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Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET

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The ubiquitous demands for financial compensation, rationalisation of land ownership, and community involvement in project planning, are all part of a wider strategy to ensure that the LAPSSET project comes to terms with local concerns and interests.

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Vitu Kwa Ground ni Different! Anticipations, not Policy, Driving LAPSSET
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Last May, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta launched the operations of the first berth of the new Lamu Port on Manda Bay. As the media focussed attention on a security glitch during the function, when a man attempted to approach the president on the dais, a group of local fishers were threatening to demonstrate on the streets of Lamu town. They were demanding full compensation in cash – US$170 million, or KSh1.7 billion – that a four-judge bench sitting in the town of Malindi awarded them four years ago.

According to the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) – which is in charge of the construction of the new port at Lamu – the demand for full compensation in cash is out of step with an agreement it had made with the fishers. The agreement, deposited at the High court, stipulates that only 65 per cent of the compensation would be made in cash, and that the remaining 35 per cent would be invested in equipment to support deep-sea fishing. The fishers now appear to be less interested in the fishing equipment. As a result, payment of their compensation has been delayed.

Such demands for full financial compensation, and others for the rationalisation of land ownership, including community involvement in project planning, have been ubiquitous across the entire Lamu Port and South-Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor since the project’s inception in 2012.

The ambitious US$25 billion LAPSSET corridor, when completed, will run from Lamu County on the Kenyan coast into Ethiopia and South-Sudan. It promises to develop infrastructure to connect a vast area covering northern Kenya, South Sudan, and southern Ethiopia with global markets. Initially driven by oil and mineral transport needs, planners hoped that the development would also boost agricultural investment, including building processing plants and distribution centres, and creating special economic zones and free trade areas. To boost agricultural production, the focus would be on setting up large plantations, nucleus farms, outgrower schemes, and large holding grounds for livestock.

Broadly, LAPSSET reflects the high-modernist impulses of its promoters (national politicians and bureaucrats), some of whom genuinely expect that their plans to transform Lamu and northern Kenya will attract the capital required to create a new modernizing force in the region. As a result, LAPSSET’s framing of northern Kenya and Lamu as empty of civilized people and modernity, but full of resources, especially land and minerals, appears to be legitimating the appropriation of “underutilized” land, while casting the state and its elites as heroes who will make these regions anew.

What is important is that this type of rhetoric – accompanied by seductive images of the future of northern Kenya under LAPSSET – is generating real anticipations on the ground. In sum, LAPSSET’s future direction is being negotiated and renegotiated in advance of any investments. The ubiquitous demands for financial compensation, rationalisation of land ownership, and community involvement in project planning, for example, are all part of a wider strategy to ensure that this large infrastructural project, with implications for the commercialisation of agriculture, comes to terms with local concerns and interests. It is through such demands that various local actors, including smallholder farmers, fishers and pastoralists, are seeking to direct the project in ways that better respond to local realities.

The promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, two-years before the LAPSSET project began, has promoted the voice of communities that will be affected. Together with the wider public ethos that accompanied the 2010 constitution, and which encourages respect for human rights and the importance of communal involvement in the policy-making process, the space needed for members of the public to petition important government projects that affect their lives has been expanded.

While information asymmetries continue to cause confusion and suspicion, civil society organisations along the corridor are demanding comprehensive social and environmental impact assessment studies be conducted, with communal consultation and other safeguards. It is these anticipations of the prosperous future that LAPSSET is promising, and which are intensified by information asymmetries that cause confusion and panic, that will influence the overall, future direction of LAPSSET – in ways that were not necessarily anticipated at the policy-design stage.

A central narrative driving the activist agenda around LAPSSET in Lamu is that information about the project is not forthcoming. Demands for information have variously been made through petitions addressed to concerned authorities, street demonstrations and court cases. A petition citing concerns over communal safeguards, community consultation, environmental protection, and the fate of customary natural resource management led to the formation of the LAPSSET Steering Committee, which brought together LAPSSET officials and local activists, smallholder farmers, women, youth, Beach Management Unit (BMU) managers and local religious leaders. However, after receiving official recognition on 2 March 2012, the steering committee was dissolved after six months due to political wrangling at county-government level.

The promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, two-years before the LAPSSET project began, has promoted the voice of communities that will be affected.

Following the dissolution of the committee, the political environment has become fraught, with multiple actors struggling to overturn and control certain aspects of LAPSSET in ways that will advance their competing interests. In some instances, LAPSSET managers have made unilateral decisions without consultation, especially regarding land acquisition for key components of the corridor.  This has affected the swift implementation of LAPSSET, as people resort to taking their grievances to the High Court, and communal protests against LAPSSET and its associated projects in Lamu have become more frequent.

Apart from the lack of information, communities are concerned with how their local cultures and livelihoods will be respected and protected, especially in relation to access to Lamu’s ecological diversity and the management and stewardship of “indigenous” territories and areas in line with customary laws, values and decision-making processes. Local conservationists have deployed multidimensional traditional knowledge systems transmitted culturally through generations, which they argue provide a better understanding of local and interconnected patterns and processes over large spatial and temporal scales, such as turbidity on the sea caused by port dredging; cycles of resource availability within forests and coral reefs; and shifts in climate or ecosystem structure and function. The Bajuni fishers living on the islands of the Lamu archipelago are worried that the port risks destroying Lamu’s ecological diversity, and with it, the livelihoods of its residents. Therefore, activists have pressed LAPSSET decision-makers to pay attention to environmental conservation and human rights, and respect existing livelihoods and culture.

Lamu communities are also looking towards other possible opportunities, such as higher investment in public education and scholarship opportunities for locals so that they can become skilled in, for example, port and related operations, with the prospect of future employment. Farmers’ groups are also expecting compensation for their land and other natural resources based on a precedent set in 2015 when 300 smallholders were compensated for their plots at Kililana (now within the port area). However, local opinion is divided as some groups focus on the long-term consequences of LAPSSET on land, smallholder farming and fisheries, while others focus on immediate benefits.

Research has shown that when such mega-infrastructure projects as LAPSSET hit the ground, they interact with social groups within the state and in society that are differentiated along lines of class, gender, generation, ethnicity and nationality, and that have historically specific expectations, aspirations and traditions of struggle. It is these dynamics that produce diverse responses involving a diverse set of actors, with different consequences. A useful summation may be found in a new Kenyan adage, vitu kwa ground ni different! Things on the ground are different (from what you may think!).

Despite the recent pompous launch of the Lamu port – a key component of the wider LAPSSET corridor – the project is experiencing difficulties because the infrastructure was mainly intended to improve petroleum transport but falling petroleum prices, conflict in South Sudan, and Uganda’s decision to transport oil through Tanzania, and not Kenya, will continue to cause delays in implementation. Despite such complications to the realisation of LAPSSET, it can be observed that for a place like Lamu, the mere existence of the project, even on paper, has produced real material effects on the ground, where LAPSSET is influencing, and in turn being influenced by local political, economic and social processes, or simply, the realities of rural Africa.

Take land-use change. Since at least the 1990s, there has been increased sedentarization and intensification of land-use in Lamu County, occasioned by the spread of rain-fed agriculture, increased migration into the county, and perhaps following this, the spread of communal conservation efforts such as the establishment of ranches and conservancies. Coupled with the need for allocation of land to LAPSSET project activities, such increasing demands for land in Lamu are driving wider calls for the rationalisation of land ownership, related to a nervous politics of belonging, where renewed meanings of land as property, driven by the anticipations of LAPSSET, are conflicting with meanings of land as a cultural resource, or as ethnic territory.

For a place like Lamu, the mere existence of the project, even on paper, has produced real material effects on the ground.

The idea of land as ethnic territory constitutes a widespread ideology in Kenya, where land is inexorably linked with ethnic identity, ideas of citizenship are informed by ethnicity, and land and ethnicity have both influenced the politics of redistribution. In the context of increasing competition for land and resources in Lamu, prominence has been given to exclusivist notions of belonging and citizenship – where commonplace terms such as wageni (“guests” or “migrant” communities) and wenyeji (“hosts” or “indigenous” communities), are being cast in a new light, as individuals and groups anticipate LAPSSET’s prosperous future.

In addition, civic engagement about LAPSSET has raised key questions about the control and ownership of the proposed corridor, including who benefits. LAPSSET managers and local politicians should pay attention to the often exclusivist nature of local politics because local divisions in terms of expectation and resource distribution may drive conflict between and amongst people of different ethnicities and political orientation, most of whom are smallholder farmers and fishers. Smallholder farmers and fishers are concerned that if they do not influence the future direction of LAPSSET, especially regarding access to land, seascape, and markets, integration to value chains will not automatically accrue benefits to them. While public communal narratives have embraced concepts like consultation, inclusivity, and participation, it is unclear if these ideals will be practised in the future, when investors begin engaging with the upstream segments of the anticipated value chains.

Despite an active civil society space in Lamu, information asymmetries regarding LAPSSET persist, causing confusion, misinformation, and suspicion. This is why local activists, smallholder farmers, and recently fishers, are focussing their attention on issues that pose a direct threat to existing livelihoods, including those that promise immediate benefits such as financial compensation for land and resources claimed by the infrastructural developments.

Way forward

To achieve the LAPSSET vision, it is essential to include the vision of local actors by making more informed choices, taking more effective action, and influencing the nature of the anticipated value chains. Quotas should be created for the participation of smallholder farmers and fishers in the LAPSSET Corridor Development Authority (LCDA), for example, by including respectable smallholder and fisher associations and land rights groups. The LCDA should collaborate with the Pastoralists Parliamentary Group to develop proposals for value-chains that will not exclude the interests of pastoralists.

Lastly, LAPSSET Steering Committees should be established in the counties that will be traversed by the corridor. They will provide a much-needed channel of communication between local communities and LAPSSET managers to help project managers and community representatives address information asymmetries in order to reduce the need to resort to the courts, street demonstrations, and state harassment of local activists.

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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 ngala.k.chome@gmail.com.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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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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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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