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Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us

9 min read.

Pastoralists have long been the object of unfavourable and misleading stereotypes and narratives that have contributed to their communities’ neglect and marginalization.

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Born Cattle Bandits? Not Us
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On the 9th of April 2013, three members of parliament from West Pokot held a media press conference in Nairobi during which they vehemently protested the characterization of the Pokot people of northern Kenya as “criminals and thieves“. They were reacting to a statement attributed to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who was giving a speech on behalf of other invited heads of states during the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto.

President Museveni, perhaps in jest, had said, “These people have been stealing my cattle.  I have agreed with these [Pokot] MPs. . . . I urge Uhuru, this people from West Pokot should stop stealing my cows.”

In their rebuttal, the three MPs claimed that they had been compelled to respond to the neighbouring president’s “wholesome condemnation” of the Pokot since, as they averred, it had become his practice to make such spurious statements about the Pokot people. The MPs claimed that following President Museveni’s statement, they had faced taunting and disparaging remarks from fellow Kenyan MPs who called them “the president’s thieves”, amongst other unsavoury epithets. They, therefore, wanted to change the perception and stereotyped portrayal of the Pokot as cattle bandits.

The MPs arguments were based on a phenomenon that social psychologist Claude Steele calls the “stereotype threat”, the fear of what effects such stereotypes may have on an individual or targeted group. In this case, the impact it may have on the innocent Pokot who does not practice cattle rustling and banditry as well on inter-communal relations between the Pokot and other communities. “In as much as these remarks could pass off as soft, friendly and populist, we are not averse to the grave repercussions that remarks could have in mopping [sic] ethnic passions and cross-border tensions particularly among pastoralist communities in the said regions,” said Pkosing, who is the MP for Pokot South.

The MPs highlighted the risks associated with persistent stereotyping and misguided narratives about “others” and raised the challenge of what needs to be done to maintain social cohesion in Kenya.

But there were those who disagreed with the pronouncements of the Pokot leaders. “While we abhor the general characterization of a whole community as cattle rustlers, it does not help either to deny the shame and embarrassment the few errant elements have caused our people and neighbours,” said the then Baringo County Speaker William Kamket.

Stereotyping is pervasive, persistent, but…

Kenya is a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multicultural country where any individual or ethnic community may be subjected to stereotyping and coded language by others. There are, however, concerns that the open and persistent stereotyping of particular communities — bordering on hate speech — could be counterproductive in many respects.

Stereotyping “other” communities could lead to prejudice, discrimination, and open hostility amongst groups. This, therefore, begs the question of whether it would not be prudent to educate social groups on the need to avoid using wounding words that could ignite prejudice, discrimination, tension, and conflict. Indeed, the National Integration and Cohesion Commission (NCIC) gives ethnic stereotyping as grounds for prosecution.

Stereotyping is an instance of what the psychologist Jerome Bruner calls “going beyond the information given”, the capacity for equivalence grouping — assigning objects to categories and making inferences about their specific attributes based on what we think we know about the class in general. It is part of the cognitive machinery that allows us to deal with novelty in everyday life. As Bruner puts it, “If we were to respond to each event as unique and to learn anew what to do about it or even what to call it, we would soon be swamped by the complexity of our environment. This is the reason why stereotyping is a common human feature.

Just because stereotyping is cognitively inescapable, however, does not mean that stereotypes are generally accurate. We also have cognitive mechanisms in place that make stereotypes resistant to change in the face of conflicting evidence. Despite evidence to the contrary about the targeted social groups, the in-group tends to always hold onto the adopted stereotypes. This is especially the case when stereotypes are laden with emotional content and thus form the basis for prejudice.

Concerning prejudice and discrimination, it may not be uncommon for stereotypes and misleading narratives to influence official attitudes, policy, institutional and administrative orientations towards certain ethnic/social groups or regions, resulting in unfavourable social, economic, political, and administrative outcomes. This is irrespective of how remotely realistic such assessments may be. Officers, in any case, are part of society, dominant or otherwise.

Stereotypes and narratives on pastoralists and arid lands

Pastoralists have long borne a barrage of unfavourable and misleading stereotypes and narratives that have impacted their well-being. These are either based on their livelihoods, their environment, or their cultural practices. Importantly, these stereotypes and narratives have led to, or become, a reflection of these communities’ marginalization, exclusion, and discrimination.

There are several ways in which pastoralists and other social groups are socially constructed and (re)presented in daily discourse. These forms vary from well-publicized political speeches, policy statements and approaches, to media coverage, and commentaries expressing concern about conflicts and insecurity in pastoralists’ areas. Kenyans are therefore well exposed to the different ways in which pastoralists and other minorities are constructed as essential categories.

In his report titled The Unrelenting Persistence of Certain Narratives, Michael Ochieng catalogues the narratives and stereotypes about Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions where pastoralists reside, and their adverse effects on social policy change. He identifies the national actors responsible for defining policy narratives on development and climate change adaptation in Kenya, their perceptions about ASALs (Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) and the premises that underpin these perceptions and narratives.

Ochieng observes that powerful narratives about the ASALs are a legacy of the Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965 that laid the basis for subsequent policy and marginalization of arid lands.  These include the security/insecurity/conflict narrative perpetrated by the state of emergency that revolved around security (specifically, insecurity). He notes, “The area and the people came to be viewed largely in terms of security, and interactions between them and organs of the state were defined in the same terms. Most government resources spent in these areas went to security, law and order, albeit with little respect for the rule of law.”

Hardly any investments were made in social service delivery or economic development between independence in 1963 and the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992. As a result, the ASALs, particularly those in northern Kenya, missed out almost entirely on the development opportunities of the first three decades of independence. The narrative that mobile pastoralism was irrational, unproductive, and environmentally destructive was essentially an all-embracing narrative with economic, socio-cultural and environmental overtones. “It had devastating effects on the way both policymakers and the rest of the society viewed pastoralists – largely as backward and resistant to change, refusing to modernize and take advantage of the benefits of civilization and development. Anthropological explanations such as ‘cattle complex’ were used to validate such characterization.”

Hardly any investments were made in social service delivery or economic development between independence in 1963 and the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992.

The little policy attention extended to the ASALs in the late 1970s led to the creation of the Ministry of Reclamation of Arid and Semi-Arid Areas and Wastelands, a perfect condemnation of the ASAL areas based on their perceived non-productivity. This, notwithstanding that the country continued to rely on these regions for the steady supply of livestock and livestock products and to benefit from its rich biodiversity in support of a thriving tourism economy. Ochieng links this narrative to the proclamation of Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 that the ASALs could only benefit from the economy as recipients of “grants of subsidized loans” from the more economically productive parts of the country.

Purveyors of stereotypes, hostilities

Whether held by the majority/dominant or minority/non-dominant groups, stereotypes explain things easily. They take less effort and give the appearance of order without the difficult work that understanding the entire hierarchy of things demands. They reinforce the belief and disbelief of its users and furnish the basis for the development and maintenance of solidarity for the prejudiced.

Minority groups do not escape the tendency toward stereotype, partly because of the set of economic, political, cultural, and personal reasons they find themselves in. The hostility of the minority/target group is expressed partly towards other minority groups and in part towards the dominant groups (pastoralists amongst themselves and pastoralists jointly against farmer/ agricultural groups). And when minorities become dominant groups, they sometimes discriminate against their own (non-dominant clans). Claude Steele, for instance, has pointed out that stigmatized populations may adopt counter-stereotypical behaviours to dissociate themselves from stereotypes. Thus, prejudice and discrimination affect not only the attitudes and behaviour of minority group members towards the standards set by the dominant society but also their responsibility to themselves and their groups. Self-regarding attitudes are as much part of one’s social experience as attitudes toward other persons and social norms.

When minorities become dominant groups, they sometimes turn to discriminate against their own.

An assessment of descriptive content of cultural stereotypes not only indicates their consensual sharing but also that the content influences accepted norms for inter-group relations that finally justify discrimination.

Content of Kenyan ethnic group stereotypes

In their study, An Examination of Ethnic Stereotypes and Coded Language Use in Kenya and its Implication for National Cohesion, Joseph Naituli and Sellah King’oro have provided stereotypes of nearly every community in Kenya based on region. The graphic below presents the common stereotypes used in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties.

Common Stereotype Targeted Community Translation Meaning
Ng’oroko Pokot Cattle rustlers People who steal livestock
Punyoot Any community Enemy Any community not meant to share resources with -Elgeyo and Marakwet views
Chepng’al Nandi Person of many words Very proud and talkative
Ng’etiik Luo Boys The uncircumcised
Cheptukenyot Tugen Tugen  lady The very mean lady
Kimurkelda Kikuyu Brown teeth Community of people with brown teeth
Chepturkanyat Turkana Turkana lady The dirty lady who never observes hygiene

Source: Naituli and King’oro (2018)

Just what is it with the Pokot and others?

The Pokot (Pochoon singular, Pokot plural) of north-western Kenya and the Amudat District of north-eastern Uganda have been at the centre of national and regional discussions, narratives and stereotypes around cattle raiding, conflict and insecurity. Often portrayed as the exemplars of cattle rustling and banditry in the north-western corner of Kenya, many Pokot strongly protest what they perceive as the tendency to criminalize the entire community because of the practice of a few. In the narratives and stereotypes, they are usually accompanied by a supporting cast of their neighbours — the Keiyo, Marakwet, and Turkana, not forgetting fellow travellers from across the Ugandan border —  the Karamojong, amongst others.

Some members of the Pokot community and their allies argue that most individuals in the community are against the practice of cattle raiding. Yet, the Pokot community is persistently cast in blanket, villainous terms. Little consideration is given to context and the historical realities in which the Pokot, and indeed the other communities in their localities, have found themselves. It should be noted that the Pokot also have stereotypes of their own that target other communities.

Many Pokot strongly protest what they perceive as the tendency to criminalize the entire community because of the practice of a few.

While the “transformative” school of thought in conflict studies holds that cattle rustling — an activity that has been practised for hundreds of years — might have radically changed and acquired a horrendously sophisticated character in manifold ways, it is imperative, the Pokot argue, to interrogate the deep and tangled roots of the persistence of the practice and find urgent, pragmatic, and long-term measures to eradicate it rather than condemning a whole community.

A quick sampling — from different timelines and sources — of the various favourable or unfavourable narratives, stereotypes and analytical proclamations targeting the Pokot, that could well refer to other communities too, might be illustrative:

“The region’s most formidable and battle-hardened ethnic war machine” — Paul Goldsmith, The Cost of Cattle Rustling in Northern Kenya, 1994.

“The Pokot have hostile relations with almost all of their neighbours.”

“Vulnerability to frequent harassment from their neighbours has made the Pokot a tough and ruthless people.”

“The heaviest losses of the Kenya military since independence has been sustained during the ill-fated suppression of the Pokot.”

“Due to their small territory the Pokot have remained the most ethnically cohesive society, and often their conflict for grazing area is about community survival.”

“It is therefore important to educate the Pokot and other communities on issues related to stereotypes and coded language because it is evident that it can cause violent reactions between one community and another.”

“Cattle are symbols of wealth, blessings, and the male identity. Raiding has been common place, as warriors are expected to replenish declining herds or to take vengeance on those who have raided them.”

“You have reached the Heart of Africa. You are now entering Karamoja Closed District. No visitor may enter without an outlying districts permit” — Colonial signposts marking Karamoja region.

“Pokot raids do not aim at expanding their territory.”

“Conflict is concentrated in the village of Loruk, where Pokot and Tugen live. Three districts meet at this ribbon-built village, and the boundary lines are unclear, which causes tension because both groups suspect each other of encroaching on their own land. Furthermore, the Pokot claim their right to a primary school that was allegedly built for them in 1984 but later was assigned to Baringo Central where Tugen are the majority.”

“There is the facile, shorthand cultural explanation that conveniently fits preconceptions of timeless ‘tribal’ warfare. This ‘cultural’ explanation is facile not because it is untrue, but because it is only one of several entangled causes that range from the colonial and independent Kenyan governments’ culpability in resource depletion through underdevelopment and reduction of land holdings.”

“The overriding factor that makes pastoral communities prone to conflict (whether violent or otherwise) is their ambiguous relationship with the state and the majority of sedentary populations that reside within them.”

“Recent new factors fuel ongoing conflicts along the Pokot–Turkana border. Successful oil-prospecting missions and a proposed geothermal power plant increase the desirability of land areas claimed by both sides. The Pokot are not the main aggressors.”

“No common policy on intervention by the states is available. Attempts at interventions have been poorly coordinated and executed, too often taking a narrow definition of security that has focused on coercive disarmament without focusing sufficiently on providing viable economic alternatives to those whose  livelihoods have become dependent on gun. Finally, traditional structures of  authority within communities have been gravely weakened, as have some of the cultural restraints upon violence that operated in the past.”

“Currently, the Pokot in Uganda are allied to the Pokot in Kenya and jointly carry out raids on the Karamojong and the Karamojong from Uganda also have alliances with the Turkana of Kenya and carry out raids in Pokot North (Kenya).” — David Aliker

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Yobo Rutin is a public policy specialist focused on pastoralism and natural resources.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labour migration as climate mitigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparations include No Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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