coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement, the ODM, largely led by Raila Odinga, and which was named after the “No” symbol (an orange) of the 2005 plebiscite vote. Kibaki’s government became more and more alienated from the non-Kikuyu public. The seeds of the 2007 post-election violence had been planted.

Birthing the 2010 constitution

The process of elite fragmentation that had begun in earnest during the 1980s and 1990s had exceeded its limitations by 2007. Trust amongst the political elite was at its lowest immediately before and after the 2007-08 post-election violence.

Believing that he was operating in the institutional landscape within which Jomo Kenyatta had operated in the 1960s and 1970s, Kibaki deployed the machinery of the executive to quell opposition protests against his declared victory in the 2007 elections.

The outcome was disastrous.

Over 1,300 lives were lost and more than half a million people were displaced in violence that was sparked by the disputed electoral results.

Without an alliance of elites representing Kenya’s multiple ethno-regional formations backing him up, Kibaki was forced to enter into a deal with Raila Odinga, ODM leader and his challenger during the 2007 elections.

Since trust amongst Kenya’s political elite was at an all-time low, the deal had to be brokered by a foreigner, the late Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and through it, Raila became Prime Minister in a coalition government with Mwai Kibaki as president.

Important to note –  and central to this piece’s argument – is that it was within this context of lack of political trust amongst the political elite — or elite fragmentation, with one side always trying to “fix” the other — that far-reaching constitutional reforms saw the light of day, culminating in the Kenya 2010 constitution.

A marriage of convenience, with mutual suspicion and at times, non-cooperation, became the best description of the operations of the grand coalition government of 2008-2013. In short, the political elite had been forced into a weak alliance following the 2007 post-election violence – nothing to match the strong alliance of elites, and hence, elite domination, that was witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The “Wako draft” rebuffed the greatest assault on the power of the executive since Kenya gained independence.

In addition, the 2007-08 post-election violence meant that the political elite had lost the moral authority to define the future political direction of the country without consulting ordinary citizens. This meant that, inadvertently, the political elite came to share the power to decide the country’s political affairs with civil society organisations and human-rights activists, most of whom were lawyers. These lawyers and activists had also taken part in the then twenty-year popular struggle for a new constitution, a struggle that begun with the re-introduction of multi-party politics in the 1990s.

The lessons and the pain of that struggle informed the strong guardrails that were placed against amendments to the harmonised draft of previous draft constitutional documents, work that was done by a Committee of Experts (CoE) appointed in 2008. At the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha, the CoE-crafted and harmonised draft was presented to a Parliamentary Select Committee of 14 Party of National Unity (PNU) members, Kibaki’s party, and 13 ODM members, Raila’s party. During the Naivasha proceedings, the PNU side was surprised by ODM’s willingness to relax its demands for a three-tier decentralised system based on eight regions in favour of devolution based on 47 counties; and to let go of the parliamentary system altogether in favour of the presidential system.

The deal that would eventually lead Kenya into a pure presidential system under the 2010 constitution, it was reported, was struck by none other than Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, the principals of the BBI process eight years later – in a room at the lodge.

A pure presidential system in the sense that, not only would cabinet ministers be appointed from outside parliament, but the losers of the presidential election, no matter how many votes they garnered during an election, would not be accorded any public office. The Naivasha draft, presented to parliament for debate in mid-2010, also scrapped the regional tier of government, and fixed the number of parliamentary constituencies at 290. Given the strong parameters that had been placed by the CoE process to changing the draft in parliament, nothing much changed after that.

Of course, the electoral experience of 2007 had shown both Raila Odinga and William Ruto — the leading ODM politicians at the time — that they too, could ascend to centralised power by becoming president directly through the ballot, and not through control of regional governments, or by having to go through parliament. In light of this, they abandoned the clamour for majimbo and for the parliamentary system.

The proposed 2010 constitution was good to go. The political elite, believing that it would be a useful tool in the waging of their battles for power, did not raise major questions around the structure of the executive and decentralisation. As a result, the 2010 constitution was adopted through a popular vote in a referendum in August 2010, and was promulgated shortly thereafter.

Enter the BBI

The first disappointment, at least for Raila and his supporters, arrived in 2013.

Raila Odinga lost the presidential election by a slight margin under the 2010 constitution to a new (Jubilee) alliance led by Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. This was repeated in 2017, when Raila again lost to Uhuru amidst reports of irregularities during the transmission of results.

Despite his considerable political influence over vast swathes of the country, Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017. In 2017 he had successfully contested Uhuru’s presidential victory at the Supreme Court and proceeded to boycott a repeat poll, citing lack of a competent and impartial electoral commission.

Two months before the two leaders met and shook hands on the steps of Harambee House, launching the BBI as a result, Raila had also made real his threat to take a symbolic presidential oath in defiance of Uhuru as the “people’s president”.

Meanwhile, 76 people, including ten children, had died during opposition protests by the time Uhuru was sworn in for his second term as president. Pressure from civil society organisations and the international community to find a political settlement was piling. A debt-burdened economy was threatening to stall. Uhuru, like former President Mwai Kibaki before him, was probably worried about tarnishing his own legacy.

It was within this context of lack of political trust amongst the political elite that far-reaching constitutional reforms saw the light of day, culminating in the Kenya 2010 constitution.

It was in this context that the BBI process came about — to create additional positions within the executive so as to accommodate, essentially, more ethno-regional elites that, as Kenyan history has shown, are often useful in legitimising a political regime.

In sum, one could argue that the BBI proposals were, and still are, meant to curb the excessive elite fragmentation that has marked the country’s political history since the 1980s and 1990s in order to produce the elite pact of domination that existed during the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, before the Constitutional and Human Rights Court complicated the BBI process by declaring it unconstitutional and null and void, the BBI report had yet again tightened control around the presidency. If successful, the president would get to appoint a prime minister from parliament, who will also be the leader of the largest political party or the largest coalition of political parties. The president will also appoint two deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers drawn from within and outside parliament. The report had also recommended the disbandment of the National Police Service Commission and the creation of a National Police Council to be chaired by a cabinet secretary, that is, a presidential appointee. It had also established the office of an ombudsman within the Judiciary, to be appointed by the president.

As Uhuru Kenyatta and his allies continue to wish for the return to a more “orderly” past, where a few individuals with disproportionate political and administrative power could decide the fate of the entire country, it would be to their advantage to know that that system of elite domination carries inherent contradictions.

The more the political elite expands, the more we shall witness fragmentation within its ranks.

As this piece has shown, at its worst (and as was the case during the post-election violence of 2007-8) elite fragmentation births legal and institutional transformations, such as the 2010 constitution. Put differently, the more the political elite becomes busy fighting amongst itself for resources at the disposal of the state, the more constitutional transformations the country will see.

The more the political elite expands, the more we shall witness fragmentation within its ranks.

In my view, the BBI judgement, the current limitations placed on the president and the executive by the constitution, the restiveness within Uhuru’s political base, and the associated political realignments in the run-up to the next general elections in 2022, should all be understood within this framework.

This article is part of The Elephant BBI Judgement Series done in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBF), Dialogue and Civic Spaces Programme. Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the HBF.

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Dr Ngala Chome is a regular commentator on Kenyan politics and culture. His opinion pieces have been published d in Kenya’s The Standard and Daily Nation, influential online publications such as African Arguments, Foreign Affairs and the Elephant. His academic and policy research has been published in various policy reports and in peer-reviewed academic journals and edited volumes. He can be reached for comment at


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.



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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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.



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



The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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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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