Connect with us

Long Reads

Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa

16 min read.

Colonialism in the age of Artificial Intelligence takes the form of “state-of-the-art algorithms” and “AI driven solutions” unsuited to African problems, and hinders the development of local products, leaving the continent dependent on Western software and infrastructure.

Published

on

Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
Download PDFPrint Article

Traditional colonial power seeks unilateral power and domination over colonised people. It declares control of the social, economic, and political sphere by reordering and reinventing the social order in a manner that benefits it. In the age of algorithms, this control and domination occurs not through brute physical force but rather through invisible and nuanced mechanisms such as control of digital ecosystems and infrastructure.

Common to both traditional and algorithmic colonialism is the desire to dominate, monitor, and influence the social, political, and cultural discourse through the control of core communication and infrastructure mediums. While traditional colonialism is often spearheaded by political and government forces, digital colonialism is driven by corporate tech monopolies—both of which are in search of wealth accumulation.

The line between these forces is fuzzy as they intermesh and depend on one another. Political, economic, and ideological domination in the age of AI takes the form of “technological innovation”, “state-of-the-art algorithms”, and “AI solutions” to social problems. Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking. Knowledge, authority, and power to sort, categorise, and order human activity rests with the technologist, for whom we are merely data-producing “human natural resources”, observes Shoshana Zuboff in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff remarks that “conquest patterns” unfold in three phases. First, the colonial power invents legal measures to provide justification for invasion. Then declarations of territorial claims are asserted. These declarations are then legitimised and institutionalised, as they serve as tools for conquering by imposing a new reality. These invaders do not seek permission as they build ecosystems of commerce, politics, and culture and declare legitimacy and inevitability. Conquests by declaration are invasive and sometimes serve as a subtle way to impose new facts on the social world and, for the declarers, they are a way to get others to agree with those facts.

Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking

For technology monopolies, such processes allow them to take things that live outside the market sphere and declare them as new market commodities. In 2016, Facebook declared that it is creating a population density map of most of Africa using computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery. In the process, Facebook arrogated to itself the authority for mapping, controlling, and creating population knowledge of the continent.

In doing so, not only did Facebook assume that the continent (its people, movement, and activities) are up for grabs for the purpose of data extraction and profit maximisation, but Facebook also assumed authority over what is perceived as legitimate knowledge of the continent’s population. Statements such as “creating knowledge about Africa’s population distribution”, “connecting the unconnected”, and “providing humanitarian aid” served as justification for Facebook’s project. For many Africans this echoes old colonial rhetoric; “we know what these people need, and we are coming to save them. They should be grateful”.

Currently, much of Africa’s digital infrastructure and ecosystem is controlled and managed by Western monopoly powers such as Facebook, Google, Uber, and Netflix. These tech monopolies present such exploitations as efforts to “liberate the bottom billion”, help the “unbanked bank, or connect the “unconnected”—the same colonial tale but now under the guise of technology. “I find it hard to reconcile a group of American corporations, far removed from the realities of Africans, machinating a grand plan on how to save the unbanked women of Africa. Especially when you consider their recent history of data privacy breaches (Facebook) and worker exploitation (Uber)”, writes Michael Kimani. Nonetheless, algorithmic colonialism dressed in “technological solutions for the developing world” receives applause and rarely faces resistance and scrutiny.

It is important, however, to note that this is not a rejection of AI technology in general, or even of AI that is originally developed in the West, but a rejection of a particular business model advanced by big technology monopolies that impose particular harmful values and interests while stifling approaches that do not conform to their values. When practiced cautiously, access to quality data and use of various technological and AI developments does indeed hold potential for benefits to the African continent and the Global South in general. Access to quality data and secure infrastructure to share and store data, for example, can help improve the healthcare and education sectors.

Gender inequalities which plague every social, political, and economic sphere in Ethiopia, for instance, have yet to be exposed and mapped through data. Such data is invaluable in informing long-term gender-balanced decision making which is an important first step towards making societal and structural changes. Such data also aids general societal-level awareness of gender disparities, which is central for grassroots change. Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming, for example, can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology. A primary example is a machine learning model that can diagnose early stages of disease in the cassava plant, which is developed by Charity Wayua, a Kenyan researcher and her team

Having said that, the marvelousness of technology and its benefits to the continent is not what this paper has set out to discuss. There already exist countless die-hard techno-enthusiasts, both within and outside the continent, some of whom are only too willing to blindly adopt anything “data-driven” or AI-based without a second thought to the possible harmful consequences. Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement. They also bring with them invested parties that seek to monetise, quantify, and capitalise every aspect of human life, often at any cost.

Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology

The atmosphere during a major technology conference in Tangier, Morocco in 2019 embodies this techevangelism. CyFyAfrica, The Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society, is one of Africa’s biggest annual conferences attended by various policy makers, UN delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 (mostly African and Asian) nations.

Although these leaders want to place “the voice of the youth of Africa at the front and centre”, the atmosphere was one that can be summed up as a race to get the continent “teched-up”. Efforts to implement the latest, state-of-the-art machine learning tool or the next cutting-edge application were applauded and admired while the few voices that attempted to bring forth discussions of the harms that might emerge with such technology got buried under the excitement. Given that the technological future of the continent is overwhelmingly driven and dominated by such techno-optimists, it is crucial to pay attention to the cautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world.

Context matters

One of the central questions that need attention in this regard is the relevance and appropriateness of AI software developed with values, norms, and interests of Western societies to users across the African continent. Value systems vary from culture to culture including what is considered a vital problem and a successful solution, what constitutes sensitive personal information, and opinions on prevalent health and socio-economic issues. Certain matters that are considered critical problems in some societies may not be considered so in other societies. Solutions devised in a one culture may not transfer well to another. In fact, the very problems that the solution is set out to solve may not be considered problems for other cultures.

The harmful consequences of lack of awareness to context is most stark in the health sector. In a comparative study that examined early breast cancer detection practices between Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and high-income countries, Eleanor Black and Robyn Richmond found that applying what has been “successful” in the West, i.e. mammograms, to SSA is not effective in reducing mortality from breast cancer. A combination of contextual factors, such as a lower age profile, presentation with advanced disease, and limited available treatment options all suggest that self-examination and clinical breast examination for early detection methods serve women in SSA better than medical practice designed for their counterparts in high-income countries. Throughout the continent, healthcare is one of the major areas where “AI solutions” are actively sought and Western-developed technological tools are imported. Without critical assessment of their relevance, the deployment of Western eHealth systems might bring more harm than benefit.

Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement

The importing of AI tools made in the West by Western technologists may not only be irrelevant and harmful due to lack of transferability from one context to another but is also an obstacle that hinders the development of local products. For example, “Nigeria, one of the more technically developed countries in Africa, imports 90% of all software used in the country. The local production of software is reduced to add-ons or extensions creation for mainstream packaged software”. The West’s algorithmic invasion simultaneously impoverishes development of local products while also leaving the continent dependent on its software and infrastructure.

Data are people

The African equivalents of Silicon Valley’s tech start-ups can be found in every possible sphere of life around all corners of the continent—in “Sheba Valley” in Addis Abeba, “Yabacon Valley” in Lagos, and “Silicon Savannah” in Nairobi, to name a few—all pursuing “cutting-edge innovations” in sectors like banking, finance, healthcare, and education. They are headed by technologists and those in finance from both within and outside the continent who seemingly want to “solve” society’s problems, using data and AI to provide quick “solutions”.

As a result, the attempt to “solve” social problems with technology is exactly where problems arise. Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified—matters that can be “fixed” with the latest algorithm. As dynamic and interactive human activities and processes are automated, they are inherently simplified to the engineers’ and tech corporations’ subjective notions of what they mean. The reduction of complex social problems to a matter that can be “solved” by technology also treats people as passive objects for manipulation. Humans, however, far from being passive objects, are active meaning-seekers embedded in dynamic social, cultural, and historical backgrounds.

The discourse around “data mining”, “abundance of data”, and “data-rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point is disregarded. This muting of the individual—a person with fears, emotions, dreams, and hopes—is symptomatic of how little attention is given to matters such as people’s well-being and consent, which should be the primary concerns if the goal is indeed to “help” those in need. Furthermore, this discourse of “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser’s attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.

Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified

Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis, and manipulation of data potentially entails monitoring, tracking, and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts people directly or indirectly whether it manifests as change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services. The erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behavior” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for companies. Considerations around the wellbeing and welfare of the individual user, the long-term social impacts, and the unintended consequences of these systems on society’s most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they enter the equation at all.

For companies that develop and deploy AI, at the top of the agenda is the collection of more data to develop profitable AI systems rather than the welfare of individual people or communities. This is most evident in the FinTech sector, one of the prominent digital markets in Africa. People’s digital footprints, from their interactions with others to how much they spend on their mobile top ups, are continually surveyed and monitored to form data for making loan assessments. Smartphone data from browsing history, likes, and locations is recorded forming the basis for a borrower’s creditworthiness.

Artificial Intelligence technologies that aid decision-making in the social sphere are, for the most part, developed and implemented by the private sector whose primary aim is to maximise profit. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is therefore the least of their concerns, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining” data, building predictive models, and pushing products to customers. As decision-making of social outcomes is handed over to predictive systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest.

“Digital nudges”, behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests, are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” individuals’ behaviour, eating habits, or exercise routines, those developing predictive models are bestowed with the power to decide what “correct” is. In the process, individuals that do not fit our stereotypical ideas of a “fit body”, “good health”, and “good eating habits” end up being punished, outcast, and pushed further to the margins. When these models are imported as state-of-the-art technology that will save money and “leapfrog” the continent into development, Western values and ideals are enforced, either deliberately or intentionally.

Blind trust in AI hurts the most vulnerable

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally, or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who may fail to repay their loan. Constructive and rehabilitative questions such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those that have come out of prison are rarely asked. Technology designed and applied with the aim of delivering security and order necessarily brings cruel, discriminatory, and inhumane practices to some.

The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard. Similarly, as cities like Harare, Kampala, and Johannesburg introduce the use of facial recognition technology, the question of their accuracy (given they are trained on unrepresentative demographic datasets) and relevance should be of primary concern—not to mention the erosion of privacy and the surveillance state that emerges with these technologies.

Not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest

With the automation of the social comes the automation and perpetuation of historical bias, discrimination, and injustice. As technological solutions are increasingly deployed and integrated into the social, economic, and political spheres, so are the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life. Consequently, the harmful effects of digitisation and “technological solutions” affect individuals and communities that are already at the margins of society. For example, as Kenya embarks on the project of national biometric IDs for its citizens, it risks excluding racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that have historically been discriminated.

Enrolling on the national biometric ID requires documents such as a national ID card and birth certificate. However, these minorities have historically faced challenges acquiring such documents. If the national biometric system comes into effect, these minority groups may be rendered stateless and face challenges registering a business, getting a job, or travelling. Furthermore, sensitive information about individuals is extracted which raises questions such as where this information will be stored, how it will be used, and who has access.

FinTech and the digitisation of lending have come to dominate the “Africa rising” narrative, a narrative which supposedly will “lift many out of poverty”. Since its arrival in the continent in the 1990s, FinTech has largely been portrayed as a technological revolution that will “leap-frog” Africa into development. The typical narrative preaches the microfinance industry as a service that exists to accommodate the underserved and a system that creates opportunities for the “unbanked” who have no access to a formal banking system. Through its microcredit system, the narrative goes, Africans living in poverty can borrow money to establish and expand their microenterprise ventures.

However, a closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders. These stakeholders get wealthier by leaving Africa’s poor communities in perpetual debt. In Milford Bateman’s words: “like the colonial era mining operations that exploited Africa’s mineral wealth, the microcredit industry in Africa essentially exists today for no other reason than to extract value from the poorest communities”.

Far from being a tool that “lifts many out of poverty”, FinTech is a capitalist market premised upon the profitability of the perpetual debt of the poorest. For instance, although Safaricom is 35% owned by the Kenyan government, 40% of the shares are controlled by Vodafone—a UK multinational corporation—while the other 25%, are held mainly by wealthy foreign investors. According to Nicholas Loubere, Safaricom reported an annual profit of $US 620 million in 2019, which was directed into dividend payments for investors.

A closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders

Like traditional colonialism, wealthy individuals and corporations in the Global North continue to profit from some of the poorest communities except that now it takes place under the guise of “revolutionary” and “state-of-the-art” technology. Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty. It is an endeavour engaged in the expansion of its financial empire through indebting Africa’s poorest.

Loose regulations and lack of transparency and accountability under which the microfinance industry operates, as well as overhyping the promise of technology, makes it difficult to challenge and interrogate its harmful impacts. Like traditional colonialism, those that benefit from FinTech, microfinancing, and from various lending apps operate from a distance. For example, Branch and Tala, two of the most prominent FinTech apps in Kenya, operate from their California headquarters and export “Silicon Valley’s curious nexus of technology, finance, and developmentalism”. Furthermore, the expansion of Western-led digital financing systems brings with it a negative knock-on effect on existing local traditional banking and borrowing systems that have long existed and functioned in harmony with locally established norms and mutual compassion.

Lessons from the Global North

Globally, there is an increasing awareness of the problems that arise with automating social affairs illustrated by ongoing attempts to integrate ethics into computer science programmes within academia, various “ethics boards” within industry, as well as various proposed policy guidelines. These approaches to develop, implement, and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, directions, and present a plurality of views.

This plurality is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength which is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on a single AI integration framework for ethical, social, and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures is not only unattainable but also imposes a one-size-fits-all, single worldview.

Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty

Companies like Facebook which enter African “markets” or embark on projects such as creating population density maps with little or no regard for local norms or cultures are in danger of enforcing a one-size-fits-all imperative. Similarly, for African developers, start-ups, and policy makers working to solve local problems with homegrown solutions, what is considered ethical and responsible needs to be seen as inherently tied to local contexts and experts.

Artificial Intelligence, like Big Data, is a buzzword that gets thrown around carelessly; what it refers to is notoriously contested across various disciplines, and oftentimes it is mere mathematical snake oil that rides on overhype. Researchers within the field, reporters in the media, and industries that benefit from it, all contribute to the overhype and exaggeration of the capabilities of AI. This makes it extremely difficult to challenge the deeply engrained attitude that “all Africa is lacking is data and AI”. The sheer enthusiasm with which data and AI are subscribed to as gateways out of poverty or disease would make one think that any social, economic, educational, and cultural problems are immutable unless Africa imports state-of-the-art technology.

The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when regulating, deploying, and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that invests AI with God-like power and as something that exists independent of those that create it. People create, control, and are responsible for any system. For the most part, such people are a homogeneous group of predominantly white, middle-class males from the Global North. Like any other tool, AI is one that reflects human inconsistencies, limitations, biases, and the political and emotional desires of the individuals behind it, and the social and cultural ecology that embed it. Just like a mirror, it reflects how society operates—unjust and prejudiced against some individuals and communities.

Artificial Intelligence tools that are deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems which are put forward in domains such as hiring and policing are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is in fact one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned. As Cathy O’Neil explains, “algorithms are opinions embedded in code”. This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world is reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect, and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions.

For example, during the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, the Head of Mission, UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, addressed work that is being developed globally to combat online counterterrorism. Unfortunately, the Director focused explicitly on Islamic groups, portraying an unrealistic and harmful image of global online terrorism. For instance, contrary to such portrayal, more than 60 per cent of mass shootings in the United States in 2019 were carried out by white-nationalist extremists. In fact, white supremacist terrorists carried out more attacks than any other type of group in recent years in the US.

In Johannesburg, one of the most surveilled cities in Africa, “smart” CCTV networks provide a powerful tool to segregate, monitor, categorise, and punish individuals and communities that have historically been disadvantaged. Vumacam, an AI-powered surveillance company, is fast expanding throughout South Africa, normalising surveillance and erecting apartheid-era segregation and punishment under the guise of “neutral” technology and security. Vumacam currently provides a privately owned  video-management-as-a-service infrastructure, with a centralised repository of video data from CCTV. Kwet explains that in the apartheid era passbooks served as a means of segregating the population, inflicting mass violence, and incarcerating the black communities.

Similarly, “[s]mart surveillance solutions like Vumacam are explicitly built for profiling, and threaten to exacerbate these kinds of incidents”. Although the company claims its technology is neutral and unbiased, what it deems “abnormal” and “suspicious” behaviour disproportionally constitutes those that have historically been oppressed. What the Vumacam software flags as “unusual behaviour” tends to be dominated by the black demographic and most commonly those that do manual labour such as construction workers. According to Andy Clarno, “[t]he criminal in South Africa is always imagined as a black male”. Despite its claim to neutrality, Vumacam software perpetuates this harmful stereotype.

Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them. In the process we amplify and perpetuate those harmful stereotypes. We then interpret the findings through the looking-glass of technology as evidence that confirms our biased intuitions and further reinforces stereotypes. Any classification, clustering, or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that AI systems produce reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.

A robust body of research in the growing field of Algorithmic Injustice illustrates that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes often affect individuals and groups that are already at the margins of society, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers—people who do not conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology disproportionally, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on or around them.

However, on the contrary, many of the ethical principles applied to AI are firmly utilitarian; the underlying principle is the best outcome for the greatest number of people. This, by definition, means that solutions that centre minorities are never sought. Even when unfairness and discrimination in algorithmic decision-making processes are brought to the fore—for instance, upon discovering that women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities forced into inhumane treatment, and systematic biases have been embedded into predictive policing systems—the “solutions” sought do not often centre those that are disproportionally impacted. Mitigating proposals devised by corporate and academic ethics boards are often developed without the consultation and involvement of the people that are affected.

Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them

Prioritising the voice of those that are disproportionally impacted every step of the way, including in the design, development, and implementation of any technology, as well as in policymaking, requires actually consulting and involving vulnerable groups of society. This, of course, requires a considerable amount of time, money, effort, and genuine care for the welfare of the marginalised, which often goes against most corporates’ business models. Consulting those who are potentially likely to be negatively impacted might (at least as far as the West’s Silicon Valley is concerned) also seem beneath the “all knowing” engineers who seek to unilaterally provide a “technical fix” for any complex social problem.

As Africa grapples with digitising and automating various services and activities and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments, and firms that develop and apply various technologies to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms, and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen if guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedoms are put in place, continually maintained, revised, and enforced. In the spirit of communal values that unifies such a diverse continent, “harnessing” technology to drive development means prioritising the welfare of the most vulnerable in society and the benefit of local communities, not distant Western start-ups or tech monopolies.

The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. The continent has plenty of techno-utopians but few that would stop and ask difficult and critical questions. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and showing the rest of the world; shifting the tired portrayal of the continent (hunger and disease) by focusing attention on the positive vibrant culture (such as philosophy, art, and music) that the continent has to offer. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or some other AI tools without questioning the underlying purpose and contextual relevance, who benefits from it, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools. Moreover, African youth involvement in the AI field means creating programmes and databases that serve various local communities and not blindly importing Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the Western narrative is hindered by negative images such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves starts with a rejection of such stereotypical images. This means using AI as a tool that aids us in portraying how we want to be understood and perceived; a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

This article was first published by SCRIPTed.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Abeba Birhane is PhD Candidate, School of Computer Science, University College Dublin, Ireland and Lero - The Irish Software Research Centre.

Long Reads

“If my husband touches you I will kill you”

Rape, abuse, neglect, and death threats: the lives of Kenyan women returning from Saudi.

Published

on

“If my husband touches you I will kill you”
Download PDFPrint Article

TW: This article contains sensitive and graphic descriptions of abuse, rape and sexual assault.

The stories merge, one woman’s trauma echoed in another’s nightmare. One survivor’s smile waning bearing witness to another’s unhealed wounds. The nods of acknowledgement, the sighs of empathy. They’ve all been there, but they know each one’s hurt stings differently. Some eyes are bright with unshed tears, some are empty, some laughs are of gallows humour, a few of shared wins. Some scars are physical and on display, but the ones that fester most are invisible.

Through in-depth interviews and focus groups with Migrant-Rights.Org, Kenyan women share stories about their life in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. While they all speak of long work hours, poor or no pay, lack of nourishment, and verbal abuse, almost all who have been to Saudi Arabia share tales far more tragic. Rape, sexual assault, torture…every anecdote shared has physical or emotional evidence. The burns, the limps, the breathless gasps, the estranged families.

In a dank, badly lit room in Nairobi, 12 women come together. Four wish to go abroad, and the rest jaded with experience are eager to share. The advice flies around the room thick and fast, accompanied by mirthless laughs.

“Patience.”

For what? another asks.

“For accommodating all the insults.”

“Be ready for sleepless nights.”

“There won’t be enough food.”

“Get used to a lot of black tea. A lot. And kubooz.”

“Panadol is your doctor. You have only that, however sick you are, even if you feel like you are dying.”

This draws loud laughs from everyone.

“Expect not to have sanitary towels.”

“Your own soap.”

“Or oil.”

“Or even drinking water.”

Ruth, who spent two years in Hafar Al Batin and Dammam, Saudi, is brusque with her inputs. “Expect that when your contract ends you won’t be let go easily.

The trauma continues as they arrive home. Many who return without meeting their goal come back to empty homes or hostile environments. A perceived shame for being a victim of abuse.

Like Celestine, who chooses to live away from her young kids. “I am homeless, I live with my friend Feith. I am scared to be with my kids. I am scared the demons in my head will take over and I will kill myself and my kids.”

You will be raped. You will be beaten. No action will be taken. You will have a child as evidence of rape. Still no action. The police, the embassy, the office all collaborate to make you work only. You have no rights.

Her friend Feith sits by her, reaching out with her good hand. The other hand is healing from severe burns inflicted on her by her employer. Feith somehow appears stronger. She escaped and helped Celeste out too.

(Report continues below, after Abuse Beyond Comprehension)

Abuse Beyond Comprehension

Sister Florence is a professional counsellor with Counter Human Trafficking Trust-East Africa (CHTEA). While the organisation has helped many returnees from Lebanon with a seed fund to start a business, Sr Florence has worked with dozens of victims of abuse who have returned from the Gulf states, including those that Migrant-Rights.Org helped repatriate.

The highly traumatised are taken to a safe house on arrival. “I meet them twice a day, as they need constant support. At least at the beginning. When they are in a good-ish place, we reduce the sessions.”

However, their families don’t always accept them.

“We have victims of trafficking from other countries in the world, but none as bad as the ones coming from the Gulf. Especially Saudi,” she says and wonders if it’s because of a clash of culture or misunderstanding. While victims from Europe are usually those trafficked to brothels or into prostitution, in the case of the Gulf, it’s women who go to work in households, she explains.

“Some things are beyond comprehension. Father and sons raping the worker, women standing by and not doing anything…Rape is taboo, but a rape like this is even worse. It is sex slavery. They become objects. They are beaten and burned. They are penetrated with bottles and vegetables. They are also forced into abortions. And if the pregnancy continues they are jailed.”

The taboo is so deep-rooted, that women don’t even use the word ‘rape’. “They will describe everything else. Say bad things happened to them, but the stigma attached to the word is so bad, that they won’t say they were raped. Healing is such a slow and tedious process. Some are suicidal and need to be observed all the time. Once they leave the safe house they still have to be monitored. All of this is resource-intensive, expensive.”

Sr Florence says the trauma women face begins when their documents are confiscated, and then their phones. It weakens them. “It is chipping away at their personality, their humanity. Still, people go, because there are some success stories.”

It’s not just women who are subject to sexual assault and rape. “I have also spoken to some men. They’ve been sodomised. Abused. But they keep quiet. They are working as watchmen or in construction. They don’t talk about it. They suffer in silence. Then they end up with problems of substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, being suicidal, unable to cope with what they’ve endured.”

She is critical of the whole anti-trafficking agenda for leaving men out. “There are safe houses only for women and children? What about the men? Even if trafficked they are seen as victims of labour abuse alone.”

(Continuation of report)

Sexual predators

Despite what she went through, it’s Feith who provides succour to Celestine,28, whom Feith feels had it worse. As if torture needs to be graded.

The two women went to Saudi at the same time with the same agent. Celestine ended up in Hafar Al Batin in the east of the kingdom, not far from the Kuwait and Iraq borders. Things were not so bad for Celestine to begin with. “They gave me food. I worked 8 to 8. They treated me well.”

After two weeks, the husband started coming on to her, barging into her room, and knocking on the door when she would go for a shower. She informed the agent in Kenya, who did nothing. She could not tell the wife, who had told Celestine at the very beginning that if baba touched her, she (the wife) would hurt her.

“The man started coming to my room with a gun. On 3 February (2020), the lady was not home. He came and raped me. And he continued raping me over the coming months until November. In the fifth month, he raped and hit me with the gun on the head and I fainted.”

She was taken to the hospital but warned not to complain to anyone. She was sent back home with medicine and the sexual assault continued. “He would also hit me. There are marks all over here [patting her stomach, chest, genitals]. He would stomp my genital area with his boots. Then he started anal rape too. I would scream and cry in pain.”

They would never miss a prayer but would come back from the prayers and mistreat you.

She finally called Feith, who advised her to run away since the agent was of no help.

One evening as Celestine was deliberating her escape, the employer brought home six men and they threatened to rape her, kill her and dispose of her in trash bags. “I just ran. I found my way to the office. They called the police, but the police asked me to go get evidence from the same family. The agent said the same. I refused. They beat me and sold me to the brother of the employer.”

Celestine’s tone is flat and her voice soft as she recounts the months of horror, but silent tears fall steadily through the one-hour conversation. Feith asks her in Swahili if she would like to stop. She pauses for a sip of water and insists on continuing.

At the new house there were 30 people, she says. By then, all her injuries were infected, with pus oozing out, and no medication — none of which was considered evidence. Here again, she worked from 6 am to 3 am, with hardly any food and no pay.

“On 29 November, the son came to my room to rape again and started beating me. Now the bleeding was heavy (points to her genital area). They then served some food with something green in it and said it was medicine for Covid. A child in the house came and told me don’t eat that. A 10-year-old boy. He said it was poison.”

[Feith interjects. “Children save lives. So often they come and help.”]

Celestine developed terrible stomach pain and bleeding, as she had eaten some morsels. She was taken to the hospital. Finally, she was sent to the agency office, where she was locked up with other Africans with similar cases. “We all ran away to the police somehow. And they helped repatriate us in February 2021.”

The poison has affected her liver. The abortions she was forced to have, and other injuries from the beatings she received, have also impacted her health and made it impossible for Celestine to work. She receives some help through church groups but says she is still haunted by what happened.

“Therapy is taking time to heal. When I shower and see my scars, everything unravels again. It’s too difficult. I feel so dehumanised. My mind is not working,” she says.

All the returnees have some version of the sexual harassment they faced.

Sophia, who did a short stint in Saudi before escaping abuse and overwork, spent another three years in Qatar. “It was slightly better… I worked in different households. But everywhere you face sexual harassment. In the household, when you go out with the driver. Babas asking for massages. You have to be smart and resourceful to escape all this, but you don’t always succeed.”

“And the men in the house, every chance they get, they show their ‘pee pee.’ Absolutely no peace of mind. Can’t even sleep,” says Peris, who worked in Dubai.

Atieno, 26, went to work in Tabuk in 2018 but had to escape after three months. “Though the household was small, the man kept trying to sleep with me, was sexually harassing me. When I told the wife she got so angry she beat me and didn’t give me food. How is it my fault?”

Afraid the situation would continue to escalate, she managed to go to the police and contact the Kenyan embassy with the help of her friends.

“I had friends who helped and guided me. But many don’t have that support. They even kill themselves in desperation. In that house, the husband was molesting me. I screamed and he beat me. He did bad things. When I wanted to file a police complaint I was told it was expensive, so I did not. I already have a child I am struggling to take care of, and when that man did things to me I was scared of pregnancy. And even more scared of being killed. I am still dealing with what I went through.”

At the detention centre, you are raped… if you become pregnant they try to send you back quickly. If you have a child there you are stuck.

“You sleep with dead bodies; the detention centre is a brothel”

Vinne, a single mother who now works with other victims of abuse, listens to the group of women she brought together to share their stories (see Sisterhood of Survivors). She chips in with her views every now and then but watches closely as others grapple to say what they wish. Her voice is low, belying only briefly the feistiness within. Once the group disperses, she takes a seat to share her story.

“I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. I was 24 and an agency offered me a job in 2014. I didn’t have to pay a single cent. I was supposed to go to Dubai via Mombasa and was told I will be paid KES35000 (US$295). I ended up in Saudi. The thing is, your business with agents ends the minute you depart the country.”

After three days at the Jeddah airport, her boss picked her up. “It was a big house, and the work hours were long. The language was a challenge. There was another Kenyan working there too.”

The work she could manage, but the overtures from the men of the household was a different challenge.

“The man and his sons were sexually harassing me all the time. I complained to the madam but she wouldn’t believe me. I was threatened at gunpoint by the men. One day they were all out, and the eldest son attempted to rape me. We fought. I hit him with a heavy object I found near me. When madam returned the son complained and said he wanted me out of the house. But they kept me and the harassment continued daily.”

Four months later Vinne decided to escape. She took the opportunity to throw the garbage out to run away, along with the household’s other worker, Martha. Martha was caught. Vinne kept running until she ran into a man who offered to help her, and took her to a detention centre in the Al Rehab district of Jeddah.

“There, I regretted running away. Because that is where you saw people dying every day. You just see that, and there’s nothing you can do. You even sleep with dead bodies next to you. And there’s not enough food. No one cares.”

“These security guys want to have sex with you. In Saudi, it is so hard for men to interact with women because it is against their culture also, so this is the opportunity they get to sexually harass you and you are helpless and you can’t do anything. I became so sick. I was in the centre for two months and got pregnant due to sexual harassment.”

She says the embassy never came to her aid in the centre. When her family complained in Kenya, they said they couldn’t trace her. “I can’t forget that centre. People were dying. Fighting for food. Being raped. And no one to help us.”

Vinne recalls men coming to the shelter/centre and raping the inmates. “It’s just like a brothel, if you want to sleep with anyone this was your centre.”

She believes she was deported quickly because she got pregnant.

“When I returned to Kenya I was in the hospital in Kenyatta for four months, then was connected to the organisation Kudeha who helped me. They gave me support. Connected me to other organisations. My son is 6 years old now. In school. He does not even have an origin. I don’t know who his father was.”

Panadol is the fix. You can be dying, and they will give you panadol. However ill you are, you are not worth more than a strip of panadol.

Burdened with work and panadol as a panacea

Feith (31) went to Saudi just before the pandemic hit, in December 2019, the same time as her friend Celestine. She landed in Dammam and was taken to Arar, a city in the northern part of the Kingdom near the Iraq border.

She had to undergo a 14-day pre-departure training course and obtain a good conduct certificate in order to migrate. “The minute you land everything you were trained for vanishes. You are ‘dumb’ the first day.” It doesn’t help that the workers are given little to no time to acclimate to their new environment and are expected to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. And the good conduct certificate means nought, as the employer’s conduct remains unchecked.

“The work hours were so long, and you had to survive on leftover food. My contract said I would be working for a family of four, but I lost count of the number I saw there. There were five families. My boss, his family, his mother, brother, mother-in-law… Another worker came the next year. We both still worked 17-18 hours. And we had to cook for their catering business,” recounts Feith.

While she was paid monthly, everything else about the job was taxing on her physically and mentally. With the first salary, she bought a phone and hid it. “When they first checked they saw I had two phones, they expect you to have two. So I made sure I had another.” That foresight would stand her in good stead when things went south.

“Every time we fell sick we were given Panadol. Once I was so ill I could not stand. There was severe pain here,” she says indicating the right hip which to date poses a problem. She tried contacting the agent in Kenya to no avail. Finally, on the fourth day of excruciating pain, she was taken to the hospital. “I told the doctor about my pain, they wanted me to do a scan the next day, before treating, and told my boss too. But they took me home and got me a strip of Panadol. I wanted to rest, but they made me cook for the catering business they ran.”

The following day Feith had to go to the hospital again for a blood and urine test, and once again, she was not allowed to wait to get the scan done. She had to go back home to cook for the catering clients.

“If you complain you get beaten.” Feith had posted on Facebook three days earlier about being ill. There were suggestions that she should run away as a last resort. The next day after preparing the morning meals, she made a dash. “I took my phone and put it inside my panty, took my blanket, and ran from the house. It was 12 noon. I walked in the heat, all the signs were in Arabic. One old man who saw me asked ‘binti (daughter), where are you going?’ He gave me water and called the police who came immediately. I had only my contract, but no passport or ID.”

The police called her employer and instructed them to bring her passport and iqama, took copies, and asked them to take her to the hospital or to the agency office. When they took her back home, Feith assumed it was to take her things and put her on a bus to the office in Hafar Al Batin, which was 12 hours from Arar by bus.

“But Baba demanded my phones and beat me up so severely. He said, ‘no police, no office, no hospital, the doctor said you are ok.’ They forced me to go cook.”

While she was cooking, the employer started ranting at her again, looming over her from behind – ‘You are here to work not to be sick. In Saudi, there is no sickness. I buy you, you are my property.’ As Feith turned to speak to him, he picked up the kettle of hot water and poured it on her.

Main: The burns on Feith’s arm are yet to heal, and her mobility is still restricted. Inset: Right after her employer scalded her, and before she received treatment.

Main: The burns on Feith’s arm are yet to heal, and her mobility is still restricted.
Inset: Right after her employer scalded her, and before she received treatment.

“I felt nothing, they burnt my right arm. I was numb. I was doing everything and yet I was being treated badly. I went to the bathroom and took out my secret phone, took a photo of my arm and sent it to my husband. He sent it to the agency, who sent it to the office in Saudi. And they sent the photo to my boss. I told the other Kenyan in the house if I die, tell people. She was new.”

The employer threatened her with a gun and made her record a video statement saying he did not hurt her and it was an accident. The wife warned her not to change her statement. She was later sent to the office, where she was given three options. Work and finish the contract, work for another house, or to pay for a flight and go home. Seeing no reprieve, Feith attempted to run again. She ran by a Red Crescent tent and received some help, but the police returned her to the office again, asking them to resolve her case. “I didn’t get any medical help for my hand. There were some Ugandan women there who tried helping me and said my hand will rot at this rate. That’s when I posted videos on social media, and good samaritans raised money to send me home.”

When Feith arrived in Kenya, it was to an empty home, only to discover the money she had remitted had been spent by her husband, who had taken another wife.

When you run away, take nothing with you. Even if you are going to the police, take nothing. Nothing at all. If not they will accuse you of stealing.

Policing the victims – the weak arm of the law

Like Feith, many of the other women also attempt to seek help from the police. Time and time again, they are sent back to abusive households. Peris,45, who decided to go abroad to make ends meet and put her kids through school after her husband lost his job. She connected with an agent, packed her bags and bid farewell to her family. “I had to do my paperwork and training so I borrowed money from well-wishers and went to Nairobi from Mombasa. I cleared the medical and soon after was put on a flight to Dubai.”

Peris was promised a salary of AED600 (US$165) and that she would work for a small family. She even had a call with her would-be employer. “She said she had two small kids and was pregnant so needed help. I was scared as you hear such bad stories. Speaking to her, I was reassured.”

As soon as she landed in Dubai, the employer took her passport. “You say goodbye to your passport then, you won’t see it again. You have to be prepared for that.”

The surprise didn’t end there. “When I went to the house it was a big family, a big house. I don’t think it was the house of the same lady I spoke to. You don’t work for one family… I was made to work in three houses, all relatives. Taking care of old people too. I worked late into the night.”

She snorts when asked about work hours. “No working hours. No off. You work until the work is done. And the work is never done. You wash utensils for hours and you can barely stand. They just give Panadol if you feel sick. And all you get are leftovers – you eat what remains after they’ve eaten.”

Peris slept on the floor in the same room as the old parents. “They would tap me to wake me up and I had to take the old lady to the toilet. I was on call even through the night. If you complain they say, ‘Africans don’t get tired, Africans are strong’.” [listen]

Unlike her compatriots, Peris didn’t know to hide a spare phone, so she was dependent on the employer to communicate with her family. “Once in two months, they allowed me to call. They would stand right next to me, insist I speak only in English and keep saying ‘Not in your language’.”

Stuck in the homes of her employers, and working in multiple households, she asked to return home after a few months. “They refused to let me return saying they had paid a lot of money to get me. I worked for 8-9 months. Finally one day I ran away. I had nothing on me. I wanted to go to the police. I didn’t even know the name of the family.”

The police checked her records and found out the details of her employer. After a week the family came, spoke in Arabic with the police, and took her back. The police asked her to finish the contract before returning.

“They kept shouting at me, but thank god they didn’t beat me. They said I can’t go anywhere. At the police station, I said I will not work three houses even if they kill me. They just said ‘yalla, yalla’ and sent me back home.”

Once she went back to the employer’s home, Peris stood her ground and refused to work in other homes.

At the police station, she was told if she ran away she would disappear because the family had paid a lot of money for her. “When I asked to be taken to my embassy, they said it wasn’t the rule of their country. When you actually gather courage and manage to run, they still return you to the family? So I fight in my own way. I screamed, rolled (on the floor), and refused to do work. These were my ways of coping.”

Peris continued to work for almost two years until she fell so ill the family sent her back home. “I know what I saw and went through. I don’t wish that for my worst enemy. Tea and bread are all I got to eat. I would just eat what I can while cleaning. I read of people being raped or killed and I thank god nothing like that happened to me. Still, I went through a lot, because you will do anything as a mother to help your children go to school.”

Francina, 37, went to Dammam in 2019. Her workday, like most other domestic workers, stretched from before dawn to after midnight, and it was a huge house with six members. “The treatment during the first three months was not so bad”, she says. “But they would refer to me as khadama and shagala (servant).”

The children she was taking care of started beating her up. “I complained to the mother, she just said kids are mentally ill, so adjust. They were 18, 16, 13 and 4 years old. I tried withstanding all this. There was support from other Kenyan domestic workers on WhatsApp groups.”

She worked for a year and nine months, and her health kept deteriorating. “I tried using the hotline, but the police just called the boss…they have no power over them.” As a last resort, she stopped working and insisted on being taken to the agency. She stayed for another two months there. “So many youngsters in the office there. Domestic workers who run away, with even worse stories. We were made to sleep on the floor. We had to pay for our own food. And all the while the agency made them go work in multiple homes.” Finally, with the help of a Kenyan NGO, she returned home.

Lydia, who worked in Sakaka, Saudi, says “If there is rape, you can’t complain. No one can share. No action is taken. If your boss impregnates you they try to send you back quickly. Once you have a child in the detention centre you are stuck. Can’t go back. No one is imprisoned for rape. Even when there is evidence of children. If you are beaten, no action against the abuser. When you are not paid, no action against the employer. End of the day, you have no rights. Be it at home, immigration, labour office, police station, office or embassy. They are all in collaboration to force people to work and not help them.”

Dehumanised and a diet of black tea with kubooz

From the get-go, Eva’s Saudi experience was fraught with disrespect and disregard. “When my boss picked me up at the airport, the first thing he said was either remove my braid or cut my hair.” (She had braided her hair fresh just before she left Kenya.) She stayed in the store room and worked in a huge house where 12 people lived. “I had to steal food and eat hiding. They gave black tea and kubooz,” she says, with a distaste echoed by many of the other women who were on a diet of tea and bread. She was trapped inside the house and would sneak off to the verandah for her only glimpse of the world outside.

Eva had to work at the employer’s home, his mother’s place, and also the farmhouse they had in the village. After about seven months, she fell very ill and was taken to the hospital. “The nurse asked mamma if they gave me food and rest. They lied and said yes. The nurse said I won’t survive like this, but mamma threw the medicines they gave me in the dustbin.”

Unable to continue working, she pleaded with her boss and was allowed to return to Kenya. She paid for her own way back, and did not receive all the dues she’s owed for her work.

Lydia, 34, says while the agency in Arar gave her passport and contract, it was taken away when she reached the sponsor’s home. She lasted just a month there.

“I was allowed to sleep only for 2-3 hours in the morning. No rest at all. You are recruited to work in one house, then they send you to their parents’ and other relatives’ homes to work there too. I had to strike and refuse to work. They really do not respect you at all. The minute you sit down for a rare meal, usually tea and kubooz, they will call you. Make you work more.”

When she complained, the agency sent a driver to take her to the office where she stayed for two months. “They won’t send you back home. They will find another sponsor. My first sponsor found another sponsor and they got a refund. I was treated well in the second house though a very big family. Then madam got pregnant and things got worse. I had to work from 9 am to midnight.” After 11 months she wanted to leave but was ‘sold’ to a broker.

“A woman called Fauzia. When they didn’t send me back to the office, I alerted my family. Fauzia used me for piece work. One week here, two days there…I told her I don’t think this is legal and that she was a stranger. She realised I was intelligent. She sold me to another house. I worked there for 10 months. Five members, but they made me work in other houses.”

Having spent close to two years in Saudi, Lydia was looking for an out. Her health had deteriorated, and the employers were reluctant to take her to the hospital. Neither the agency nor the embassy responded to her call for help.

“I opted to run to the police. When you run, run with nothing, so you are not accused of theft. The police demanded I show my iqama. I only had a copy. The second sponsor’s ID and details were different. I had moved so many homes…they said my fingerprints were missing in the system. The police called the office. They took me to Sakaka. They couldn’t ascertain my ID.”

She stayed in the office for seven months, three without work. The office refused to release her to the embassy.

At the end of her tether, Lydia took to social media.

“I went to the labour office too. I was fed up. The office, Al Faisal for Recruitment, was treating all of us so badly. Beating us when we refuse to go work elsewhere. I exposed them on Facebook. There were 30 of us from different countries. Even those who finished their contract were being forced to continue.”

Meanwhile, she tried making sense of the bureaucracy.

“They kept telling me my papers were in the labour office but when I went there it wasn’t there. One day I went and met a captain who was sympathetic. They helped me get my ticket and leave. I had my documents on my phone. I wasn’t a runaway. I knew my rights. Not everyone does. But after I exposed the office other women got help too. There was so much mental torture, but I was willing to fight. I expected the embassy to come to my aid, but they did not. The Saudi office was angry I was posting online. The Kenya office is still mad at me.”

She knew her activism came at a cost. “If you are outspoken, you become a danger to these people. I was punished for being outspoken. Others in the office were allowed to leave, but mine was delayed. Before that, I was in the Sakaka detention centre for one month before going to the office. You are at the mercy of the police and the labour officials.”

You can die working or you can die trying to escape. Choose the latter.

Families grapple with uncertainty

Zubeida sits by a dilapidated building near an old railway station in Mirtini, a suburb of Mombasa. She is frantic as her daughter Mona, 24,  is stuck in Dubai and her employer is refusing to let her return.

Mona went to Dubai two years ago and was promised a salary of KES300,000. She hasn’t been paid in five months. Though the employer’s family is not big, there is a constant stream of visitors. Her visa was renewed without her consent, and now the employer is demanding compensation to let her go.

“She ran away to the police, but they returned her to the boss. Boss said he had paid for her visa, so not letting her go. She went back to the police after 4-5 months. They are so angry with her that she went to the police. So now they don’t give her salary, and sometimes no food even.”

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the family is asking her to wait and not run again, fearing she may disappear or land in more trouble.

“I want my child to come back,” pleads Zubeida.

There’s a similar plea from Abbas Omar, wanting his wife back home.

Omar Abbas playing voicen otes from his distressed wife in Jeddah

In early May, at the Mombasa office of Haki Africa, an NGO, Omar has been waiting for hours, since 8 am. He has been holding vigil here for several days, hoping the agent who sent his wife Fatima, 38, to Saudi will come to speak to him. Fatima had gone to Jeddah in January this year. She worked for two months but could not continue. Playing her WhatsApp voice notes, Omar says she was being overworked and verbally abused. “The house has three floors and she has to do all the work. And she worked till 3 am and had to be up at 6 am again. And they shout at her all the time. They give her food but keep saying she eats but does no work. It’s mental torture.”

She was returned to the agent after two months, but she is not able to come back to Kenya. “Yousuf (the agent) committed to send her and help her if she is in trouble. Now he does not answer my calls.”

This brings Omar to the NGO Haki Africa, which has been active in advocating for detained and stranded Kenyans and helping with their return. A case officer there says the agent claims the delay in return is due to Ramadan.

Omar plays his wife’s voice notes on repeat. “Now in the agency they give food only once a day and nothing at all the first few days. Just water. Listen, she is crying in these messages that she will die.” He is willing to raise money for her ticket but is lost as to why there has been such a delay.

The case officer says that the embassy staff at the destination do not cooperate. “Unfortunately, they see us as the enemy. Kenyans are kept in detention for long. Embassy not proactive at all. In most cases victims claim neglect. Sometimes they spend even a year in detention centres. With other nationalities, resolution seems quick. On average, it takes 4-5 months to return a Kenyan worker.”

“There’s no passport confiscation in Saudi” – Agent

Later in the afternoon, Yousuf the agent makes an appearance. “I didn’t answer his call because he didn’t know how to talk,” he snaps, refusing to make eye contact with Omar.

“They (workers and their family) don’t understand it’s not easy to just leave there and come back. There are so many processes. A lot of money has been invested. We pay for everything:  training, birth certificate, passports.”

He insists things have changed for real in Saudi. “There’s no passport confiscation now. Musaned has changed everything. It keeps track of all parties. Workers and employers and agents are all registered in the system before they leave home. Should be there in other Gulf countries too because we have problems there.” He adds that Qatar and UAE give ‘too much freedom’ to women and the Kenyan workers misuse it.

He is unrelenting in blaming the workers for refusing to adjust. “Before they go we tell them it is not a holiday. They are going there to work. Just do that and come back. They want to leave for small things.”

Pointing to Omar he says, “I tried convincing her to work. How can we spend so much and they just come back? For small issues. We asked her to change jobs, but she has pressure from her husband who doesn’t want to take care of kids.”

The two men exchange angry looks as the case officer steps in to resolve the issue and talk about Fatima’s return.

Yousuf is not done. “It is such a long process to be trafficked…I mean to migrate, how can they just return? Women think they are going for a ride there and want to come back immediately. We need punitive methods for them.”

Footnote: The report was made possible with the help of several organisations in Kenya which work closely with migrant workers in distress. Their contact details are available on our resources page: https://www.migrant-rights.org/resources/

Laws in principle vs in practice and all the pitfalls in between

At 2.15 million square kilometres, Saudi is the largest country in western Asia and the 13th largest in the world. Close to 40% of its 34 million population are migrants. Of the 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide, of whom 27.4 % are in the Arab states. Saudi accounts for the single largest population of migrant domestic workers at 3.7 million.

Yet, this group is excluded from the Kingdom’s labour law protections and the few recent reforms.. The main regulations that apply to domestic workers are:

As per these regulations, the employer is obliged to provide proper food and medical care, and the employer is prohibited from employing a domestic worker outside the employer’s household. The worker is entitled to a paid day off, and a minimum of 9 hours of rest a day. Under the anti-trafficking law of 2009, the employer must not “threaten, defraud, deceive or abduct a worker” or take advantage of a worker’s vulnerability to coerce to consent for the purpose of sexual assault, forced labour, or servitude.

Passport confiscation, wage theft, and forcing a worker to do uncontracted jobs are all indicators of human trafficking, according to Mohammed Al Masri, the secretary general of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, an affiliate of the Saudi Human Rights Commission. The penalties include up to 15 years in prison or a maximum fine of SAR1 million, or both. Yet, these practices are rampant and go unchecked, with little evidence that employers have been booked under the anti-trafficking law.

Workers’ testimonies indicate large-scale violations of these laws and insufficient mechanisms to address these issues.

Access to justice continues to be a major concern, as highlighted in our previous report. The Musaned system, introduced in 2014, was supposed to address some of the issues faced by migrant domestic workers. However, MR’s analysis found that “Musaned is a Saudi initiative concerned with the last legs of the recruitment relay – it does not, and practically cannot, reach as far back as the middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that migrant workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies in their own countries.”

Even though governments of countries of origin and recruitment agents have access to the system, it only enables access to records and does not directly enhance accountability. “The platform lacks a complaints mechanism for workers, relegating disputes to the existing – and weak – Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s (MLSD) resolution system. Making these records reliably actionable remains a difficult endeavour and one that workers cannot realistically pursue on their own.”

Technically, the system is supposed to make it easier to locate domestic workers, however, with workers being sold internally and put to work in multiple households outside of the main sponsor’s home, traceability also remains an issue.

*Some names have been changed, and only first names have been used in other instances

This article was first published by Migrant Rights.

Continue Reading

Long Reads

Britain’s Unelected Leaders: A Class Detached from Reality

Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months but without leaders who really look afresh at these issues without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester.

Published

on

Britain's Unelected Leaders: A Class Detached from Reality
Download PDFPrint Article

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a new leader.

Unlike advanced democracies like Kenya, that leader was not be chosen by the British public.  The new Prime Minister was chosen by a narrow clique of Conservative Party members — just 0.26% of the overall population.  They are older, whiter, more male and affluent than the overall population, and generally live in the south of England.

From outside it is hard to understand recent politics in the UK.  Following a year (and a career) of scandals, Boris Johnson finally resigned as Prime Minister — only to remain in office for another two months. Given the grave problems facing the nation, he argued it was important to have a steady hand at the wheel, before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business — organising more parties, skipping critical COBRA meetings, and enjoying back-to-back holidays.

The Tory MPs who defenestrated Johnson (despite him clinging limpet-like to the windowsill at Number 10) immediately pivoted to defending him. He got all the big calls right, they said sycopathcially, describing the person they had just sacked for major repeated scandals. Boris Johnson had been fined by police for flouting COVID restrictions in Downing Street — the same restrictions he formulated and publicly announced in Downing Street. He had narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, and there remain serious concerns about secretive visits to a Russian’s parties in Italy. In a stunning twist few saw coming, the final straw was a sex scandal he wasn’t personally involved in.

The UK faces serious simultaneous crises. One of the worst COVID death tolls in Europe was spun into a world-leading vaccination drive, but the NHS and the economy remain on their knees.  An oven-ready deal for Northern Ireland was poorly defrosted, and Scotland also looks set to tear the Union apart, but Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative and Unionist Party, to give them their full title, only pours fuel on both fires. The sunlit uplands of Brexit are yet to be seen from the queues of lorries at Dover. Massive price rises led to double-digit inflation for the first time in forty years. Soaring costs and falling wages have led sober commentators to warn of civil unrest by Christmas.

Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appeared amazingly detached from reality. One public leadership discussion barely touched on climate change, a fairly key area when Glasgow hosted COP26 in November. Meanwhile, the news was full of images of London literally on fire. Thankfully the fires have been put out by devastating flooding, but climate change was impossible for either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, the two front-runners, to address in any serious way, given lobbying pressures on their own party. They soon U-turned on the cost of living crisis, regional wage controls, tax reductions and their stance towards power prices because they are so out of step with the mood of the country.

Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appear amazingly detached from reality.

Instead, all both candidates had to offer were increasingly unhinged culture war soundbites and empty posturing. The main issues facing the UK, Daily Mail readers would assume, are migrant boats, gender-neutral pronouns, and historians analysing Britain’s imperial history.  How on earth has a self-described long-standing democracy descended to this level of childish tantrums?  (I avoided the word mature, but decrepit/senile were my other option.)

There has been much discussion about the racial diversity of Tory leadership candidates. Of the initial eleven candidates, a narrow majority were not white. Sunak offered the possibility of Britain’s first non-white prime minister before his ratings tanked. Was the UK too racist for this to happen?

In many ways this is the wrong question to ask. Class and wealth have always trumped issues of race in British society. Long before Harry married Meghan, Queen Victoria was godmother to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who played a substantial role in Britain’s suffragette movement. Sunak went to the right schools, and is now incredibly wealthy, in part thanks to his fortuitous marriage into one of India’s wealthiest families. Despite marrying into wealth, he reflects Tory beliefs about personal aspiration, opportunity and achievement through hard work, in ways commentators on the Left often miss. Modern racism is less about skin colour than cultural norms and allegiances. Sunak’s expensive fashion tastes horrify some, but are genuinely and unproblematically aspirational for others.

I have family members who sound like Priti Patel and others who sound like Rishi Sunak. It mostly depends on which schools they went to. I received my own pronunciation from listening to BBC radio a lot as a child, and I sound alien in the area of East London I grew up in. I am constantly surprised by the positive reaction my accent receives from strangers. I am really not as smart as I sound, but it opens doors — in ways which are genuinely disturbing.

Priti Patel didn’t stand a chance in the Tory leadership hustings, but nor, I expect, would Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries. They both directly appeal to an extremely right-wing base, but lack the cultural polish to appeal to the party of aristocratic deference. Truss has lowered her speaking voice and speed to sound more like Margaret Thatcher, her cosplay role model.  Former Prime Minister David Cameron was left unaccountable by the media for his disastrous premiership because he sounded right, and ticked all the right boxes.

In this respect the Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley. Once they stepped up to the microphone after the game, between their wonderfully boisterous celebrations, it was clear they came from very different regions of the country. None of them had the Oxford Union polish beloved of the British establishment. Some had to work two jobs while playing at an elite level because of the low levels of pay in women’s football.

Contrast this with Nadhim Zahawi, one of the leadership candidates, who made much of his touching refugee story — his Kurdish family had fled Iraq when he was a child. Zahawi made headlines some years ago in the MP expenses scandal, having asked the British taxpayer to foot the bill for heating his horse stables during a period of crippling austerity. Even less mention was made this year of his grandfather’s role as governor of the Central Bank of Iraq under British rule, with his signature appearing on the country’s banknotes. Not such a typical refugee story after all. Meanwhile, a hundred thousand people from Hong Kong are estimated to have quietly relocated to the UK over the past year, with little coverage of this exodus in the media, or disquiet from the right; these are the “good” type of migrants.

The Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley.

I am reminded of how the Imperial (and later Indian) Civil Service first accommodated non-white applicants in the Indian colony (although they had to apply in London from 1854-1922).  As historian John Beaglehole describes it, the selected candidates would through training “have been transformed into brown Englishmen”. These “Brown Sahibs” then faced the complex issue of where their loyalties lay. In many ways, this is little different from the co-option of the Kikuyu Home Guards in Kenya, the British Chinese of Singapore, or going much further back, how the Roman Empire expanded. A large empire simply can’t be created or sustained by violence and extraction alone. It must co-opt local populations, and provide genuine benefits to them. This adds a murky moral complexity to empires that should not be ignored.

At the Home Office, Priti Patel made plain her lack of empathy for migrants, building on Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. This seems hypocritical given her parents’ own migration from Uganda. However, again, the reality is more complex. They see themselves as the good immigrants who strive to integrate into UK society seamlessly. Patel’s father stood for local council elections for the borderline xenophobic UKIP party.

There is also, of course, a long history of racism and colourism within communities from the subcontinent. Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order. Patel’s parents migrated in the 1960s — before Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972. This year is the 50th anniversary of that traumatic event. I was not totally shocked to see an hour-long discussion in Leicester mention the deaths of up to half a million black Ugandans under Amin, but then quickly move on to discuss white and Asian experiences. There was no interest or concern about this apparently peripheral fact, and no black speakers on the panel. A discussion on the same theme held at Makerere University in Kampala barely overlapped in content. The cultural rifts are still complete.

This is gradual progress for a community traumatised by several layers of migration and still wrestling with integration within the UK. In my experience, this community is only beginning to process the convoluted nature of its own existence. Indians in the diaspora are gradually learning to talk about Partition in 1947, but the majority of Asians in East Africa have avoided that horrific rending. Their story is instead taken to begin with the forced exodus from Uganda, and then their struggle to get settled in the UK.

Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order.

What they understand less are the dire conditions in British-ruled India that led them to take such risky voyages to try their luck in East Africa to begin with.  Those stories are rarely told and have largely been forgotten, but I hope may be explored more over time. While this community still tries to prove they are the model minority, and fear future expulsion, they are less likely to look critically at their own complex history within the Empire. (Nikesh Shukla’s 1996 anthology The Good Immigrant explores these themes in some nuanced detail.)  Priti Patel’s attitudes are not hypocritical in this lens, although this does not excuse her unconscious racism. As with many of the Tory leadership candidates, she is still trying to become a perfect brown Englishwoman.

Suella Braverman, replacing Patel at the helm of the Home Office, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian economic migrants to the UK in the 1960s. She seems determined to pursue an even harder line against current migrants. Unlike Patel she has the polish of a Cambridge education, and outperformed her in the leadership election. The new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents; Foreign Secretary James Cleverley’s mother is from Sierra Leone; International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s parents were Nigerian migrants, while the new Environment Secretary’s parents were Sri Lankan. Zahawi is still in government, but moved from a one-day stint at the Treasury to run the Cabinet Office. This represents an unprecedented level of diversity in the highest levels of political leadership.

Although this looks like the British Empire coming home, breaking through a political glass ceiling against racial diversity, it may instead be a glass cliff. This is where minorities are overrepresented in risky and precarious positions. Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised. While they may all now be true believers, appealing to the fringes of the party at several levels, they have been placed in situations where success is extremely unlikely given the crises Britain faces.  When problems arise, they won’t just be scapegoated individually. The wider communities they superficially represent will also be tarnished.

The lack of LGBT representation throughout Truss’s cabinet reflects a more sinister imperial throwback resurrected in modern culture wars about trans rights. Traditional values often mean ones imposed by Victorian societies on colonies with more complex understandings of identity and gender. It is unclear how much further right Truss will lean on such issues.

Returning to the Tory leadership contest, this superficial diversity of race and gender hides a deep and more dangerous homogeneity. Groupthink is the real problem with the Conservative leadership candidates. They are surprisingly ill-equipped to understand, let alone deal with, the genuine problems facing the country, and so need culture wars and scapegoats to pin deeper problems on. The last scapegoat was Europe, but Brexit is turning out to be an enormous act of economic self-harm, just as predicted. Leaving the European Union also now makes it harder to blame all the UK’s current problems on Brussels.

Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised.

Both Truss and Sunak studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (PPE), a degree widely seen as preparation for political leadership. As a Guardian headline put it in 2017, PPE is “the Oxford degree that runs Britain” before listing a rogues’ gallery of graduates who wielded substantial political or cultural power. The three-year degree gives its graduates a superficial sense that they understand political issues, but more importantly that they are following in prestigious footsteps. It conveys a right to govern. I see no coincidence that it was instituted in the 1920s just as the former Imperial Civil Service was being wound down.

This isn’t just a problem on the political right. Leaders from other parties are conditioned to believe they understand the key issues, wherever they stand ideologically, and that endless debates at the Oxford Union are somehow the way to resolve them. The entire political debate has become frozen within a tired game, with set moves and strategies, where everyone assumes they have the answers.

Even Boris Johnson’s extraordinary moves to rip up long-standing diplomatic allegiances, trashing relationships and legal precedents, resonated with long-established beliefs on the far-right edge of this established game board, and were drummed up relentlessly by Britain’s populist media oligarchs. Both Truss and Sunak now have to appeal to that fringe, regardless of more widespread popular opinion. But the fringe is part of the game.

As Dr Kay Sidebottom has also commented regarding the leadership debates, rhetorical styles of argumentation and debate are also rooted in whiteness and patriarchal notions of leadership. Instead of open questions and curiosity, leading to fresh insights and open to genuine cross-pollination of ideas, debates tend to dissolve into amusing jibes, pugilistic point-scoring, and superficial rehashing of the same tired issues. Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to. Many figures in the media also studied PPE, and confuse this form of political theatre with substantive politics. The degree is based on speaking insightfully and convincingly about unfamiliar topics in small weekly high-pressure tutorials — not on true depth of knowledge.

So in response to a devastating cost of living crisis, and what NHS leaders are warning will be an unprecedented humanitarian crisis Truss and Sunak had little new to offer. Conservatives still believe privatisation, tax cuts and further deregulation will fuel innovation. This is despite the evidence of several decades of similar policies leading to rivers overflowing with raw sewage while privatised water companies bank huge profits instead of investing in capacity. The previously privatised but then partially renationalised rail network is paralysed by underinvestment and strikes.

Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to.

The only way to fix the NHS, they aver, will be to privatise it, although that is still too deeply unpopular to say out loud. Sunak looks to the United States as a model, even though healthcare outcomes in America are far worse per dollar than in most of the G7. Britain’s low productivity, they assume, must be due to work-shy workers, despite all available economic evidence that even people in traditionally sustainable work, teachers and nurses amongst them, now need to resort to food banks.

These policy positions almost amount to theological faith but reflect a particular and rigid way of seeing the world, a form of shallow arrogance and lack of genuine curiosity. I have some unusual insight into this because I too studied PPE at Oxford around the same time as Truss and Sunak, albeit almost by accident. My heart was set on zoology, but a few weeks before the application deadline, I heard for the first time about a subject called Philosophy. I hadn’t known people could study the questions I was asking in my own head, and changed my options accordingly.

Until then I had focussed on sciences, but economics as one of the social sciences should have been easy to adjust to. Instead I repeatedly bounced off it. The theories did not seem based on evidence, or rigorously tested, but were instead more conceptual and ideological. It was only several years later, with further studies in the Philosophy of Science and further reading, that I began to understand why.

Economics split from the other natural philosophies at a critical juncture when Newtonian physics was in its ascendancy. In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers. Economics acquired an almost Creationist religious belief in systems achieving a healthy equilibrium through the workings of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.  Less predictable concepts about entropy, chaotic non-linearity, and the complexities of biology were only unravelled much later in other sciences, and are yet to upgrade mainstream economic thinking.

What we now see in politics reminds me of clashes between rival paradigms in the history of science. Adherents from opposing schools of thought would talk past one another, often using the same shared words but embedded in contrasting networks of meaning. Their underlying assumptions and choice of key examples would be different. These were confusing periods but preceded what is known as a paradigm shift, to an entirely new way of seeing the world. This feels similar to how people on the broad right and left of politics talk past one another. I now think both sides are grasping different pieces of a jigsaw, but missing the overall picture.

In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers.

An example forgotten outside geology is illustrative. Since the early 1800s Neptunians believed the world’s rocks were formed in water, while Plutonists believed volcanism was their source of origin. Both sides advanced different examples that seemed to bolster their own cases, but they were largely talking past one another. The reality was far more complex, and only fully explained with the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Both sides of a long-standing mainstream scientific debate, which spilt into elements of mainstream culture, were actually blindfolded and fumbling around a far larger elephant in the room.  The surface of the earth is dynamically and constantly reformed by far older and more complex processes than any of them could have imagined.

I feel there are similarities with this current period of politics. Generalising wildly, both “sides” of the political spectrum see elements of reality, but fail to see the whole picture, or identify the underlying mechanisms behind it. For example, while people on the left decry the privatisation of the NHS, they simply do not grasp the depth of the financial crisis the UK has been in for decades. They assume there is actually enough money to go around, but it has been diverted in different ways. This is as much a failure to understand reality as the right’s focus on privatised healthcare, but each discussion barely overlaps with the other. Some people genuinely believe individual choices should always trump overall societal outcomes, and mistrust state programmes. This is of course an entirely false choice where public health is concerned, as the pandemic underlined. But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed.  Our collective understanding remains fragmented, misleading and superficial.

The First World’s focus on PPE as a degree also seemed detached from the realities I knew from India and Africa, and that I saw while working with refugees in the Balkans as a student.  I often say it took me years to unlearn what I had picked up, largely through working with children, spending extended periods in rural areas, and as a peace worker in South Africa. The models of human nature and understanding of global history were just hopelessly incomplete or, more dangerously, misleading. If you graduated with PPE and surrounded yourself with people with the same education, those beliefs would only become more entrenched with time.

Much of mainstream policy thinking within PPE privileges the most extreme outlier imaginable — Britain’s historic experience.  Britain’s industrialisation then global dominance is unconsciously still a model for “economic take-off” in other countries.  The reality is that most places, including Britain itself, have never actually offered enough sustainable jobs for everyone. This is a huge blind spot in mainstream thinking — both on the right and on the left — but we are still all promised it will lead us to a mythical Canaan. Either slashing taxes and regulations will unleash greatness, or focussed taxes and strategic investments will. This simply denies much actual global human experience.

But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed.

For a short period of time, Britain was globally dominant in an extraordinary way. It was the industrial workshop of the world, as well as militarily the only superpower by far. The deeper reasons for that dominance have actually not been fully understood. The real reasons were neither economic free trade and great men with Enlightenment ideas, nor ruthless capitalist exploitation and the stripping of other continents’ wealth. When you dig a bit deeper than these superficial but widespread and satisfying narratives, the real reasons are more complex and remain a little unclear.

This iconic period of relative wealth was also a time of massive social deprivation within the British Isles, but again not always in the ways people imagine. Free trade did not stimulate this growth, but only followed once Britain was so dominant it worked to its advantage.  While Britain achieved an economic take-off other countries still wish to emulate, this went hand in hand with simply astounding levels of emigration, as people left for better opportunities elsewhere in the colonies. In some years, more Britons left annually than died in total during the First World War.

More importantly for people wanting to create Empire 2.0 now, the original dream proved hollow. The return of the British Empire to Britain’s own shores, in the form of Windrush and then the East African Asian exodus, was never expected, and laws had to be drawn up hastily to block further migration. Countries within the Empire had been fully expected to grow self-sustaining thriving economies of their own, and a place for Britons to keep migrating to from a small crowded island with bad weather. This wasn’t just a failure of the British Empire; it was not predicted by mainstream economic theory in general. Population growth alone is no explanation, since Britain’s own economic growth took place at a time of unprecedented population increases.

Again, something seems badly broken in the wider theories of economics, but you would not learn this within the confines of the degree I studied, and neither did the Conservative election candidates. Given their insistence on talking up Britain, and decrying “woke” historians, they also have a particular blind spot to seeing why their simplistic ideas about free trade unleashing creativity did not work then, and will not work now. More recently, idolising Thatcher’s period in power ignores the massive infusion of wealth from North Sea Oil, as well as technological and financial innovations that cannot be repeated now. Fancy dress makes for fun photoshoots, but not substantive policies.

The realities worldwide remain complex. The people who work hardest are often the poorest, while privilege often determines outcomes. At the same time market economies have genuinely lifted billions of people into previously unimaginable levels of material comfort and security. Capitalist exploitation isn’t the main reason for poverty — being excluded from modern markets and infrastructure can be an even worse fate. Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.

The history of science is littered with examples of how prejudices and parochialism limit our thinking. In some ways this is inevitable, as science is just a complex structure of good prejudices — our imperfect ways of understanding and predicting the world around us, absent the mathematically clear language of God early philosophers sought. In other ways, it can lead us badly astray.

For example, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada, which document an unexpected range of both early and novel body forms.  Despite excavating over 65,000 specimens between 1910 and 1924, he never actually understood what he was looking at. His preconception that life moved from simple to complex clouded his vision. These incredible fossils went largely unremarked on for another forty years, when fresh eyes recognised they represented animals which had simply never been seen before — 508 billion year-old fossils had the power to astound science, but science had to be open to that possibility.

Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.

Another example is Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz, who realised glaciers could explain a lot of erosion patterns and landscapes in his homeland. British geologists dismissed him out of hand, largely because they had little first-hand experience of glaciers within the British Isles.  Ice could not possibly be so important. When the foremost geologist of his time, Charles Lyell, recognised that glaciers created the unique landscapes of his own family estate in Scotland, he was wary of giving public support to Agassiz. In a similar way, rich British elites have no understanding of the corrosive power of poverty, or are unwilling to acknowledge it.

People can travel an enormous amount without leaving their bubble of elite cities, social classes and limited conversations. Sunak surprised and alarmed a group of British schoolchildren last year by enthusiastically claiming to be “a total coke addict”. He had no awareness that for normal British children since the 1970s this sounded like a serious drug addiction. (Sunak collects Coca-Cola variants from around the world, his favourite being the Mexican variety because it is the only variety flavoured with cane sugar.)  Instead of sounding likeable, this just made him sound more elite and out of touch with a country boasting a record number of food banks.

Truss has travelled through almost every flavour of British politics, attending anti-nuclear protests as a child, representing the Liberal Democrats at university, and being a strong Remain candidate in the Brexit referendum. She also has photoshoots around the world, as her tax-payer funded Instagram account attests. (This was actually a smart move, given a superficial electorate.) However, it is unclear how much she has learnt from any of these journeys.  Both Truss and Sunak have burnished their images, but the moment they speak on policy they sound tone-deaf, callous and hopelessly out of touch with everyone except the tiny Conservative membership who themselves inhabit a narrow media bubble. Their candidates’ leadership campaigns prompted numerous U-turns on substantive issues, and even left most Tory voters missing Boris Johnson.

Some of these U-turns were quite extraordinary. The Conservatives aim to “level-up” the country by diverting resources from the South-East to their new but vulnerable Red Wall seats in northern England. However, Truss announced pay cuts for people in the same areas then quickly had to walk her proposals back, in a dishonest fog of denials. In a country facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, all the candidates had to offer are tax cuts, and they initially refused windfall taxes on energy companies causing the most obvious pain. Even though climate change is becoming a visible issue, the leadership candidates were vilifying cyclists, and proposing to expand fracking for more fossil fuels.

The promise of economics was always growth leading to abundance — but something went badly wrong. People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist. Some sections of society must be to blame. Instead of abundance, they justify scarcity and advocate for painful trade-offs. Such observers focus on how some people must be holding our economies back, instead of asking why our economies don’t serve more people. Truss has said potentially damaging things in the past, blaming “workshy” British people for the country’s poor productivity, instead of understanding how high living costs cripple workers. Commentators like Yuval Hariri wonder if most of the world’s population are basically now superfluous in economic terms, putting the cart before the horse in an extraordinary assessment of value.

I am reminded in an odd way how early chemists became trapped because they believed fire was a substance, not a process. This belief was challenged by strange behaviours when they investigated processes of rusting and burning with precise measurements. Some metals gained rather than lost weight, whereas their theory led them to believe they would lose weight as they released the fire they were assumed to contain. Rather than such evidence leading them to question their assumptions, some postulated the existence of mysterious substances like phlogiston, with negative weight. Only in the 1770s did Lavoisier start unravelling the mystery, when he realised gases were a substance with weight. The discovery of oxygen finally explained what was really happening at a chemical level. The experts had the whole situation backwards because of their prior assumptions and earlier theories they now needed to question and ultimately reject.

People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist.

Current discussions of poverty and inequality feel the same to me. They are based on incorrect assumptions and models and so fail to see, let alone explain, much of the actual world around us.  The “experts” who have studied these things in detail become intransigent. They genuinely see the world through an incomplete or failing paradigm, which biases what they pay attention to, and leads to damaging policy options.

The PPE I studied did not touch on either urbanisation or infrastructure. I now believe these are the largest issues we need to confront today. Low productivity in Britain is partly due to an inflated housing market, and cannot be addressed by simply cutting wages or taxes.  Right-wing political thinkers were very influenced by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom but are now blind to recognise how soaring property prices are creating a new form of that social relationship, and lasting exclusion.

The Tory voters both candidates needed to appeal to are generally older, home owning, have savings and no mortgages — and many will be landlords themselves. They do not experience the same housing and cost-of-living crisis as the majority of the country. Instead, they feel out of touch with young people and their concerns. This is the gallery that the leadership campaigns played to, scapegoating a young and apparently workshy and feckless generation they barely understand.

(Silicon Valley ideas also inspire Sunak, but are digital distractions on top of deeper concrete issues. They also come from a similarly evangelical bubble of people echoing one another’s ideas, detached from wider realities kwa ground.)

At the same time, those on the left like to see corruption and greed everywhere, but their picture also needs challenging. Not only do workers suffer from crippling high costs, but so do most employers. The pressure for tax cuts comes not solely from plutocrats with mega-yachts, but also from small business owners. Companies are always under competitive pressure from capitalism, but now these pressures are becoming unsustainable. Focusing on rich outliers tends to obscure this, but stressed conditions are what has allowed unhealthy monopolies to become so dominant. In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity. When we only focus on aspects we see as parasitic, through outdated paradigms, we can easily miss this larger picture.

Returning to my prior interest in zoology, I was recently struck by an idea of Konrad Lorenz, the ground-breaking Austrian behavioural scientist. He talked of methodological Ganzheitsbetrachtung (holistic contemplation) when examining animal behaviour, but it can be extended to any complex system. This means putting aside preconceived notions to engage with the whole animal, in a spirit of love and respect, before zooming in on its various parts.

This summed up a lot of what I thought was wrong about the academic training I had received.  Instead of looking at complex human issues with curiosity, they are usually approached with preconceptions and ideological biases. The analytic approach is often to separate out issues in a surgical way, and try to address them individually. This works well in engineering, but such a physics-based mind-set does not fit complex interwoven systems better analysed through the more appropriate understanding offered by biological lenses.

In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity.

A lot of our understanding of human behaviour and motivation is directly contaminated by such thinking. When individual animals are placed in a sterile environment and given specific prompts and rewards, their behaviour can become distorted and unhealthy. However, such experiments were used to directly inform economic thinking about human behaviours and rewards. It is only in more recent decades that scientists are studying animals in more complex environments, and drawing more holistic lessons for what we need ourselves.

For example, a rat isolated in a cage, presented with plain tap water or water laced with sweetener and addictive morphine, will soon poison itself to death. This finding coloured a lot of economic and social policy around addiction.  New experiments in the 1970s questioned if the animals were responding to their artificially barren environment. Tests with rats in larger cages, with richer environments and other rats for company, did not self-medicate in the same way. This finding has profound implications in many fields, including social housing, but I’m not sure if Sunak has reconsidered his own coke addiction. How much do our unhealthy diets reflect our poor living environments?

Instead of taking each problem in abstract, putting it into a cage and prodding it, we need to take a more holistic and curious approach — which often means expanding the questions we ask. The housing crisis can’t be solved by building more houses in already overpopulated regions; we should ask why people are all moving to the same cities to chase limited jobs.  Carbon emissions won’t be solved by electric vehicles, but by reducing the overall need to travel so much. Extremism in many forms won’t be prevented by deradicalising converts but by asking why so many people experience life as frightening and confusing in the first place.

We inhabit an industrial world designed around limited conceptual paradigms that have reached multiple dead-ends, and are currently failing. Simultaneous crises with the climate and fuel prices show that our current solutions are simply not sustainable. We need fresh conversations, ideas and new perspectives. One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism. They recognise there are few obvious, let alone easy, answers to deep-rooted problems. Britain has been left sifting through opportunistic dregs, and one of the worst cabinets in recent history.

Even outside Britain, it is possible to see a wider legacy in surprising ways. Frightening but normalised Islamophobia in India and radical terrorism across a wide swathe of Africa seem like polar opposites. Drug violence in Latin America contrasts with the resurgence of patriarchal militant Christianity in the USA. Russia’s imperial designs in Ukraine, Britain’s rehashed culture wars, and Bolsonaro’s attempts to deforest the Amazon can seem unconnected.

One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism.

At heart however, I believe all these social crises feed on the same pressures. Vast numbers of disillusioned people can’t see a viable future for themselves, and politicians come to power on the back of identifying scapegoats to blame as well as past (if illusory) certainties and golden ages. Lots of people simply can’t make a living in our current economic paradigm.  Historically this has happened before, with devastating effects, in Weimar Berlin. With climate, food and energy crises, these pressures are only increasing. Instead of delivering abundance for all, economics is now making us increasingly desperate, and we need to understand the real reasons for this.

Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months. Its specific problems are unprecedented, but many of the proposed solutions will be echoed around the world.  Without leaders who really look afresh at these issues, without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester. Aside from frightening social pressures, climate change poses a genuine existential threat. This will not be addressed by pandering to the energy lobby, Daily Mail readers, old Marxists or radical greens.

In short, Britain now has a new leader, but not new leadership. We all need better.

Continue Reading

Long Reads

Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research

This is the third in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.

Published

on

Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research
Download PDFPrint Article

Given that it is well over a month since my last piece in the series, it is an understatement to say that much has happened in the intervening period. The three main developments that are covered here are: the changing positions of the two main presidential candidates, the earlier use of polls by political parties in the selection of candidates to augment or replace the usual nomination contests, and the announced selections of deputy presidential running mates by the two main presidential candidates just hours before the official deadline for doing so. In addition, a brief comment on TIFA’s more recent Nairobi County survey is offered.

‘Horse race’ update

Although several other firms have recently released presidential contest polls, I will ignore them here due to their lack of credibility (but shall take up this issue in a subsequent article) and concentrate on the three “mainstream pollsters” whose results this series has been tracking: TIFA Research, Infotrak and Radio Africa. The table below shows the reversal of fortunes of Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga found by all three firms:

Survey Firm  Sample Size / No. of Counties Survey Dates  Odinga Ruto Others Undecided / Won’t Vote/NR
TIFA Research 1,719 / 47 17 May 39% 35% 3% 23%
Infotrak 9,000 / 47 23-27 May 42% 38% 1% 19%
Radio Africa/The Star 4,780 / 47 8-9 June 45% 39% 3% 13%
Combined Average 42% 37% 2% 17%

Several comments help to explain these figures.

First, regarding data collection dates, although the TIFA survey was conducted the day after the announcement of former Gichugu MP and cabinet minister Martha Karua as Odinga’s DP running mate—with the announcement of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua as Ruto’s running mate having been made the day before—not all respondents were able to name them.  Specifically, while 85 per cent of all respondents could name Karua, only 59 per cent could name Gachagua.  Several factors may account for this discrepancy, the two main ones being the much more public and “celebratory” event revealing Karua at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre compared with the more restrained and entrance-restricted one for Gachagua at the DP’s Karen residence, and Karua’s far larger public and political profile. This contrast notwithstanding, TIFA also provided correlation data that showed no statistical difference in expressed voting intentions for the two presidential candidates between those who did and those who did not correctly identify their running mates. (These correlations were based on the somewhat greater proportion of such Karua/Gachagua running mate awareness among those who elsewhere indicated that they intend to vote for Odinga or Ruto: 90 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively).

Specifically, the TIFA data reveals that slightly more of those aware of Karua as Odinga’s choice declared their intention to vote for him—41 per cent vs. 39 per cent for all respondents, and only 25 per cent among those who did not name her.  Further, among women only, there is a 9 per cent difference in this regard: 37 per cent vs. 28 per cent.  Yet similar results for Ruto’s running mate invite caution in concluding that knowing that Karua was Odinga’s choice itself made the difference. That is, considerably more of those respondents who could name Gachagua expressed a Ruto voting intention than those who could not (42 per cent vs. 26 per cent), with a nearly similar gap among women (37 per cent vs. 26 per cent).

Of course, if Gachagua were female, one would be tempted to conclude that gender per se accounts for this difference among respondents of both genders. That not being so, however, it would be necessary to explore other variables to account for this clear association of running mate knowledge with the propensity to vote for either Odinga or Ruto. A possible variable here is simply an interest in the presidential election/politics generally. This is apparent in that, among only those stating they are “undecided” about their presidential vote choice, significantly more could not name either Karua or Gachagua as compared with those who could: 23 per cent vs. 13 percent with regard to the former, and 18 per cent vs. 11 per cent with regard to the latter.

Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor.

Moreover, since neither Infotrak nor Radio Africa provided any such “running mate awareness” profile among their respondents, it was not possible to pose this question with regard to their data.  The question as to whether—and how—any of these firms will attempt to measure this “running mate” effect in their forthcoming polls thus remains.

Next, compared to the results in the most recent previous surveys of these three firms, Odinga’s gains are significant. In TIFA’s late April survey, Ruto enjoyed a 7 per cent advantage (39-32 per cent), in Radio Africa’s, a 5 per cent lead (46-41 per cent), while in Infotrak’s previous poll, he and Odinga were tied (42 per cent each). In other words, Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.

In addition, if all the respondents who declined or failed to name any candidate in these three polls are removed from the calculation, the most recent results are as follows:

Survey Firm  Total / Named Candidates Only
Re-Adjusted Margin of Error
Odinga Ruto Odinga Lead
TIFA Research 1,719 / 1,324:  +/-2.7% 51% 46% 5%
Infotrak 9,000 / 7,290:  +/-1.1% 52% 47% 5%
Radio Africa/The Star 4,780 / 4,135:   +/-1/5% 52% 45% 7%

In other words, since “Undecided”, “No Response”, and “Won’t Vote” are not options found on ballot papers, removing such survey responses from the calculation gives a more accurate picture of where the race actually stands: Odinga now enjoys leads that are beyond each firm’s margin of error (the slightly greater ones reflecting the reduced effective sample sizes). This is so even if it is reasonable to believe that some of these “no preferred candidate” respondents actually have one but were shy about revealing it for one reason or another.  (An attempt to “dig deeper” into the likely preferences of such respondents —at least those who will vote on 9 August—will be included in a subsequent piece in this series.)

At the same time, aside from those respondents who state that they will not vote—and even among those who declare that they will “definitely” vote in the surveys that included the relevant question—it is impossible to predict the levels and variations in voter turnout, even if, as Charles Hornsby has shown, such turnout rates have followed a fairly consistent pattern over the nearly six decades of Kenya’s independence.

Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.

All the above notwithstanding, given Odinga’s still quite modest lead in all three of these recent polls, the period remaining between when these three surveys were conducted and the election itself, together with expected (if unknown) differential turnout rates across the country, could still be the deciding factor (with turnout itself being a function of a complex combination of self/communal motivation and “external” mobilization, i.e., by individual candidates and/or political parties).

Nevertheless, it may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.  Moreover, it can also be concluded that unless the proportion of votes for all other presidential candidates (of which there are just two as of now) amounts to more than at least 3 per cent, a runoff contest is unlikely. That said, the fact that George Wajackoyah received 7 per cent in a mid-June Nairobi poll conducted by TIFA does at least raise this possibility.

A final set of additional comments about these three polls may be offered.

First, while both TIFA and Infotrak employed their previous methodology of telephone (i.e., CATI) interviews, Radio Africa for the second time conducted its poll via SMS messages. Based on 4,780 respondents, the margin of error is shown as +/-1.5 per cent. This is correct, but contrasts with the incorrect figure in its previous survey of +/-4.5 per cent for a sample of 3,559, a mistake that I had noted in my previous piece. At the same time, however, this Radio Africa survey once again reports a considerably smaller proportion who declined to name a preferred presidential candidate as compared with the other two surveys—13 per cent, as opposed to 19 per cent by Infotrak and 23 per cent by TIFA.  Could this be because of the methodology used? That is, if those who receive the initial SMS can tell that it aims to collect data for a presidential elections survey, do many of those who have not made up their minds decline to participate so that a significant proportion of “undecided” responses are not even captured or reported? The fact that a source at the Star indicated that fewer than 10 per cent of those contacted via SMS for these surveys choose to participate suggests that this might be the case. This would also mean that for an achieved sample of 4,780, nearly 50,000 SMSs were initially sent out inviting participation.  Further, unless the Radio Africa data-base has fairly detailed demographic details for all the interviewed respondents, it seems it would be impossible to weight the data so as to accurately depict the “population universe” the respondents purport to represent—whether the entire Kenyan population as per the 2019 Census or the total of registered voters, at least as reflected in the 2017 Register (since the current, updated version was not available at the time of these surveys). That the Star’s report on this survey fails to include any demographic information about the achieved sample (even education levels as required by the Publication of Electoral Polls Act, 2012) makes it impossible to know.

The above discussion raises one other question about the achieved samples.  As I pointed out in my first piece for The Elephant, there are two basic requirements for “representative” samples. One is that the pool or data base from which respondents are selected must accurately represent the purported “population universe”. The other is that the process of selecting the relatively small number of respondents for interviews must be absolutely random, that is, without any bias, whether intentional or otherwise. While it is safe to assume the latter condition is strictly adhered to for the surveys reported here, a question may be raised about the former. That is, how precisely do these companies’ data bases reflect the “population universe” of adult Kenyans (or of registered voters, if respondent selection is restricted to them)?

For Infotrak and TIFA, this boils down to the mobile phone numbers from which their samples are drawn.  How many do they have, and do their distributions for both their national and sub-national results reflect the country’s reality on the ground, at least as captured in the 2019 Census?  It has been stated that both of these firms regularly collect mobile numbers in the course of conducting household or “face-to-face” surveys, whether the phone number acquired belongs to survey respondents themselves or to another household member (in cases where the respondent does not personally possess one).

It may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.

In any case, two questions arise here.  First, how many Kenyan households lack even one mobile phone owner/user? Second, at least in terms of the content of the questions being asked in CATI surveys, would a survey on public and political issues, such as one dealing with the forthcoming election, produce measurably different results if the data obtained came entirely from such phoneless individuals or households?  While it is possible to compare the demographic profiles from respondents with and without such phones in previous surveys, the most precise way to answer this question is to conduct two surveys with the same content and at the same time but with respondents drawn from these two distinct “population universes”, an undertaking that I am not aware of having been done by any of these firms.  (During the period of my previous employment, I did undertake such an experiment, but that was over ten years ago when mobile phone ownership was far less extensive than it is now. Consequently, I do not feel it would be useful to present those results here.)

One reality that can be reported, however, is that according to the 2019 Census, some 20 million households have (or had then; the number has surely increased) such phones, most of those without being found in parts of the country outside the networks of all of the mobile network providers. Still, even in parts of the country covered by such networks, a few people, mostly the very poor, are without them.  With an adult population (i.e., 18 years and above—those who are routinely included in the sort of surveys discussed in this series) of around 25 million, this equates to some 85 per cent. And here I must correct Prof. Karuti Kanyinga who asserted in a recent Sunday Nation article that CATI surveys cannot be representative, since “only 47 per cent” of Kenyans owned mobile phones at the time of the 2019 Census. He evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults. As for Infotrak, in presenting presidential contest results for all 47 counties, one would want to know how extensive—and how representative—their mobile phone database is for each one, especially those mainly northern counties that still lack extensive network coverage.

Also, in the latest Infotrak survey, the 47 counties were divided into three categories: Odinga “strongholds”, Ruto “strongholds” and “battle-grounds”. Yet the lists are slightly misleading, in that the margin of error for these county results in several cases exceeds the difference between these two candidates. That is, the apparently impressively large sample of 9,000, when divided by 47 counties, yields a sub-sample average of only about 190 respondents per county, which has an associated margin of error of +/-7.1 per cent—equal to about a 14 per cent spread.  This means that any county results that fall within this range indicate that, in reality, either candidate could actually be leading. For Odinga, this removes Mombasa and Garissa from his list of 20 “strongholds”; for Ruto, the same applies to Laikipia and Isiolo from his list of 16.

Party nominations

One notable aspect of this electoral cycle is that, based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams. These have been conducted not just for measuring presidential candidate and party/coalition popularity as well as the salience of particular issues at the national, regional and county levels, but also, in particular contexts, for the selection of candidates so as to avoid the “messy” process of nomination contests. Just where and when such polls were used, whether as the sole basis for the awarding of nomination certificates, and whether they were used together with “consensus” and even voting, remains a subject for very rigorous research (hopefully by some energetic doctoral students).  What is clear, however, is that party and coalition leaders saw their main benefit as eliminating or at least significantly reducing the cost and acrimony of holding nomination elections, and even more potential acrimony when nominations were awarded in the absence of any competitive process at all (i.e., “dished out”, in Kenyan parlance). As the Sunday Nation reported just as the nomination period began, “The issuing of direct tickets to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) hopefuls has caused unrest in the party strongholds, marking the start of a traditionally tumultuous season of political party nominations.”

Kanyinga evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults.

The Azimio coalition, and the ODM party in particular, have trumpeted their use of such research tools—albeit in particular, and limited, contexts—in selecting their flag-bearers.  This first came to my attention early this year when this coalition’s campaign chairman, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi, who is known for his appreciation of “hard” data, was reported to have declared that the services of a pollster had been engaged “to conduct research that will help in determining popular candidates to fly the coalition’s flag in the August General Election”.  This same media report, quoted “a source” in the Odinga camp as saying that the data collected would be used to identify the “most popular candidates for all positions from MCA to governor”, and that this method was also aimed at “curbing violence” that is often generated by contested primaries. ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna was even more specific, revealing that the (unnamed) pollster had so far covered 15 counties with this figure to double “in the coming weeks.”  As he put it, “We want science to guide us.  We need not subject aspirants to an elective process when we know who is ahead of the others”, and he indicated that such direct tickets would be given to aspirants with “more than 20-30 percentage points over” their nearest rivals.

Subsequently, however, we saw controversy erupt in such places as Mombasa, where the opinion poll “losers” complained that they were being “unfairly” deprived of the chance to test their popularity with actual party members through primariesone of the several methods allowed for such candidate selection by the ODM party’s constitution.

While it cannot be denied that such competitive primaries have often triggered intra-party violence among rival supporters, several questions arise in connection with this “opinion poll” option.

First, as the chairperson of ODM’s National Elections Board, Catherine Muma, explained in a TV interview at the time, these polls were not restricted to party members as documented in the list that was filed with the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, but to all people in a particular electoral unit. Given that actual ballot choices on 9 August are not limited to candidates of one party, this makes sense. But here, one would want to know if any “filter” questions were used, so that only those registered as voters in that unit were interviewed (since, especially in a town like Mombasa, a substantial minority are registered and vote in other parts of the Coast region, and even beyond). Also, were respondents asked to indicate who they thought would be actually vying for particular seats before being asked to indicate their preference?  If not, how could the popularity of any candidate be gauged against that of others?  And if they were asked, but mentioned only a few of them, then what? That is, with polls conducted a full four months before the election, it was unrealistic to expect that the eventual ballot “menu” for such seats could be known. More generally, at this preliminary stage of the electoral calendar, which factors determine an aspirant’s popularity that a poll could measure?  In particular, do incumbents have an advantage because of their name recognition, or a disadvantage, at least among those unhappy with the status quo and who are looking forward to punishing incumbents?  And further, if the samples for such polls were not limited to party members, does this not diminish, if not completely negate, the value of such membership itself?

Based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams.

Even if such polls were used much closer to the election—perhaps based on an understanding between coalition partners that those who performed poorly would drop out (at least before the ballot papers are printed!)—how “scientific” are they in terms of reliably indicating actual outcomes? ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, as reported by NTV on 5 April, made the curious assertion that: “There is not a single time when the science has misled us, and those on this podium can bear me witness.  When we did the scientific poll in Msambweni [before the 15 December 2020 by-election] the actual results were exactly the same as what the science [of the poll] was telling us. The science and the results were spot-on.”

Since he did not identify the poll (or polls) he had in mind, I can only refer to the two polls I am aware of, both released in early December, just a few weeks before the by-election when voters should have been aware of all the candidates, and knew at least something about the main ones. Their results, together with the IEBC’s official results, are as follows:

Msambweni By-Election Poll/IEBC Results (Rounded Figures – Main Candidates Only)

Survey Firm/IEBC Publication Date Margin of Error Feisal Bader Omar Boga
Radio Africa/The Star 3 December, 2020 5.5% 29% 54%
TIFA Research 3 December, 2020 5.5% 36% 46%
IEBC: Official Result 15 December, 2020 —— 56% 39%

Both surveys had a margin of error of about +/- 5.5 per cent based on their respective sample sizes.  That means, for example, that in the Radio Africa poll, Boga’s support could have been as low as about 49 per cent, and in the TIFA poll, his support could have been as high as about 51 per cent, an indication that their results were pretty much in agreement.  But the conclusion should be clear: both polls were “wrong”.

So, was Sifuna referring to some other poll, perhaps one never made public? (Surely not the poll results released by the Bader campaign on social media on 18 November showing him with 74 per cent as against just 23 per cent for Boga!)  In that case, and if the official results mirrored it “exactly” (according to Sifuna—that is, an “upset” ODM loss), then we must assume either that the ODM campaign team, believing the contest was a lost cause, simply gave up (which surely would have caused Bader’s margin of victory compared to the poll to increase), or continued its campaign efforts to try to overcome Bader’s lead, but without any effect whatsoever.

There are several possible explanations, none mutually exclusive, as to why the two published polls failed to match “the reality”, perhaps most important among them: that, as in any election, differential voter turnout across any electoral unit cannot be predicted precisely. Moreover, by-elections invariably attract fewer voters than do general elections. In this Msambweni case, it was just under 40 per cent, and quite varied across the wards.  As such—and especially in such a by-election context—even “scientific sampling” can often yield misleading results.  In addition, however—and evidently more important—is that according to other reports at the time, Boga’s team was not nearly as active on the ground as Bader’s, in large part (I was told during a visit to the area this January) because the Boga campaign team “relaxed” after seeing these two polls, whereas Bader’s put even more energy into their efforts.

This is not to say that such polls are useless when parties/coalitions seek to identify their most-viable-candidate options.  But it is clear that their use should be accompanied by considerable caution, since their “science”, in terms of predicting popularity—and thus an election’s outcome—may be limited at best, especially when voters are not yet aware of the full and final ballot menu.

Choosing running mates

Let me turn finally to what has been perhaps the most remarkable use of surveys so far in this pre-election period: that conducted by UDA in identifying a running mate for their presidential candidate, William Ruto.

The DP himself made clear just prior to his announced choice at his Karen residence 15 on May that a “general public” poll of some 10,000 respondents had been conducted (although it remained unclear by whom) in the greater Mt. Kenya region, an exercise that was supplemented by an “electoral college” poll among area MPs. In both cases, we were told, Tharaka Nithi Senator, Prof. Kithure Kindiki, was the overwhelming choice (“90 per cent”). Yet almost in the next breath, the DP revealed that he had settled on Rigathi Gachagua (as noted above). In fact, prior to this announcement, it was reported that the DP had made this decision some time earlier—the “rag sheet” Weekly Citizen had headlined this choice in its 1-7 November publication! It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.  The fact that Senator Kindiki chose not to attend this event, and only issued a statement later, served to underscore his own dissatisfaction with the process, or at least with the decision. Whether he would have attended had these poll results not existed or been released must be left to speculation; he subsequently re-joined Kenya Kwanza’s campaign activities.

Aside from whatever internal polling was conducted by the main presidential campaign teams, publicly released surveys exploring this issue were at least equally off the mark. In both Radio Africa’s early April survey and TIFA’s a few weeks later, the “best” running mates for Odinga in terms of bringing in the most additional votes as identified by respondents were Peter Kenneth, Kalonzo Musyoka and Karua, in that order. Likewise, both Radio Africa and TIFA identified Musalia Mudavadi as Ruto’s “best” choice, with the ultimate “winner”, Rigathi Gachagua coming in second in the Radio Africa poll—followed by Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro—and third in TIFA’s, behind Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru.

Closer to the actual day of the announcements, Infotrak results were nearer to the eventual reality with regard to Odinga’s “best” choice, Karua placing first, followed by Musyoka and Kenneth. For Ruto, however, the results were less “accurate” than in either of the two other polls on the issue, with Gachagua nowhere among the top three, those positions being taken by Mudavadi, Kindiki and Waiguru, respectively.

In none of these three cases would it be “fair” to criticize the pollsters for “getting it wrong”, since it would be expected that respondents’ choices are far more a reflection of their general familiarity with these political figures, rather than of any intimate knowledge of the factors being considered by the presidential candidates themselves and their closest associates. For the latter, while adding “the most votes” is clearly a critical one, other factors include, especially, the “depth” of one’s (and one’s friends) pockets for campaign resources, the personal “chemistry” between the would-be president and deputy as well as the “fit” of their policy agendas and priorities, and the perceived capacity of the deputy to run the executive in the president’s absence (or even permanent exit from office for whatever reason). In other words, the “ideal” running mate must have enough political stature and following to help the two of them win the election and then govern, but not so much as to constitute a rival or threat to the dominant position that the constitution bestows on the president.

It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.

At the same time, in this 2022 context, several of these factors—whatever the weight given to each—are unlikely to apply equally to considerations by the Ruto and Odinga sides. This stems from the widespread assumption that whereas if he wins, Ruto would certainly attempt to extend his incumbency in 2027, there is rather less certainty that Odinga would do so due to his age, however healthy and vigorous the 77-year-old appears to be at present; indeed, some unconfirmed reports have indicated he has agreed to a single term.  As such, there is likely to be more jockeying for influence—and ultimately, executive power in 2027—on the Azimio side of the partisan equation following the inauguration ceremony, eventually if not immediately.

TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey (20 June)

Contest Candidates and Percentages
Governor J. Sakaja – 40% P. Igathe – 32% Others – 9% Undecided/NR – 28%
President R. Odinga – 50% W. Ruto – 25% Others – 8% Undecided/NR – 18%

The results of TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey carried out on 20 June have invited numerous queries as to how Johnstone Sakaja, the UDA/Kenya Kwanza candidate for governor, could clearly be more popular than Polycarp Igathe of Jubilee/Azimio, whereas the former’s presidential candidate is only half as popular as the latter’s (25 per cent vs. 50 per cent). While the data does not suggest an explanation, several “common sense” factors do. First, Sakaja has been in Nairobi public life for nearly a decade, first as a nominated MP, and then as the current senator. He has also been highly visible, frequently appearing on TV talk shows and taking well-publicized positions on various county and national issues.  Prior to the 2013 election, he served as chairman of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance Party (TNA), at the time “the youngest person in the world” to hold such a position (according to Wikipedia).  By contrast, relatively few (in Nairobi, at least) had heard of Igathe before he was selected by then Nairobi gubernatorial candidate Mike Mbuvi Sonko to be his deputy governor running mate for the 2017 election on behalf of the winning Jubilee party. He then largely vanished from public life after only six months, when he resigned from this position, having fallen out with Governor Sonko, who would later be removed from office through impeachment. More broadly, given the general absence of clear policy or ideological differences in Kenya’s political parties, especially perhaps in terms of county-level issues, it is clear that “personality”, including one’s personal “track record” is more salient for many voters. Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor. As such, while party/coalition identity certainly has some salience, it is far from overwhelming, at least for this forthcoming Nairobi gubernatorial contest. Regardless, how much rhetorical attention/support Sakaja will give to Ruto during his Nairobi campaigns between now and the election will still be interesting to watch. However, should the current investigation into Sakaja’s Uganda Team University degree result in his disqualification, this issue may become moot though at the time of TIFA’s survey, an impressive 20 per cent of those who declared their intention to vote for him also indicated they do not believe his Team degree is valid!

Concluding point: heading to the home stretch

Whatever the frequency of both public and internal polls so far, it may be expected that it will increase in the remaining five weeks or so prior to 9 August. In addition to the regular, roughly monthly, surveys by Radio Africa, TIFA and Infotrak, it is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election. The main media houses have also shown an increased interest in these surveys, in terms of sponsorship as well as coverage (in both news bulletins and talk shows).

It is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election.

Just how much such poll results—and their accompanying/reactive commentary—may influence actual voting patterns remains a subject for a future piece in this series. So, too, does a consideration of how such devices might help to answer another major question about Kenyans’ voting behaviour: how can the split about presidential choices, especially within particular ethnic groups, be understood?  In this context, it will be argued that simply posing this question should help to dilute the greatly overstated mantra that “all Kenyan politics is ethnic”!

Continue Reading

Trending