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Imperialism by Other Means and the Rise of the Financial Inclusion Delusion

8 min read.

In a major exposé of the ‘fintech revolution’ in Africa, Milford Bateman and Fernando Amorim Teixeira write that the investor-driven fintech model is nothing less than a ‘digitalised’ extension of the earlier colonial-imperialist ‘extractivist’ models that enabled the western nations to appropriate Africa’s natural resource wealth to fund their own economic prosperity.

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Imperialism by Other Means and the Rise of the Financial Inclusion Delusion
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It is very widely accepted that Kenya’s iconic mobile money transfer platform, M-Pesa, has spearheaded what has been called the ‘Fintech Revolution‘. Defined as ‘[c]omputer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, in its very simplest form fintech involves a greatly enhanced ability to transact financial services via a mobile phone or smart device, making it easier, cheaper and quicker, for instance, to (1) obtain a loan; (2) make a savings deposit; (3) transfer and receive money; and (4) pay for and be paid for goods and services. Such is the excitement created by M-Pesa, especially in Africa, that many regard fintech as having the potential to re-engineer capitalism towards “sustainability, equality and the advancement of humanity as a whole”, and thus make it capable of ushering in a new ‘golden age’ of abundance and prosperity.

Since the development of M-Pesa was initiated and funded by the UK’s then aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), the largest international development organisations soon heard about M-Pesa, and they were transfixed by it. Above all M-Pesa attracted the attention of the World Bank. Among other things, it saw this radical new fintech application as providing a way to rescue the brick-and-mortar microfinance model that was now seen as having failed in its objective to address global poverty.

After very aggressively promoting the Nobel-award-winning microfinance model from the 1990s onwards, the World Bank inevitably found itself in a very awkward position in the early 2010s when many one-time leading microfinance advocates began to concede that the microfinance model had in fact had no real effect on global poverty. Even worse, as some heterodox economists had long argued, the microfinance model appeared to be guilty of seriously setting back the effort to address global poverty, especially in Africa. The World Bank’s first reaction to these important reassessments was not to consider abandoning the microfinance model – for neoliberal ideological and corporate profit-making reasons the microfinance model was far too important to simply cut loose – but to mount a rescue attempt. This involved simply rebadging the microfinance model as the ‘financial inclusion model‘, the hope being that a changed name and a somewhat wider explanatory narrative would give it a new lease of life.

The importance of this rebadging was that at almost the exact same time as it was initiated, the fintech model was bursting on to the global development scene. It was quickly realised that the fintech model would greatly assist in turbo-charging the revised financial inclusion narrative, and would thus make it possible to very rapidly achieve ‘full’ financial inclusion almost everywhere. With every single individual and household in Africa soon having access to a range of basic fintech services, including digital microcredit, it was possible to state once more, this time with even more confidence, that virtually all of its poor were now on the way towards escaping their poverty by establishing or expanding their own microenterprise. The extended argument began to take shape that the old brick-and-mortar microfinance model had perhaps failed because it had been unable to achieve ‘full’ financial inclusion – essentially not enough microcredit was made available to every individual that wished to set up a microenterprise – but the new fintech-driven financial inclusion model would ‘go the last mile’ and brilliantly finish the job.

When it became clear that the fintech model was also capable of generating huge profits for investors, its upward trajectory became unstoppable. This profitability factor was first amply demonstrated when Safaricom, the corporate entity that owns and operates the M-Pesa platform, quickly emerged to become one of Africa’s most profitable corporations (see below). Many other investors soon joined the party in an attempt to get their own share of the spoils. Thanks to a wave of foreign investors that began to arrive in Africa in the mid-to-late 2010s a large number of new fintech financial platforms were established. In addition, many of Africa’s existing brick-and-mortar financial institutions joined them by quickly migrating their financial services over to new or bought-in fintech platforms. Requiring far fewer employees and much less expensive business space, this was the key to raising their own profits significantly. Like previous natural resource discoveries (gold, platinum, diamonds, cocoa, spices, etc), Africa’s fintech sector was soon being held up as one of the world’s most attractive investment destinations. What we might call the ‘investor-driven’ fintech model had started a new ‘gold rush’ in Africa, and then everywhere else.

The possibility that the investor-driven fintech model might be able to combine investor and corporate enrichment with seemingly demonstrable progress in addressing Africa’s poverty was clearly an extremely seductive narrative. It looked as though capitalism might finally be working in Africa for everyone, and not just for a tiny elite. However, in a discussion paper produced for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, Fernando Amorim Teixeira and I argue that this uplifting narrative represents a fundamentally flawed and inaccurate portrayal of the emerging global reality, especially in Africa. While it is quite clear that fintech has delivered many initial benefits for Africa’s poor, including reduced costs of, and greater access to, many important financial services, its full long-term impact is very likely to be far less rosy given the way that it has begun to evolve.

Like many financial innovations that elite groups wish to sell to the wider public in order to make a financial killing at their expense (think sub-prime mortgages), we contend that, for the very same reasons, almost all of the early hugely uplifting analysis of the impact of the investor-driven fintech model was seriously flawed. Largely commissioned, funded, published and promoted by those financial institutions linked to the fintech sector, this was perhaps only to be expected. Notably this problem began with the assessment of the impact of M-Pesa itself. Bringing M-Pesa to the world’s attention were publications produced by staff at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. not coincidentally one of the world’s most aggressive advocates for all manner of technological innovations in the financial sphere. These early outputs all celebrated M-Pesa, while conspicuously failing to mention any of its downsides. Nor did they even mention the fact that M-Pesa was able to secure by dubious means a crucial near-monopoly for its services that enabled it to succeed very quickly thanks to having almost the entire market to itself.

The UK government that was otherwise advising African governments to accept free markets and competition was silent about this anti-competitive tactic. UK government and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding then helped the US-based economists, William Jack and Tavneet Suri, to produce several influential early research papers promoting M-Pesa. Latterly this included by far the most influential output of all on the subject of M-Pesa – a 2016 article they published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Science that concluded, “[A]ccess to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty”.This claim created a sensation among the international development community and, even though the article was based on numerous flaws, logical inconsistencies and obvious biases, it was cited in almost every major official publication promoting the investor-driven fintech model.

In fact, the investor-driven fintech model that dominates in Africa today is, we believe, shaping up to be not just deeply damaging to the lives of Africa’s poor majority, but also represents a major lost opportunity to deploy a radical financial innovation to create far more productive, inclusive, equitable, dignified and socially just African economies and societies. We outline six of the main problem areas that have arisen with regard to the investor-driven fintech model. These include: extending the failed brick-and-mortar microfinance model’s support for the ‘wrong‘ type of unproductive ‘no-growth’ ‘here today and gone tomorrow‘ microenterprises and SMEs; increasing financial fraud and thievery; undermining the ability of important social solidarity networks to support the poor into the longer-term; and, plunging Africa’s poor (especially in Kenya itself) into even more individual debt than even the brick-and-mortar microfinance model managed to do in previous years.

The final over-arching problem we highlighted is also one of the most far-reaching: the investor-driven fintech model is nothing less than a ‘digitalised’ extension of the earlier colonial-Imperialist ‘extractivist’ models that enabled the western nations to appropriate Africa’s natural resource wealth in order to fund their own economic development trajectory at the expense of ‘under-developing’ the African nations. Nowhere is this conclusion more in evidence than with regard to the example of Kenya’s Safaricom within which M-Pesa is a key constituent. It first helped that its founding shareholder, the giant UK telecom corporation Vodafone PLC, was able to engineer a near-monopoly for M-Pesa’s services right from the start thanks to a secretive ‘shares for lobbying’ arrangement concluded with key local business and political elites. With this market unfriendly structure neatly in place, Safaricom was then able to go on to ‘mine’ and appropriate considerable value from the tiny digital transactions of Kenya’s poor. Safaricom was soon earning quite spectacular Wall Street-style profits. Crucially, rather than reinvest these profits in the development of the Kenyan economy, the bulk of Safaricom’s profits have been sent abroad to reward its foreign shareholders, starting with its still 40% majority shareholder, Vodafone, which is garnering a huge long-term financial reward for its early support for a UK government initiative. Furthermore, such is Safaricom’s strong commitment to Vodafone (rather than, say, the Kenyan economy and to its poorest citizens) that during the COVID-19 crisis, when its revenues were falling thanks to a lower fee structure imposed on it by the Kenyan government to help the population better cope, Safaricom was willing to take a nearly $US200 million loan on to its books in order to help pay Vodafone its usual high dividend (just short of $US200 million). Equally revealing from another angle is the fact that Vodafone has quite openly admitted that it uses its large foreign dividend flow, including that amount generated from its ownership stake in Safaricom, to fund its vital infrastructure spending in the UK, which is clearly good for the UK economy. But then Vodafone uses this fact as the justification for why it manages its global financial structure in such a way as to pay almost no corporate tax in the UK.

We thus conclude that the initial and not inconsequential benefits arising from the introduction of many new investor-driven fintech platforms are now in real danger of being swamped entirely by the downsides that have begun to emerge. So does this not mean that an alternative fintech model would make more sense? It probably does. However, replacing the current investor-driven fintech model is right now simply not on the agenda of the global investment community or the major international development organisations.

But if we assume that change is still possible in some locations with relatively independent national and sub-national governments, then what might be the alternative to the investor-driven fintech model? We end our TNI discussion paper by briefly discussing this issue using the experience of a fintech’ model that has been deployed since the mid-2010s in the city of Maricá in south-eastern Brazil. While still in its early stage and clearly still subject to modification, this ‘people-centered’ fintech model has nevertheless already demonstrated that it is perfectly possible for basic fintech applications to be directly used to promote the common good. Piloted by the city government, the emerging ‘Maricá Model’ is based around a community digital currency, the Mumbuca, that is managed by the city-owned community development bank, the Mumbuca Bank. One of its centre-piece policies is a generous Basic Income program that is paid out in Mumbuca and which provides demand for many other local enterprises. Other initiatives include financing local enterprise development with no to low cost loans that allow sustainable local SMEs to emerge, as well as for existing informal microenterprises to expand, diversify and otherwise try to increase their level of productivity in order to make a more substantive contribution to the local economy. Crucially, the not inconsiderable financial savings enjoyed by the Mumbuca Bank using fintech applications to manage the Basic Income program and other services are all retained and then directed into expanding the benefits it can offer to the local population as a whole, not to reward a narrow elite of investors.

Even a cursory comparison of the various inter-locking aspects of the ‘Maricá Model’ in action reveals that it is already generating significant value for Maricá’s citizens, and especially for those living in poverty. Pointedly, the ‘Maricá Model’ was able to fashion probably the best response to the COVID-19 crisis that emerged anywhere in Brazil, if not the world. We believe African countries urgently need to learn from and begin to adapt such community-driven fintech models to their own requirements if they genuinely want the global fintech revolution to sustainably benefit all of their citizens into the future, and not just a lucky few.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Milford Bateman is a Visiting Professor of Economics at the Department of Tourism and Economics at the Juraj Dobrila University of Pula, Croatia; Adjunct Professor at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada; Honorary Research Associate, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK; and Associate Researcher, FINDE, Fluminense Federal University (UFF), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Fernando Amorim Teixeira is a PhD candidate in Economics at the Fluminense Federal University (PPGE/UFF), where he is a Researcher at FINDE, a Substitute Professor of Economics at International Relations Institute of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IRID/UFRJ) and Economist-researcher at the Inter-union Department of Statistics and Socio-economic Studies (DIEESE), Brazil.

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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