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Al-Shabaab Mobilization and Muslim Leadership in Kenya

7 min read.

Muslim leadership, whether political or in civil society, is crucial if the instrumentalization of grievances to entice Kenyans to join al-Shabaab is to be avoided.

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Al-Shabaab Mobilization and Muslim Leadership in Kenya
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On 29 November 2013, a group of Muslim youths took over Sakina Jamia mosque in Majengo, Mombasa from its Imam, the late Sheikh Mohamed Idris, forcing him, his personal aide and the national organizing secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK), Sheikh Mohamed Khalifa out of the mosque. The three are said to have been shielded by “moderate” youths from being harmed by perceived “radicals”. This was part of a trend.

Between 2013 and 2014, several mosques in Kisauni and Majengo in Mombasa County, namely Umar Ibn al Khattab, Liwatoni, Mbaruk, Swafa’a, Mina and Rahma, had either been seized or were about to be seized by charged youths who further threated to extend their actions to the entire Mombasa County. The youths claimed that the clergy lacked the legitimacy to serve them because they had failed to address the myriad of problems affecting Muslims, including discrimination by the state’s predominantly Christian elites with whom the clerics cooperated.

Soon after, two main narratives emerged to explain these developments that were taking place against the backdrop of heightened al-Shabaab attacks and mobilization on Kenyan soil. One was that the youth were legitimate reformists who had had enough of their clergy’s hypocrisy while the other, which ultimately became mainstream, accused them of pursuing a hidden external “extremist” agenda to create a state of anarchy through violence.

However, to understand and make sense of this contention, it should be remembered that discord between “Muslim leaders” and their constituency was nothing new when the riots began. What was relatively new were al-Shabaab’s activities in Kenya. To gain constituents, al-Shabaab’s mobilization strategy is that of creating division in society while at the same time building social solidarity (Assabiyya) with the targeted group. It does this by using its intelligence network (Amniyat) and its social capital in the form of a rich mastery of the functioning of the target society.

Much like in mainstream political campaigns, these are shaped into various narratives that reflect the target group’s dynamics, characteristics, and concerns. The process is known as framing and involves construction of meaning. While diagnostic frames identify problems in the system and link them to a cause, prognostic frames propose solutions and strategies to solve the identified problems. In addition, motivational frames provide a rationale for action and together, these frames form collective action frames that promote and legitimize the activities and campaigns of a movement or organization. This does not occur in a mechanistic manner; instead, it involves constant negotiation and is mediated by social, political, cultural and historical factors within a given context. During this process, frame alignment and frame resonance can be achieved. Frame alignment is when the interests and beliefs of a movement converge with those of a target audience while frame resonance is when frames become plausible (acceptable) to the target audience; it enables their mobilization/participation. Therefore, the Mombasa riots have to be analysed in this context although it is crucial to first appreciate the state’s position in this conflict.

The contention between Muslim citizens and their state is almost as old as the Kenyan nation-state itself given the myriad of historical issues dating as far back as the reign of the sultanate of Zanzibar, to contemporary claims such as marginalization and demographic size. At the centre of these are Muslim leadership entities in their diverse capacities—whether religious, quasi-religious, civil society or elective-political—who have come to define their role as intermediaries and administrators of Muslim affairs. Excluding elective politics, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) was the pioneer in this attempt to administer and manage Muslim affairs. SUPKEM replaced its predecessor, the National Union of Kenyan Muslims (NUKEM) in 1973, the first Muslim organization formed in 1968 in the context of fears that independent Kenyan elites would opt for secularity and abolish customary religious laws.

SUPKEM was headed by two junior members of the then ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) against the backdrop of failed secession attempts by the Muslim majority at the coast and in the former Northern Frontier District. As a result, and due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government as the legitimate representative of Kenyan Muslims. This led to the appointment of some Muslims to government.

Later, in the 1990s, with the opening of the democratic space and eventual banning of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK) by Moi, Muslim civil society organizations, many of which were newly formed by former democracy activists, remained as the only bridge between the state and Muslim citizens. They include the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) and Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI). With relatively minimal returns, most of these organizations tend to address issues such as the underrepresentation of Muslims in government and public institutions, neglect of those parts of the country with a majority Muslim population, especially in terms of number of schools, employment and other opportunities. It is worth mentioning that these are the same issues that had led to the formation of the IPK.

Due to rising political temperatures at the time, SUPKEM’s officials encouraged Muslims to be loyal to President Moi and his KANU party in return for support from the government.

However, these Muslim organizations are broadly perceived by their constituents as bipartisan, especially because of their relationship with the state and persistent internal wrangles. Some (and perhaps many) members of the clergy (Imams), who either head various mosques or are members of various Mosque Management Committees (MMCs) across the country, are also perceived as bipartisan by virtue of their association with these Muslim leadership entities. This concern and accusations of failure to deliver on their mandate is what was at the centre of the push to “overthrow” and “replace” certain clergy from their pulpits in Mombasa back in 2013 and 2014.

Regardless of the truth in these claims, this was also an opportunity for al-Shabaab to mobilize, judging from the timing and the content of the claims. Sheikh Aboud Rogo—considered an al-Shabaab protégé in Kenya—often spoke about the marginalized status of Kenyan Muslims whom he urged to refrain from engaging with the state. Aboud Rogo pointed to what he termed as failures of secularism and democracy, and claimed that some Muslim leaders had become hypocrites and puppets of the regime who were still clinging on to what he saw as an illegitimate political system. These leaders, he claimed were apostates because they continued to remain silent in the face of discrimination and victimization of Muslims and so they had a shortage of faith (iman) and needed to pronounce the Muslim profession of faith (kalimat) afresh. The ultimate solution according to Aboud Rogo was, therefore, violence in the name of “jihad”.

This is an illustration of how instrumentalization of grievances led some Kenyans to join al-Shabaab, a process that cannot be de-linked from its historical context, yet literature on al-Shabaab and other groups that militarize religion tends to ignore these dynamics. It is also highly likely that these factors will continue to have significance, and the risk of being instrumentalized by similar armed non-state actors will remain.

Today, although confrontations between the so-called “radicals” and “moderates” are no longer visible on the streets thanks to the War on Terror (WOT) that has been waged in a variety of ways, this should by no means be mistaken for successful conflict settlement. On the contrary, going by cases of abductions, disappearances and extra-legal killings, a perpetual state of fear seems to exist. The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s when state-perpetrated violence was the main threat. Without exonerating them of whatever wrongdoing they may be accused of, Muslim community leaders owe their communities—at least as long as they perceive themselves as leaders who have a crucial role to play in preventing the instrumentalization of community affairs.

In order for them to play this role, however, it is crucial that they are guaranteed a safe environment. With the increased involvement of East Africans in the activities of groups like al-Shabaab, the region—and Kenya in particular—has become a marketplace of various counter-terrorism (CT) activities. While it is beyond question that some of these measures have led to some success in terms of thwarting attacks, they have also come at a tremendous cost, polarising relationships between the state and its Muslim citizens, as well as amongst citizens.

The situation for Muslim leaders and activists today seems more terrifying than at the height of the democratic activism of the 1990s.

Al-Shabaab’s claim of fighting for Islam by attacking non-Muslim civilians, and the fact that known al-Shabaab bear Muslim names, has worsened the situation as resentment against Muslims rises with the perception that they are al-Shabaab sympathizers. Engaging in civil rights activism as a Muslim has therefore become an increasingly dangerous endeavour because one is likely to be labelled either as a suspected “terrorist” (an al-Shabaab sympathiser) or as an apostate (a Kenyan-state sympathiser). Muslim activists and leaders have therefore lost much of their agency yet it is this agency (and accountability) that is also crucial in the struggle against al-Shabaab and its narratives.

Following the recent kidnappings of two prominent Muslim scholars, Professors Abdulwahab Sheikh Abdiswamad and Hassan Nandwa, a number of Muslim leaders led by SUPKEM chairman Hassan Ole Naado and Abdullahi Abdi of the National Muslim Leaders Forum (NAMLEF), in cooperation with other civil society groups, came out to strongly condemn the abductions and called out what they termed a “War on terror”-turned-“War on Islam” and the treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens. The outcry resulted in the release of the two abductees. Therefore, if there is anything to be learned from this experience, it is that Muslim leadership, whether political or in civil society and as an intermediary between polity and the state, is crucial and can no longer be brushed aside, especially at a time when the militarization of religion seems to have become the norm.

The current status quo has become a catalyst for the mobilization to violence, which means that something has to change for the situation to improve. No one has the social capital to understand Muslim communities better than Muslims themselves and, therefore, constructive engagement should first mean breaking the hierarchy that separates Muslim elites from their constituents at the grassroots. A multitude of interventions can then follow, from issues of their legitimacy and capacity, to the grievances of the Muslim community and even the situation of women that was recently the subject of a hot debate. Most significantly, it should mean more than press briefings during times of crisis as was recently witnessed; after all, organizing and accountable leadership is one of the best and most cost-effective strategies to stop an al-Shabaab that thrives on local concerns and narratives.

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Hawa Noor M. is a scholar, and peace and security commentator based in East Africa and Germany.

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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