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I’m Lovin’ It: Kenyans’ Sadistic Fascination With Exams and Failure

9 min read.

Our contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We are inauthentic and sadistic, bent on exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us.

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I’m Lovin’ It: Kenyans’ Sadistic Fascination With Exams and Failure
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I vividly remember an incident that occurred when I was a graduate student in the US. We were having this conversation with an American on campus, when I animatedly said, “I’m so loving this!” The American then saw fit to correct my English, and promptly told me, “In English, we don’t say ‘I am so loving.’ We say ‘I love.’”

This ignorant American, in his own country, seemed unaware that “I’m lovin’ it” was a phrase that had been popularized by the Justin Timberlake song “I’m lovin’ it” and, in a classic manipulation of culture by corporations, had become the tagline for McDonalds commercials. I said, “I’m so loving” very aware of that dynamic. I was also teaching undergraduate American students. They said this all the time and I was simply borrowing a phrase from them.

This American knew I was a graduate student and I must have had a fairly decent command of English, but that did not count. His boldness came from his assumption that, listening to my Kenyan accent, I couldn’t possibly know English well enough to play around with the language. He needed to remind me that when it comes to the English language, he ranks higher than I do.

The incident is an illustration of how purist notions of language and grammar are not innocent of certain social assumptions, and most of all, innocent of power. What language is considered “correct” depends not simply about what people say, but also about our assumptions about a person and their social status.

This complexity of language is exemplified in Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe’s recent humiliation of Kenyan nurses who purportedly failed the English language test necessary for them to work in the UK. The contradictions of the whole incident are mind-boggling. All the social dynamics of language were forgotten when the media, true to its hatred of educated Kenyans, celebrated that Kenyan nurses had failed the entry English test requirements.

Healthcare: The Kenyan middle passage?

Unlike what Kenyans are celebrating, Kagwe did not suggest that the nurses could not speak English. His beef was that they did not prepare for the tests well enough. In fact, he added that the role of the health workers is to prepare for the exams, and at no point did he express concern about the ability of the nurses to communicate in English.

But more troubling is that as the media and Kenyans sadistically celebrate the nurses’ failure, they forget how twisted and insidious the context of the conversation is. The context is the Cabinet Secretary for Health, whose job is to take care of Kenyans’ health, in a government that is supposed to provide work opportunities for Kenyans, telling the clinical officers that he will negotiate and sell their labour to countries abroad. And the conference attendees accepting this logic and clapping.

As Mkawasi Hall recently said in a conversation with me on this matter, the idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place, where the government abandons its contract with the citizens and chooses instead to sell them to foreigners as labour.

The idea of governments looking for foreign employers for their own citizens comes from a very dark and troubling place.

This idea is even worse than what Fanon predicted when he said that the African comprador elite would sell their beaches and landscapes to European tourists and make their countries the brothel of Europe. In this case, we are returning to the Middle Passage four centuries ago where African chiefs kidnapped and sold people into slavery. To add insult to injury, our current chiefs have not learned that it is not money, but African labour, that made the West rich, and they are astonishingly ignorant of Walter Rodney’s argument that the export of African labour underdeveloped, rather than developed, Africa. It defies imagination that the African bourgeoisie can think that the export of African labour will develop Africa because the bourgeoisie are English-speaking, suit-wearing Africans getting dollars from remittances rather than the chiefs receiving guns and cloth of four centuries ago.

Reading Kagwe’s words in print, without the performance, makes the cruelty and absurdity more visible. This is what Kagwe said:

The quality of service that we provide must be at the highest standard possible. Equal to anywhere on earth. If you do that, it will be possible for us to make Kenya a health tourism destination. And if that happens, you (pointing at the audience) will benefit.

As far as I am concerned, we will continue to negotiate for you, and ensure that you work in both Europe and the Middle East. We also have negotiations going on with the Middle Eastern region, and THEY NEED YOU PEOPLE (Kagwe’s emphasis). They need you people (audience applause) and therefore you must make sure that you go there.

But in order for that to happen, we have got to make sure that the standard of our training is one that is universal. . . . Let me tell you what has happened. And this is the truth.

When we test, because there are certain tests that one has to do, depending on the region in the world that you are going to . . . for instance, the ones who are going to England have got to do tests in English, and they have got to do tests I think in computers. Our failure rate, particularly in English, is extremely high (audience laughter). We sent 300 people to do the English exams. Ten passed (Audience laughter and whistling). Ten.

So I am challenging you that this is going to happen. We are going to negotiate, yes, but you are going to have to pass the exams. Not me. You (audience laughter). So when we do those exams, let’s prepare ourselves. Let’s set the standards, so that we are sure that there is no exam anywhere on earth, that a clinical officer training in Kenya can fail.

And therefore when we talk about technologies, when we talk about the future, we need to prepare ourselves to be in that space.

It is clear that Kagwe does not care for the English communication skills of Kenyans. He cares that they pass the tests. That the media and their Kenyan adherents do not see this distinction between communicating in English and passing tests in English is baffling, given that the same people vilified 8.4.4 and praised the Competency Based Curriculum for doing away with exam obsession. Mark you, this saga comes in the week where KICD has announced the assessments of Grades 4 and 5, and Kenyans are responding with wishes of good luck to the children, despite the repeated claims that the assessments are not examinations.

So the Kenyans saying that nurses need to pass English tests to prove they can work in English are contradicting themselves. They want to equate passing tests to ability to work, yet, 1) they lament about the obsession with exams, and 2) they do not want to listen to the fact that most educationists agree that passing tests makes you a good test taker and says little about your skill in the work place.

Grammar or communication?

Now let’s go to the tests themselves. Kenyan media is mocking nurses based on information from a generic website calling itself SCL Online that claims that the tests are mapped “against the Common European Framework of Reference used to describe language ability.”

First, this SLC Online is not an official examinations body. The media has not done the homework of verifying that this so-called test was the one administered to the nurses. Second, the Common European Framework is for European countries where citizens speak another European language as their first language. In other words, the framework is for a European French speaker or German speaker seeking to work in the UK, or for a European English speaker seeking to work in Spain or in Holland. Those standards do not take into account former colonies where European languages are still imposed through the education system and exist in a coercive relationship with local African languages. So testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.

Let’s dig further into the abuse. According to Kenyan media reports, “nurses had 20 minutes to complete 60 multiple choice questions,” and some are listed here:

  1. My teacher ______ from the United Kingdom.
    A. are
    B. is
    C. am
    D. be
  2. What’s _______ name?
    A. –
    B. his
    C. him
    D. he
  3. My friend _______ in London.
    A. living
    B. live
    C. lives
    D. is live
  4. Where _______?
    A. works Tom
    B. Tom works
    C. Tom does work
    D. does Tom work
  5. I _______ coffee.
    A. no like
    B. not like
    C. like don’t
    D. don’t like

First, the structure of the questions is misleading and confusing, because one can put an infinite number of English words in the blanks that can correctly complete the sentences. Question 4, for example, does not capture the Kenyanized version of questions in English. A normal Kenyan expression would be “Tom works where?” It may not be the way English natives would ask the question, but heck it works. An English speaker who knows that the Kenyan is a foreigner would not have trouble understanding what the Kenyan is asking.

Unless, of course, the English patient, like my American interlocutor, is hostile to foreigners and is trying to prove a point about ownership and power. And we do know that in the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.

Testing Africans from English-speaking Africa using European standards does not gauge the English language competence of Africans.

When I saw question 5, my instinct was to fill the blank with the word “drink”, only to realize that the task is to choose the correct negation of the verb “to like”. This question is abusive, because before correctly answering the question, one has to realize that the question is about negation, rather than about the verb “to like”. I can categorically say that this question does not test language competence. This test did not need knowledge of English as much as practice at test-taking. Both Kagwe and the nurses’ unions are agreed that the issue is preparing for the tests, not nurses’ language skills.

My next point about this sadistic fascination with Kenyan nurses failing English exams is related to the fact that Kenya is a country where people will pontificate about African languages and fake laments about colonial languages. Why should we accept to have a colonial power sneering at our competence in English? As many sane Kenyans have pointed out, when Cuban doctors were brought to work in Kenya, they were not tested for their competence in Kiswahili. In fact, the same media enjoying the problems of Kenyan nurses was very generous in their reports of Cuban doctors also learning Kenyan languages. Why can’t we demand such consideration of the UK, since we teach in their language?

My last point on language learning comes from my own expertise in teaching French as a foreign language. There has been a debate in language teaching circles about whether to train people to speak a foreign language correctly, or to train them to communicate. About two decades ago, there was a feeling that the insistence on direct translation and correct grammar in foreign language teaching did not make learners competent in communication when speaking the language in the real world.

Speakers of a language also do not necessarily speak the language in the grammatically correct way. We should know this because of how Kenyan speakers of Kiswahili mix up their ngeli, for instance saying “kitabu yake” instead of “kitabu chake”. In front of Tanzanians who take Kiswahili seriously, a Kenyan will concede that they do not speak Kiswahili well. But the same Kenyan would probably laugh at a European who speaks Kiswahili using the correct grammatical form, saying that the European does not speak Kiswahili like a Kenyan.

In the post-Brexit, COVID anti-vaxxers English empire, many English subjects of Her Majesty are hostile to healthcare workers, whether they are White and English or not.

On the other hand, language purists also pointed out that it is difficult to communicate when you do not respect the basic language rules. What this debate meant for us as teachers is that we had to strike a balance between torturing students with grammar and getting them to communicate. For some grammatical errors, it takes time for a speaker to consistently use the correct grammatical form, even though they may know the correct one. For instance, a common error we see in Kenya is the mixing up of gender pronouns in English. And the reason for this is simple: Kenyan languages don’t have a gender distinction in pronouns. The English have he-she, in our languages we just have “anakunywa maji” for both people and animals. Are we going to humiliate Kenyan speakers because they got a pronoun wrong? Rules of grammar are dependent on many social factors besides the ability to correctly take a test.

Finally, it seems absurd that, with the pronouncements by the private sector, politicians and even Education Cabinet Secretaries that Kenya is wasting too many resources on the arts, Kenyans should be concerned about the language skills of scientists. Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught? Or do we want to blame parents for not teaching their children English, now that CBC makes parents cover up for the faults of the education system?

Kenyan sadism

The fact that Kenyans have been quick to enjoy the humiliation of nurses, sold off by their own government to a former colonial power, despite all their proclamations of “titi la mama li tamu”, shows that we are dealing with deep cognitive dissonance and sadism when it comes to examinations and language. We make formulaic praises of local languages, we make formulaic laments about obsession with exams, but as soon as a Cabinet Secretary faults Kenyan nurses for failing English tests, we rejoice and sing about quality, competence and the failure of the education system.

Where exactly do we want Kenyan nurses to perfect their English, if in the same breath we are saying that the arts should not be taught?

These contradictions point to a country that is deeply conflicted about itself. We Kenyans are inauthentic and sadistic. We care less for who we actually are and prefer to stick to a make-believe narrative about ourselves, a narrative that is based on fake websites and international (read Anglo-American) recognition. Like my American interlocutor, we are deeply embedded in exerting and affirming the power of the colonial state, no matter what it does to us. We are completely hostile to analyzing power, so we prefer technical explanations and are hostile to social analysis. We lack our own Kenyan narratives about ourselves and keep measuring ourselves by the narratives of the UK and the US. This situation is completely violent, and it shows up in the rise of domestic violence, suicide and mental illness.

We need to abandon our narrative of Kenya as an “island of peace in a sea of turmoil”, and accept that we need healing from this violence that we have pushed underground into our abusive relationships in our private spaces. Other African countries may have wars with weapons against flesh and blood in the battlefields, but in Kenya, our battle is against our soul. And if we don’t treat it urgently, in a not so distant future we will be turning the violence, of which the police are already doing a dress rehearsal, into a fully-fledged war between citizens. It’s time that we Kenyans faced up to our reality of who we are to heal ourselves of our contradictions.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya’s Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy

The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. The litany of bureaucracy that it imposes on teachers must be abolished.

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‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya's Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy
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On the afternoon of Friday, 12 November, Martha Omollo, a teacher in Nairobi County, was called to her school and served with a letter from the Teachers Service Commission, the government employer of teachers in public schools. The letter, which was dated that day, informed her that she had been transferred to a school in Trans Nzoia County, 400 kilometres away, and that she was to report ready to teach the following Monday, 15th November.

Earlier in the week, Omollo had been the spokesperson of the Teachers’ Pressure Group, which had called into question the loyalty of the union leaders to its members, and the opaque health insurance scheme into which teachers pay through involuntary salary deductions. Shortly after the press conference, Omollo received a call from the TSC Nairobi County office warning her not to publicly discuss issues facing teachers.

The idea that a teacher can pack her bags in the middle of the term and move 400 km away, ready to teach in three days, is nothing short of cruel. The move clearly disregards human nature, and the fact that teaching is, by its very essence, a profession of relationship. Teachers cannot take care of students’ minds and wellbeing when they themselves are anxious about their own wellbeing, and worse, when they are denied the freedom of thought and speech. The transfer communicates that the TSC does not care, and worse, it callously turns one teacher into a warning to other teachers.

Similar treatment of a teacher was witnessed in April this year. The media reported about a teacher, Magdalene Kimani, who trekked to a school 20km away for a number of days to administer national examinations. In reaction to this fairly innocent report, the county education office sent her a “show cause” letter, yet the report was initiated by the media rather than the other way round. The education officials were heartless to ignore the teacher’s 20km trek and then issue a threatening letter to her.

These two cases are just a microcosm of the harassment that Kenyan teachers endure under the TSC. For instance, the TSC has carried out massive transfers of teachers away from their home areas in a procedure called “delocalization”. In her appearance before the Senate, Nancy Macharia, the CEO of the TSC, justified the initiative affecting thousands of teachers as a move to encourage “national cohesion”. It is amazing that one can think that cohesion comes from displacing teachers, disrupting their families, and showing no care about what worried teachers mean for students. To make such moves that increase teachers’ anxiety during school unrest is insensitive and a symptom of bureaucratic hubris.

It should not surprise Kenyans, therefore, that this callousness is bound to show up in the schools and public spaces. Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals, and a seeming ignorance of the harm that their actions against juniors imply for the larger public. Teachers who are anxious and who feel disrespected cannot treat children with dignity and respond to the extra-ordinary circumstances of the children under their care. To expect otherwise, as the TSC seems to do, is the definition of either hubris or inhumanity.

Take, for instance, the forms that teachers have to fill in regularly. According to the TSC, teachers have to fill in 18 forms, but teachers say that the forms are more than that. The ludicrous CBC promise of paying attention to individual learners has meant that teachers fill in forms detailing the special learners in their class, the nature of the learners’ challenges, and the remedies that the teachers have taken to address those challenges. Teachers are also expected to file reports on how they have covered what KICD calls “strands” and “subs-strands”. Now that this is assessment season, teachers are also required by the Kenya National Examinations Council to assess students conducting group activities, but the assessments require the teacher to grade each individual student along six or seven measurements. This means that for one subject taught to one class of sixty students, a teacher is filling in 60 rows x 7 columns.

Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals.

The problem with this work is not simply the amount. It’s that the work is demeaning. Teachers are filling in paperwork about teaching rather than doing the actual teaching. In the language of the anthropologist David Graeber, this is the “bullshitization” of work caused by an increase in bureaucrats with nothing to do but supervise others. The point of these forms is not to improve teaching and learning, as the bureaucrats have deluded themselves. The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children, nor the fact that that beauty and mystery cannot be translated into numerical measurements. By some perverse psychology, Graeber explains, work in the neoliberal era has meant an exponential increase in administrators who subsequently use bureaucratic tools to terrorize the people doing the actual work.

I do not use the word “terrorize” lightly. The word has been used by education scholars in their assessments of performance appraisal for teachers, including by the eminent British education sociologist Stephen J. Ball, in his well-cited journal article The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. The nature of terror is to plant shame and fear in the individual, make the individual feel isolated and therefore incapable of changing anything about their condition. Terror is also characterized by a lack of predictability. And because the system is always incoherent and inconsistent, teachers can never tell where the attack will come from. No matter what the teacher does, the teacher is never good enough.

One teacher told me that with TPAD, teachers are told to rate themselves but not too much, and then punished for not achieving 100 per cent performance. The teacher put it this way: “During the introduction of TPAD, we were directed that we should not rate ourselves more than 80 per cent even when you know you have met the ‘targets’. During the recent interviews, those without evidence of it were disqualified.”

The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children.

​Another tragically hilarious story was recounted in a letter to the editor of the Nation newspaper some years back. The letter, titled “TSC should listen to teachers’ voice on appraisal row”, read:

Back in 2010, quality assurance and standards personnel from the Ministry of Education visited the school I was teaching in then.

As a routine, they demanded to inspect teachers’ ‘tools of trade’, as they called them. These included schemes of work, records of work books, lesson notes and lesson plans and files containing learners’ progress reports, amongst many others. We complied. Only one member of staff had all these. The rest of us, in a staff of 27, including the principal, had one or more documents missing.

After perusal, we were given a lengthy lecture on how ‘lazy’ we had become, and that only one of us merited a recognition in a public forum, notably, the school’s Annual General Meeting, and that the institution would be posting better results were we to emulate our colleague.

After the exit of the QASO personnel, the entire staffroom burst into laughter. Months later, the teacher in question was transferred following complaints from parents and learners over his below par delivery and alcoholism.

This is an egregious story of how bureaucrats confuse measures and tools of work with the actual work itself. Humiliating teachers for not having submitted complete records is similar to judging a carpenter’s work not by the furniture but by the carpenter’s hammer. For the teacher, part of the torture of performance appraisal comes from the consciousness that the work that one is doing is barely a reflection of the real work of teaching. As the story shows, a teacher actually teaching in the classroom is unlikely to achieve perfect record keeping, and yet, it is the lack of record keeping that is used to judge the teacher as lax and incompetent.

As Ball explains, the goal of teacher appraisals is not the improvement of teaching, as education bureaucrats claim. The real goal is to capture the teacher’s soul. The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are. It is a vicious power grab aimed at denying teachers the ability to make judgements based on their professional opinion, and at making the bureaucrats and managers, rather than the children in their classrooms, the main focus of teaching. This obsession is so acute in the TSC, that as the latest wave of school fires began a few weeks ago, teachers were simultaneously receiving text messages from their employer reminding them to meet the deadlines for their appraisals. In other words, our children are not a priority for the education bureaucrats. It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the “teach and go home” philosophy. It even has an acronym: TAGH.

The common sense of cruelty

How is this cruelty so easily enforced without public resistance?

Part of what makes appraisals so difficult to resist is that they sound like common sense. The argument of the managerialists and politicians in support of appraisals goes something like this: Public education is useless and is failing our children (the Kenyan version is that it produces incompetent graduates). The problem is the teachers. To improve our education and make teachers work better, teachers need to be policed with appraisals or performance contracts, where their performance is measured by a score.

This logic is devilishly convincing when one has no personal experience of teaching. I have been studying performance management in education for a decade, and to this day, I still struggle with explaining why the system is abusive. The common sense character comes from Anglo-American billionaires and politicians whose power and access to the media allows them to spread the narrative of truant and incompetent teachers who are overpaid by the state and protected by permanent and pensionable terms (called “tenure” in the US). Teachers in the US, UK and Australia, among other English-speaking countries have gallantly resisted this attack, but their struggle has been rendered longer and harder by the fact that politicians and billionaires have used the media to poison the public’s opinion of teachers.

The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”. To avoid the political mess of firing teachers en masse, these haters of teachers call for more measurement of teachers’ work. They also advocate for drastic measures like shaming and firing teachers, and closing schools that do not meet “standards”, standards that are solely determined by students’ examination scores. Appraisal management is a large-scale and sanitized form of “constructive dismissal”, which is the technical term for workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately mistreated so that they can quit. The tactics are working, because many teachers tell me that they want to quit.

Microsoft seems to be preparing for such a scenario where the number of trained teachers will be so insufficient that technology will have to do the teachers’ work. Microsoft came on my radar when one teacher wrote to me that part of the TSC’s regime of form-filling includes teachers uploading their notes on Microsoft. It appears that when the president attended the Global Partners for Education conference in London in August 2021, one of the events was to sign a deal with Microsoft whose goal was vaguely defined as “to enable the best use of technology to dramatically enhance learning.”

The article gives no details of what Microsoft intends to do with those notes, but one can legitimately worry that the point is to eventually use those notes to create lessons for which Microsoft will charge Kenyans, and probably without honouring the copyright of teachers. If such is the case, then the teaching profession is essentially a plantation in which the TSC is the foreman that terrorizes teachers to extract materials for foreign companies to exploit.

There is yet another common sense narrative to make us accommodate this potential exploitation, and this narrative came with CBC. It is the narrative of “individual talent” and “personalized learning”. When Kenyans hear it, they think the discussion is about a human teacher giving loving and individual attention to each child, when in fact, the corporates are talking about children learning from tablets and without teachers.

This hatred for teachers is not about education. It’s a cruel contempt for society and especially for the poor whom, the rich think, do not deserve a good education, least of all at public expense. Others suggest that it comes from contempt for teachers as people with expertise, and as members of unions that are still standing up against the casualization of labour. Rev. William J. Barber also mentioned another logic of this attack: “The reason they want to privatize education is because a lot of people who are greedy know that they can’t make as much money out in other markets now. So they want to come in and siphon off money from the government for their own personal pockets. Some of them don’t hate government; they just hate government money going to anybody but them.”

Whatever the case, the war against teachers and public education, which has a peculiarly Anglo-American character, is a war that has been waged against Kenyan public school teachers since 2010, led by the current president who was Finance Minister and Acting Education Minister then, and with the help of the British Government. As Nimi Hoffman details in her article, the DfID engaged British academics who used unethical means to push for a project that undermined teachers’ unions through hiring contract teachers on low pay. The project was piloted in Kakamega County and was rigorously resisted by the teachers’ unions.

It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the philosophy of “teach and go home”.

The relentless effort to casualize teaching continued in April 2015, when the TSC announced the replacement of the punitive performance management system with a more “encouraging” appraisal system. The pilot project was funded by the World Bank, and the British Council funded the implementation of appraisals. To anticipate the resistance of the union officials, the then TSC chief executive officer Gabriel Lengoiboni reminded them that they had implicitly accepted the project when they participated in the benchmarking trip to Britain in 2014.

Education policy in Africa has largely been influenced in this way. Foreign governments offer trips abroad for teachers, and the familiarity disempowers teachers from questioning or opposing the policy being subtly pushed through this informal networking. Even the Bologna Process, largely responsible for the bureaucratization of Kenyan higher education, was entrenched through sponsored trips to Europe for African vice-chancellors and senior academics.

Truth is exposure

The way to end this intricate system of decadence in the school system is through public exposure. But education leaders in Kenya are notoriously secretive, fanatically hostile to self-examination and ironically, steadfastly resistant to public interrogation. Learning institutions muzzle teaching professionals despite academic freedom being guaranteed by the constitution. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development replaced the education system with competency but avoided any debate in the media about their choice. The TSC terrorizes teachers in the shadows and punishes teachers for any publicity in the media. In the universities, public debate is discouraged through an insidious rebuke of disagreement as “attacking people personally” and with calls for intervention from a third party to lead in reconciliation. Being a teacher in Kenya’s colonial school system is like living in a bad version of the movie “Stepford Wives”, where people are supposed to ignore reality and humanity and live in a fictional utopia.

There is little difference between this scenario and witchcraft. The defining characteristic of witchcraft is that actions happen in the shadows, supposedly with no human actors, as if brought about by the wind, with nobody to hold accountable. There is no one to name, no one to be held responsible. Education institutions maintain a stoic silence in the delusion that because education bureaucrats have blocked their ears and cannot hear alternative voices and visions of education, those alternatives do not exist.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”.

This is why we need a Truth and Justice Commission for education. We need a public forum where Kenyans are forced to hear all the participants in education, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It is time for Kenyans to stop listening to the disjointed stories of the media, the propaganda of the private sector, and the silence of educational institutions, and to construct for themselves a complete story that connects the dots between the brutality suffered by our children, the terror experienced by teachers, the deaf ears of education bureaucrats and the sadism of the Kenyan public. Our faith in the colonial education system is a national delusion that can only be cured by the truth.

In the immediate, TPAD and the litany of bureaucracy which the TSC imposes on teachers needs to be abolished. The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into the classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. Despite its “Commission”, tag the TSC’s role is mainly human resource clerical work. If the TSC officers want to enjoy the dignity of teaching, they are welcome to join us in the classroom. As they know, there are not enough teachers, and moving with their salaries to the classroom would save the country some money for hiring teachers. Likewise, the yearly assessments of the Kenya National Examination Council need to be done away with. With the introduction of CBC, the KICD promised Kenyans the end of exam obsession. It is ridiculous that CBC is now increasing yearly assessments all the way down to primary school. And Martha Omollo’s transfer should be reversed. The remedial measures should be guided by this simple principle: our children deserve to be taught by adults who are free in thinking, creative in teaching, and caring in interaction.

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Politics

Prebendal Politics and Transition to Democracy in Somalia

The Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

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Prebendal Politics and Transition to Democracy in Somalia
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Government should belong to the people, be for the people and by the people. This is the democratic ideal borne out of man’s innate desire for good governance, societal stability, and development. Credible elections are the hub around which the practice of ideal and sustainable democracy revolves.

As such, it is closely tied to the growth and development of democratic political order. To realise this democratic ideal, however, electing people to participate in government should be freely and fairly done to allow for the right choice of the electorates to emerge. The elections process is the only means of guaranteeing the credibility and sanctity of democratic practice. The election becomes a crucial point in the continuum of democratisation and an imperative means of giving voice to the people’s will, which is the basis of government authority.

Fundamentally, democratic development involves the practice and sustainability of regular, credible electoral conducts and processes. In fact, one of the cardinal features of democratic practice is the conduct of credible, free and fair elections. Therefore, the cardinal issue in a democratic polity could viewed as the method of selecting people who govern at any point in time.

Indirect election

Conducting elections in fragile countries like Somalia cannot be an easy task by any yardstick. Conducting free and fair elections in such a polity, that gives the victor free reign to grab resources, is a much more difficult assignment the success of which even angels cannot guarantee. This is in large part because of the insecurity, political infighting amongst the elites, endemic corruption and the threat from Al-Shabaab. The militant group has historically made it difficult to hold elections in Somalia by threatening to attack polling places.

To minimize concerns about Al-Shabaab disrupting elections, Somali political leaders and their international allies have supported a narrow voting process based on a power-sharing formula between clans, rather than a popular vote (universal suffrage is still a distant dream for the country) and adopted the electoral college model. In the model, elders are selected from across the diverse clans and they, in turn, nominate or elect parliamentarians, who in turn elect the president. Initially, one elder from each clan picked one member of parliament (MP), but this has now changed to an electoral college system. In this system, each clan still appoints one member of parliament, but instead of one person deciding, each clan picks 51 of its members to vote for that clan’s one representative in the lower house of parliament as happened in 2016/17 indirect election.

Since early 2000, Somalia has had four indirect national elections and witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian to another. In 2012, 135 traditional clan elders elected members of parliament, who in turn elected their speakers and the federal president. In 2016, elections were conducted in one location in each federal member state. The 135 traditional clan elders also selected the members of the 275 electoral colleges made up of 51 delegates per seat, constituting the total college of 14,025. On the other hand, the senate (upper house) members were nominated by the federal member state presidents, while the federal member state parliament selected the final members of the upper house.

The ongoing (2020/21) election mirrors the 2016 exercise but has expanded the number of delegates involved in the lower house (electoral collegeElectoral College) from 51 to 101 delegates. This expansion raised the number of participants in the lower house election from 14,025 to 27,775—a notable growth in suffrage. Furthermore, the September 2020 agreement increased the number of voting centres per member state from one to two. It also established federal and state election commissions to oversee the polls. However, elections in Somalia have lacked the basic ingredients of democratic elections as most Somalis are not included in the voting. The elections have also been characterised by pervasive corruption and widespread electoral fraud.

It is common knowledge in Somalia that running in an election and winning requires not only political clout but also a lot of money. An aspiring politician needs the help of a well-heeled or well-grounded politician or a money bag to bankroll their political campaign to see success in such an endeavour. This is mainly because taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

Somali elites and prospective parliamentarians receive campaign funding from both internal and external actors. External actors include neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, Gulf countries and Western allies. On the other hand, internally, the key powerbrokers are the elites who have captured states and regions, and particularly those who had mastered the art of obtaining contracts during the war; they have built business empires in the import/export sectors, construction and rebuilding, clearance and customs and are now playing a critical role in politics.

The cost of democracy 

In the electoral collegeElectoral College system, the price of votes ranges from US$5,000 to US$30,000, with politics at the local and national levels recognised to have become increasingly monetised over time. Some candidates are said to have offered bribes of up to US$1.3 million to secure votes. Jeffrey Gentlemen reports that in 2012 former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud gave several clan elders a US$5,000 bribe each to influence the choice of their clan’s representatives in Parliament.

The 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections that brought Hassan Sheikh to power had little legitimacy, and they were criticised as the most fraudulent in Somalia’s history. Hassan Sheikh was elected as President, backed by the Qatari Government with money brought to Mogadishu by Farah Abdulkadir (a former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs), and business and political allies in Mogadishu. The various processes and elections to put together the leadership of the federal member states were also marred by high levels of corruption and intimidation.

Taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

The 2016/17 federal election involved a significant amount of money. Farmaajo’s win surprised most observers, and Somali analysts estimate that at least US$20 million changed hands during the parliamentary elections that culminated in the presidential election. Farmaajo’s supporters had hoped that he could be the answer to corruption and extremism in Somalia, but he too succumbed to corruption. He is believed to have influenced elections in the federal member states using money and coercion. During Farmaajo’s time in office corruption worsened and security deteriorated.

Between 2017 and 2021, elections were held across the federal member states that optimised the defining features of prebend, the salience of clan identity, and the pervasive use of violence and money. In Puntland, incumbent President Said Abdullahi Dani narrowly won the election after carefully crafting an alliance of two clan-based interests, The Saleban Clans.  An estimated US$15 million changed hands in the week before the election, with all candidates using money to buy support.

In Galmudug, FGS employed the Somalia National Army (SNA) and Ethiopian military support to restrict opposition figures and elders access to voting centres. The FGS was able to disarm Ahla Sunna Wal Jamma using financial incentives. Eventually, Ahmed Abdi Kaariye, also known as Qoor, won the election with the support of the federal government.

In the Hirshabelle election, the FGS spent more than US$1.2 million to secure the election of the Hirshabelle president. Former Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow was the running favourite in the South-West State elections. Robow is from an influential Leysan sub-clan (one of the largest in South-west State) with a loyal clan militia, and he was considered widely popular among the broader population. He reportedly refused a significant financial pay-off not to take part in the election and was duly arrested by Ethiopian forces acting on behalf of the federal government before the election itself.

The arrest of Mukhtar Robow and the blatant intervention of Ethiopian forces on behalf of the federal government led to a demonstration and a reported 15 deaths. A critical statement by Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, in which he raised questions over allegations of abuses by forces loyal to the federal government saw him declared persona non grata.

The long-delayed parliamentary and presidential election was supposed to offer Somalis universal suffrage. However, given the security and logistical challenges of conducting an election in Somalia, as mentioned previously, Somalis opted for indirect election, and so far, the election of members of the senate has been concluded. It is commendable that the majority of senators have been elected by the FMS state legislature in accordance with the electoral model adopted on 17 September. However, the senate election was marred by foul play where FMS presidents and elites pre-determined the winners of every seat, contrary to the agreements and the national interest. The cases of corruption were widely reported; bribes were given to the state legislatures by aspiring senators and their sponsors, including federal and regional executives.

The election for the lower house has just started. Each of the 275 members of the lower house will be elected by an electoral college of 101 clan elders and civil society, determined through the collaboration of the FMS authorities, clan elders and civil society. Nonetheless, the lack of criteria by which the members of civil society and clan elders will be selected has created great concern among the public. It is widely believed that the federal member state presidents have the upper hand in the process, as they also play a role in determining clan elders and civil society. Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

Abdi Malik Abdullahi tweeted, “2021 electoral process in Somalia is commercialised and sham.” On her part, Hodan Ali tweeted, “Somali politicians poised to spend 10s of millions of dollars on election rigging/buying while millions face killer drought conditions across the country.” Nadeef shared similar view. He noted, “I have realised that Somali leaders are not trying to fix any of our problems. They are trying to make enough money and get enough power so that problems that affect us don’t reach them.”

Given the foregoing, it is clear that taking political office is perceived more as a means to personal economic advancement. This, no doubt, intensifies the unhealthy rivalry and competition for political office that triggers corruption, election rigging, violent conflicts and even coups. In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket. Indeed, the Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

External Influence 

In both Somalia and the West, these influences are believed to be coming from five or six Middle Eastern and African countries with various interests in Somalia. These countries include Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan. They have been increasingly involved in providing the political elites with campaign money to secure their specific objectives such as access to oil, port and airport development projects, and other business opportunities. Turkey has financial and infrastructure interests in Somalia, including significant investment in the Mogadishu airport. Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and wishes to see its regional influence expand in East Africa. The United Arab Emirates opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, and may therefore be acting to counteract Qatari influence in East Africa.

Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

The Gulf crisis has made Somalia a proxy ground for strategic rivalries across the wider region. Qatar and Turkey have supported the last two presidents. Under Farmaajo’s presidency, the UAE supported federal member states and their oppositions, enhancing the bargaining power of federal member state elites in the political marketplace. The UAE is reported to have made payments to parliamentarians and has directed considerable investment towards Puntland, Somaliland and Galmudug. The UAE has also maintained its corporate interests in port development and strategic infrastructure in Berbera, Bossaso and Hobyo.

On the other hand, maritime disputes between Kenya and Somalia have raised Kenya’s involvement profile. FGS has accused Kenya of supporting Jubaland president Ahmed Madobe against the federal government. Ethiopia remains one of the most influential actors in Somalia and since the election of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the country has taken a much stronger position in supporting the federal government.

Domestic dynamics

Internal actors including clan elders, political entrepreneurs, conglomerates and technocrats are entangled in a web of political clientelism, kickbacks and redistribution, and debt relations. The federal formula has shaped elite political competition around access to external rents in Somalia.

In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket.

These actors use territorial control, access to strategic infrastructure and foreign exchange to protect their ill-gotten assets and to secure new opportunities. These businesses cope with containing cost and risk by stashing wealth abroad and by avoiding growth to circumvent the attention of governance providers and armed actors who may wish to extract or take a stake in an expanding business.

Consequences of state capture by elites and external actors

The consequences of corruption will be far-reaching. Donors will expect to call the shots after an election. This will constitute a cog in the wheel of progress of such a political entity, with outside forces dictating the direction politics and development will take. It may become difficult for the Somali government to act in the interests of the Somali people rather than those of foreign capital since the occupants of political office will owe allegiance to the money bag (the godfather) rather than the state.

It has become increasingly clear that the main incentive for joining politics in Somalia has become prebendal as the issues of democratic ideals and political ideology are relegated to the background. Ideally, ideology serves as a guide to an individual politician and to a political party’s development initiatives, policies, programmes and actions. This is because a political leadership that emerges without ideology will lack development focus and discipline and not be subject to the rule of law.

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Agricultural Productivity as Performance: A Tale of Two Mozambican Corridors

Agricultural corridors in Mozambique emerge when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects.

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Agricultural Productivity as Performance: A Tale of Two Mozambican Corridors
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In what is now remembered as the Great Leap Forward, 15 to 55 million people died of starvation in Mao Zedong’s China. Decreeing increased efforts to multiply grain yields, Chairman Mao unleashed panic in rural China, and local officials, fearful of the national government, competed to fulfil (or over-fulfil) quotas based on Mao’s exaggerated claims, collecting “surpluses” that in fact did not exist and leaving farmers to starve as a result.

The Great Leap Forward took place between 1958 and 1962. Such schemes ostensibly aimed at improving the human condition and which end up in epic failure, as observed by James C. Scott, have reoccurred throughout history.

Other examples may not have led to a widespread loss of life as happened in mid-twentieth century China, but they have certainly produced hybrid and rather unpredictable outcomes.  An agricultural campaign with similar objectives as the Great Leap Forward was adopted by the Mozambican government for the year 2018/19.

It rallied smallholder farmers to increase production and productivity under the motto, “Mozambique Increasing Production and Productivity Towards Zero Hunger”. In the end, Mozambican farmers were unable to significantly increase production.

They had faced a number of challenges: limited access to credit, fertilizer, farm inputs, and feeder roads, and thus to markets. Which is to say, without easy access to markets, any surplus the farmers had produced was wasted before it even got to market.

What is more important to consider is the fact that this failure to increase the productivity of rural farmers in Mozambique had occurred at the same time as the government had put in place measures to commercialise agriculture along two important transport corridors located in its central and northern regions, that is, the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors. The Mozambican government had been mobilizing international capital over a decade or so, in order to build and renovate transport infrastructure with the aim of commercialising agriculture along the corridors.

Despite attracting some capital and infusion of technology, capital flows and technological transfers were generally unpredictable as they largely depended on the intervention of multiple actors and the dynamics of the global economy and global commodity prices. Adding to the lack of the much-needed infrastructure was the absence of Mozambican capital, as the banking system in Mozambique was unwilling to take the risks that come with financing agriculture. Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

Additional challenges to the implementation of the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors were related to national and local politics. On the one hand, the armed confrontation between government forces and the armed branch of the major political party in the opposition, Renamo, which affected parts of Sofala and Nampula provinces between 2013 and 2016, had led to a reduction of investments, disrupting the flows of existing businesses. Also, agricultural corridors, in particular the Nacala corridor, tend to generate anxiety over land, leading to continuous debates and campaigns over “land grabbing” and land titling. As a result, both the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors faced significant challenges in their implementation.

Investments in agriculture normally take 5-10 years to show visible returns, and Mozambican investors cannot afford to wait that long.

The vision of their blueprints, that is, of interlinked agricultural activities – that would have stretched from the cities of Beira and Nacala on the Indian Ocean up to Mozambique’s land-locked neighbours, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi – is yet to materialize. Despite the fact that such a grand vision is yet to materialize – if at all it will – this piece highlights its material consequences on the ground.

As a recently published special issue of the Journal of Eastern African Studies on growth corridors has shown, a careful examination of the planning, implementation and effects of agricultural corridors suggests that they often generate anxiety over land, and potential environmental impacts, and reconfigure power dynamics between international capital, local elites, bureaucrats and smallholder farmers – whether or not their official objectives are achieved.

By focusing on the practices of international investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and project beneficiaries, this research has suggested that, in order to attract capital, selected regions for development projects must dramatize their potential as places for investment, carefully selecting project locations and participants who will make compromises so as to conceal failure, virtually guaranteeing that the programme will be declared a success when the time comes for evaluation. These performances of success require the participation of a constellation of actors in order to be effective.

Along the Beira and Nacala agricultural corridors of Mozambique, there has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success, not only to attract the much-needed international capital, but in ways that bring the largely non-existent corridors to life. Agricultural corridors in Mozambique, in this sense, emerge on those occasions when international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers overstate the success of agricultural projects – much like Chinese local officials did in the early 1960s. Below are two examples worth considering.

The tomato processing plant that never was

The administrative post of Tica in Nhamatanda District – along the Beira agricultural corridor – is famous for its abundant production of tomatoes. They are often left to rot when farmers are not able to sell all their produce.

In the local media, talk of building a tomato processing plant in Tica can be traced back to 2009, when a local entrepreneur reportedly received about US$33,000 from the Nhamatanda District Development Fund to build a tomato processing plant in order to capitalize on the district’s agricultural potential. In some of the media accounts, the processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In 2013, a daily newspaper Notícias, published a news piece with the title, Processing plant created in Nhamatanda. The content of the news was based on an interview with the then district administrator of Nhamatanda, who said that a building plot had been located for the construction of the processing plant, and that a public tender for constructors had been announced and bids were awaited. He stated that the building would be completed by December 2013, and that equipment would be installed by February 2014.

There has been a widespread trend where international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats and smallholder farmers collude in performing agricultural success.

In April 2015, another headline by the Voice of America read, Tomato processing plant changes the lives of producers in Tica. This story was based on two women who had been making a living for over 12 years selling tomatoes at a small agricultural market. This time the district administrator was announcing that the building was going to be completed by May 2015. In February 2018, another headline announced, This year Nhamatanda is going to process tomato, in an article where a district administrator was boasting of the 200,000-tonnes capacity of the future processing plant, advising local farmers to get ready to “produce a lot” since there was going to be a company to buy their produce.

When I visited the factory in March 2018, the building was not equipped. In a follow-up visit three months later, the main building of the processing plant was closed; a small agricultural inputs shop was operating from the security booth. The main building had caught fire at some point, and was closed pending repairs. The situation on the ground was in stark contrast to what district officials had been telling visiting researchers and journalists.

Ideas such as the introduction of financial services or the provision of technical assistance and tillage services are attractive, not only to farmers, but also to international donors and investors, but at the time the success of the tomato processing plant in Tica was being widely touted in the media, most of these plans were yet to materialize. The fire did indeed put an abrupt end to the brief lifespan of the plant, but the expectation of agricultural commercialisation that the plant had generated in the region long before it began operating exemplified the extent to which local officials were willing to create a narrative of success around a project in anticipation of, or as a means of attracting the much needed but seriously lacking investment capital.

A very important agribusiness fair 

On 7 and 8 July 2018, an agribusiness fair took place at the municipal soccer field of Ribáuè in Nampula province along the Nacala agricultural corridor. The fair was entitled Nakosso Agribusiness Fair: Facilitating Access to Markets, and was the first of a series of five fairs to be organized in northern Mozambique by a private company working in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The fair was an important event in the calendar. The provincial governor opened it in a ceremony that was also attended by the Ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development, and by the Minister of Industry and Commerce.

The fair had stands showing various products by local farmers’ associations, whose work is often done with the support of district extension officers, and through a number of NGO-supported projects. As the visiting dignitaries went from one exhibition stand to another, the interaction with exhibitors was punctuated by questions, compliments and suggestions for improvement. The opening ceremony ended with the provincial governor’s speech, where he congratulated the exhibitors and encouraged them to continue the good work.

The events that took place during the fair, including the governor’s speech, were disseminated across the district through local radio station news programmes by the end of the day and the following morning they featured in the provincial news broadcast – a local feat.

The processing plant was presented as if it already existed, running and fulfilling its promise to absorb the horticultural produce of farmers along the Beira agricultural corridor.

In many ways, the fair represented the desired agricultural life in the district, showcasing products and opportunities for smallholder, medium and large-scale farmers in the production and commercialization processes – financial institutions, input providers and dealers, extension officers, successful smallholder farmers and large commercial farms were all brought together at the fair in a performance of agricultural success.

While district statistics point to the growth in local production and productivity in the past three years, the fair is especially effective as a field to demonstrate agricultural productivity all throughout the corridor, giving materiality to the corridor as a result, and enlisting a network of actors in the project of corridor making. In other words, the example of the fair illustrates how such events can provide occasions for the demonstration of success, and the creation of an ideal vision for the agricultural corridor. In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries, from the president of the republic, to provincial governors and ministers.

Despite the fact that on some occasions visiting dignitaries have questioned the blatant exhibition of produce brought in from other areas – in ways similar to the deception adopted by local officials in 1960s China – the fair is presented as a sample of agricultural developments already taking place in other areas covered by the corridor, especially given the efforts local officials put into achieving some kind of geographical representation of exhibitors. Finally, the fair also provides an opportunity for a pedagogy, through the celebration of cases of success that should be seen as models to be followed by other actors, in particular smallholder farmers.

In Mozambique, the significance of agricultural fairs is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that they form a distinctive feature in the agenda of visiting high-level dignitaries.

The idea of the corridor, whether the corridor existed or not, was in Mozambique, producing material effects on the ground.

The lesson

Without actual investments and infrastructure, blueprints, visions and policies for agricultural commercialisation in Mozambique come to be, or are given visibility, only when specific agricultural projects within the geographical location of the corridor are presented as successful.

At these events, complex entanglements emerge, exemplifying the everyday work of international funders and investors, national elites, local bureaucrats, and smallholder farmers, as they all perform project success on different occasions. Meanwhile, agricultural commercialisation, within the identified corridor region, remains low.

The lesson from these examples is that whether or not they achieve their official objectives – often to increase productivity and lift people out of poverty – development plans, visions and blueprints have material consequences.

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