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Al-Shabaab and the Education Crisis in Northern Kenya

7 min read.

The government’s decision to withdraw all non-local teachers has played into al-Shabaab’s hands and consigned the region’s youth to a life of poverty.

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Al-Shabaab and the Education Crisis in Northern Kenya
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Kenya recognises education as a fundamental human right that is vital for the attainment of national development goals. Article 53 (1) (b) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that every child has a right to free and compulsory primary education while Article 55 (a) requires the state to take measures, including implementing affirmative action programmes, to ensure that the youth have access to education and training. Under Article 56 (b), minorities and marginalized groups have a right to be provided with special opportunities in education.

To give effect to the Constitution, the Basic Education Act (No 14 of 2013) has been passed into law to regulate primary education and adult basic education in the country. The Children’s Act also acknowledges and protects every child’s right to education. In addition, Kenya has adopted various general and specific policies on education. The second Medium Term Plan of Vision 2030 (2013) and the Policy Framework for Education and Training (2012) are the most recent.

Kenya recognizes that education is key to empowering the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals in society and makes efforts on an affirmative basis to enable these individuals to exploit their capabilities alongside their Kenyan peers through primary, secondary, and tertiary education.

Outside the provisions of the constitution, the government has also recently made efforts to address the issue of access to education and concerns about the quality of education. The measures undertaken include the establishment of tuition waivers for secondary schools, curriculum reviews to optimize student learning, and public‐private partnerships that aim to increase individual and community participation in the education sector.

World Bank statistics show Kenya’s successes in improving education through free primary education and other programs, with the most recent data from 2018 showing a literacy rate of almost 82 per cent. This has risen significantly from 72.16 per cent in 2007 to 78.73 per cent in 2014. Yet, despite these efforts, the country is still beleaguered by challenges and is far from narrowing the equity gap in the education sector. This is partly due to the application of solutions that fail to adequately address the social, cultural, historical, and political realities of the communities in the different parts of the country.

For the longest time, northern Kenya has been associated with marginalization, most prominently in the education sector. Although the region occupies a crucial geographical position as a borderland, progress is hampered by regional insecurity and government neglect. Most recently, threats from Al-Shabaab have had an indelible effect on the region’s education sector, leaving it to fare among the worst in the country in terms of literacy levels, school enrolment, performance in national examinations, high school graduation rates, transition to university, and student-to-teacher ratios. According to a 2015 report by Uwezo – a citizen-led assessment of learning outcomes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda,  8 per cent of adults in Kenya did not attend school. The regional contrast is stark: in northeastern Kenya 82 per cent of adults did not attend school while in central Kenya 0.1 per cent of adults (1 in 1,000) did not attend.

Historical overview 

With its mission of exploiting the country’s natural, human, and economic resources, the British colonial government recognized the agricultural potential of the Kenya highlands — which it referred to as the White Highlands — and encouraged the establishment of settlers in places like Kiambu and Nyeri.

The settlement of colonialists in the highlands propelled the region’s development. Infrastructural development, such as the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway, soon followed, easing the movement of people and goods to and from the region, followed by such social amenities as schools and hospitals, which remained concentrated in the highlands. The departure of the colonial administration left behind a system that perpetuated inequity and allowed central Kenya to stay ahead of other parts of the country.

As for northern Kenya, its geographical location—far away from the railway line— contributed to its isolation during Kenya’s peak years of development. The British government only set up a few essential facilities in the region, such as police stations, military bases, and administrative offices. The building of schools became the responsibility of the local communities. With few resources, the districts could not afford to build many schools, and the few that were built were below standard.

The departure of the colonial administration left behind a system that perpetuated inequity.

Formal education was introduced to the people of Kenya by European Christian missionaries who used it as an evangelical tool to spread Christianity. The missionaries dominated the provision and administration of education throughout the colonial period. This strategic decision greatly benefited other parts of Kenya and further isolated the northern parts of Kenya where the climatic conditions were harsh and which were predominantly Islamic territory. Most of the communities never accepted Christianity and received a limited benefit from the “education mission” undertaken by the missionaries. Kenya’s most prestigious high schools central and Rift Valley regions—like Mangu High School, Alliance High School and many others—started out as missionary schools.

Successive post-independence governments perpetuated the marginalization of the people of northeastern Kenya. For instance, President Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, imposed a state of emergency on the region in December 1963, which persisted for 28 years until it was lifted by his successor, President Moi, in 1991. In part, the state of emergency was a response to attempts by ethnic Somalis in the colonial Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya to secede from Kenya and join their fellow Somalis in the larger Somalia Republic.

The Kenyan government dubbed the 1963-67 conflict the “Shifta War.” During the conflict, the Kenyan forces treated the ethnic peoples in the region with brutality, leaving a lingering sense of suspicion, anger, and tension, to the extent that some communities still consider themselves not part of Kenya. This exacerbated the sense of mistrust, with other Kenyan communities fearing being posted to the region for administrative duties, teaching, or to provide government services.

Schools remained understaffed because of the low numbers of teachers, while most locals could not take up teaching due to the high entrance grades required to join the Teacher Training Colleges (TTCs).  Many high school graduates from the region have been scoring below average due to the poor learning conditions and the limited resources availed to the region by the central government.

After civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, the region’s security situation worsened as the conflict spilled over into Kenya.  The civil war in Somalia started as a clan-based conflict but Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al-Shabaab, Daesh and Takfiriyun—which are against Western education—soon emerged. The interim Federal Somalia Government has been unable to contain these groups, which started launching attacks in northern Kenya, taking a region that had been slowly catching up back to the dark ages.

Al-Shabaab terror attacks 

Northern Kenya has borne the brunt of al-Shabaab attacks. The group’s leaders have sought to establish a base in a region—one of the country’s poorest—where the ethnic Somali population has for years complained of mistreatment by the state. The insecurity hit the education sector hard since 2018 when al-Shabaab began attacking schools and killing teachers, many of whom started fleeing the region that year.

Most teachers hail from elsewhere in Kenya. Al-Shabaab, which seeks to create sectarian strife, has killed many public servants besides teachers, including engineers and security personnel. In 2015, it launched a string of attacks on non-local casual labourers at construction sites, forcing many of them to flee. The armed group also staged an attack that targeted the only university in the entire region, Garissa University College, killing 148 students. This led to the destabilization of the institution and created fear among students from other parts of the country. Laxity on the part of Kenyan security agencies has been witnessed; many police officers and soldiers detest being deployed in the northeast, where they face a greater danger of attack than in other parts of the country.

The British government only set up a few essential facilities in the region, such as police stations, military bases, and administrative offices.

The government posted a new regional commissioner who helped reduce the terror attacks. Mohamud Saleh led the region’s security forces between 2015 and 2018.  His approach centred on community intelligence gathering. He gave locals the confidence they needed to go to the police with information about what al-Shabaab was saying and doing. Saleh was transferred back to Nairobi in 2018. The terror attacks have been on the up, especially in Mandera. Due to scant trust between citizens and the security forces, officials deployed from Nairobi to the region since then have struggled to gather intelligence on al-Shabaab.

The death of education in northern Kenya

While an understandable step, the government’s decision in early 2020 to withdraw all non-local teachers played into al-Shabaab’s hands. First, it created widespread anger in northern Kenya since residents took it as a signal that Nairobi does not consider them fully Kenyan. While the al-Shabaab accuses locals of being too Kenyan, the government on the other hand views them as belonging to Somalia. Secondly, evacuating teaching staff from the northeast risks consigning the region’s youth to poverty, or worse, leading to an entire generation missing out on education, with dire consequences such as delinquent and criminal behaviour likely to follow.

The Teachers Service Commission (TSC), the national body responsible for teachers’ employment, has insisted that teachers not be posted to the northeastern region until their safety is assured. Local leaders and members of parliament have argued that the government’s mass transfer of teachers is an indication of the continued marginalization of the region’s people. The education sector in northern Kenya has been brought to its knees by al-Shabaab.

Turning the situation around 

To bring changes to the education sector in northern Kenya, we must first address the security situation. Corruption in Kenya’s security sector and failed or politicized intelligence-gathering lie at the root of the problem. Studies show that corruption fuels terrorism by undermining counter-terrorism measures and destroying police-community trust. Military force alone will not help to counter al-Shabaab’s activities in Mandera. The government should consider using committed intelligence officials who can blend into the local population and emerge with more accurate and timely intelligence to stop the group’s plans. The build-up of mistrust between the locals and Kenyan authorities has played into the hands of al-Shabaab.

Capacity building for civil society groups, community structures, local leaders, and the media could also help prevent violent extremism in northern Kenya. Human and material resources and training for all those involved in fighting al-Shabaab – such as elders and community leaders – are needed. Without the effective implementation of the local and community-level components of Kenya’s National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism, and in the absence of an extensive intelligence network, the country will struggle to combat terrorism.

The insecurity hit the education sector hard since 2018 when al-Shabaab began attacking schools and killing teachers.

Training local teachers to free the region from its dependence on a non-resident teaching workforce is an important step that needs to be prioritized for security-related disruptions to be avoided. The continued suspension of learning activities has long-term ramifications. Studies show that children who have never been to school can easily be manipulated and recruited into the ranks of violent extremist groups.

The government should also upgrade the current school infrastructure. Schools in the north have few learning materials and cannot be at par with schools elsewhere in the country. The current budgetary allocation by the Ministry of Education is low, and the shortfall is bridged by funding from developmental partners such as USAID and the World Bank.

The challenges of improving education and other aspects of life in northern Kenya are enormous as the neglect has been ongoing since Kenya’s founding. No one entity may be able to overturn the cumulative disadvantages of historical injustices, but collaboration among agencies is necessary. The Kenyan government must spearhead a coalition of stakeholders and willing partners to implement an action-based policy framework for change. Given the extent of the lag, future funding needs to account for missed opportunities in a fair manner and as such, elected representatives from the area should form a special caucus to lobby the government to increase the national government allocation. Finally, deliberate policies need to be enacted to move the region from the margins to the centre.

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Saida Hussein Mohamed is a Ph.D. Candidate in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the languages, literacies, and identities of Somali children.

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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“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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