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Out of America or How I became a Marxist

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Becoming a Marxist made me realise that there was a wider context for my existence, that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical.

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I went to study in the United States in the 1980s in the time of what was to me the inexplicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was an enigmatic presidency for me for two reasons. First, at my university and amongst the mostly left-leaning circles that I hang out with, I never came across anybody who had voted for him. The second reason was that, for me, Reagan was clearly challenged on the intellectual front. I could not believe that a nation with all that maendeleo, all that development we in Africa so covet, would tolerate some folksy guy who might have come from a darker and more ignorant century. Certainly, the cool left-leaning students at C University had no time for Reagan.

In my two years in the US the only person I came across who would publicly admit to having voted for Reagan was a 65-year-old black man in Albany, Georgia, my cousin’s father-in-law. Pops, as his children called him in that quintessential African American manner, would routinely loudly proclaim his love for President Reagan to people in the presence of his children. He showed me his Republican Party membership card, much to the mortification of his children who muttered that the old man was finally going senile. When he whipped out the letter from Reagan, they teased him saying that he had only received it because he was special, being the only black Republican on the planet.

Pops challenged two beliefs I had had held about voting patterns in America. First, that black people were not members of the Republican Party and, second, that they always voted for the Democratic Party.

War and America’s presidents

Eight months into America, I had imbibed the paranoid conspiracy theories of my Marxist circle and lost my African ease. Late one night I turned on the television to find President Reagan ranting and raving in the most alarming manner about the “evil empire”. He was referring to the former Soviet Union, America’s mortal enemy of the Cold War days. And you thought “Axis of evil” was original? Do you see a pattern here? This is clearly the language of America’s dumb dumb presidents.

There is a moment in the deep night when reality becomes suspended and we become susceptible to our original lurking primeval selves. In this night moment, assorted distorted demons and night creatures with names like Linani, banshees, ghosts and ghouls rule as reality twists and turns, changing shape and resonance. The howl of a dog conjures up a werewolf. On the Kenyan coast, that night moment brings with it all manner of djins and mermaids, prowling in their woman-shape to steal the souls of victim men. Mating cats evoke the screams of damned souls burning in a Christian hell. It is easy to believe the bizarre. (I am setting up my excuse for what happened next.)

It was at such a moment in the night that I found Reagan’s ranting so aggressive that as I listened I became convinced that I had only missed the first part of his speech, in which he had finally gone over the edge and declared war on the Soviet Union. That night I went to bed terrified, in the grip of my imaginary world war. Before I fell into erratic sleep, I obsessed about how I would not be able to get out of the US before the actual war started and that I would die alone in a foreign land. The next morning I was relieved and abashed to find that all was normal and there was no sign of impeding war.

Twenty years later, as I watched the elections that brought another dumb dumb, unfathomable US president to power, George W. Bush, I realised that my vantage point, with its emphasis on linear “development” or maendeleo, had warped my thinking. Until that instant, I had thought development also brings with it highly enlightened people who would not lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to bring pain and destruction to innocent women and children many miles away in another country. For what? For oil (I can’t believe that), to get revenge for daddy (that’s too weird), to get their way (what way, the American way in Baghdad?), to be right about a perspective? (Probably the only right answer, outrageous as it may seem).

For us in this part of the world, things like technological advancement, elimination of hunger, industrial development, foreign vacations, microwaves, one doctor per 100 people, four-lane highways, $30,000 per capita income, a new car every two years, pensions, social security, all of which come with development, also lead to progress, to maendeleo. And ultimately to enlightment, the cherry on top of the development cake. We think, surely in America or Europe there must be such enlightenment that people, ordinary people everywhere, must have become immune to the baser human urgings like fear, malice, jealousy, racism, intolerance, corruption, violence, the need to declare war for dubious reasons, religious fanaticism?

It is easy to believe that if we were to invent a machine that would test our level of enlightenment we would find that those with more development have more enlightenment. This would render them immune from making decisions driven by those unenlightened aspects of being human like uncertainty and fear of tomorrow, fear of the other, the dictates of their religion, what the Bible says, what the Koran says, what the mullahs say, what the priest says. But finally I understand that this is not the case; just because you have more stuff doesn’t mean you are more enlightened.

I now realise of course that although human beings may have made huge technological advances such that they can send men to the moon or invent the Internet, they will still rely on some form of magic, juju or alchemy to manage their lives. The advances have not created certainty. In fact, they create even more uncertainty which can drive people deeper into the bosom of their juju side.

From Nairobi to America

Before I went to America, I was a student of the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi. Someone had put the University of Nairobi on the then outskirts of town. But this had not been far enough. By the 1970s, the outskirts were already part of the central business district and students would make their grievances felt by literally pelting the central business district with sticks and stones. It was a rioting student’s paradise. During my time, there were numerous riots, demonstrations and campaigns, many with echoes of Marxism or some left-leaning ideology with students shouting slogans like “Down with the bourgeoisie! The proletariat rules!!!” as they battled the police in the streets.

Somehow, throughout these riots I was able to remain largely free of any ideological infection. Which is incredibly surprising because we were sent home on at least four occasions over three years because of some issue with ideological overtones. In total, we spent about seven months at home. The male students had to report to their local chief every week but the women were not perceived to be a threat so we did not have to.

The only time I was absolutely certain about what we were striking for was the time we went on strike over food. We were all tired of the strange cuisine. The final provocation came when even the minced meat had weevils in it. Weevils will infest beans, legumes, rice, maize, but none feed on meat. So I could never get it; how did the weevils get into the minced meat? We half-joked that they must have used them as seasoning.

Rioting students

It was always those unserious arts students at main campus who started the riots. With our 36 hours a week schedule, we science students had no time for such frivolous pursuits. Also, we had no ideology to spur us to action and were so out of touch with current issues that we had no idea that our politicians were up to no good and that we should care. No science lecturer was ever caught in the political crosshairs, at least not during my time.

With their 8 hours a week lecture schedule which we sneered at, the arts students had plenty of time for ideologies such as Marxism and for the political issues they cared about, and they had lecturers with a death wish to egg them on. To get us to join their strike the arts students had to use threat and force; when a strike started we would be the first target and rather than face the wrath of our fellow students we joined in. Soon we were caught up in the excitement of the moment and forgot our original reluctance.

We ran around town in our jeans and sneakers being chased by the police, stoning unsuspecting motorists in an orgy of anarchy that was surprisingly heady even when the consequences could be a beating or rape by the police and the paramilitary (at the time they did not use live ammunition) and expulsion from university. I took part in the running around town but I didn’t want to take part in the stoning of motorists in case one of those motorists was my mother or father or one of their friends.

Twenty years later, I almost became one of the nameless motorists we used to talk so casually about, the one who lost her eye, (“Oh, how sad”), the one who died (uncomfortable silence), the one whose car was set ablaze and had her leg broken when she tried to jump over a six-foot fence hotly pursued by angry students shouting “down with the bourgeoisie, workers unite!” (loud laughter at the image of the heavyset woman trying to jump a six-foot fence).

That scene from a long time ago came to me as I came face to face with a young man about to hurl a stone at my windscreen. Time stood still. I had driven into the midst of rioting university students. Have you ever had one of those moments of danger when your life hangs in the balance under the specter of deadly violence? I live in Africa so I have had several. For me these moments always come with a loud metallic screeching/whistling sound. A sound that crystallises danger itself.

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

From nowhere the moment was interrupted; a student stepped in and stopped the young man at the last possible moment, for no reason that I can fathom, except that my day had not yet come. “Drive away!” he shouted urgently at me. I reversed and drove like the devil escaping my moment.

Being cold in America

I arrived in America in the dead of winter never having experienced winter in my life. I also went to a Marxist university only having been vaguely aware of this ideology or the concept of ideologies for that matter, so I was green on many fronts. If my father had known, and then been able to believe, that he was sending me to America to a Marxist university, would he have so happily taken me to the airport with such pride, giving me one of his gems to take with me? I repeated it later to my new boyfriend, starry-eyed, in a “behold the wisdom of my father, I want to share it with you” moment, only to find that it was Confucius who originated it. You can guess the one: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I remember laughing and not being embarrassed by the busting of my father’s “original” gem. You must understand that I had once believed that my father could speak Russian.

It was the cold that almost got me first. It was February, the dead of winter. On my sixth day there, I looked out of the window and the sun was shining off the pristine snow. I felt joyful at the prospect of warm sunshine on my skin. I dressed and walked the one kilometre to the university campus. Only I got colder and colder. Sunshine did not equal warmth here. The light coat and sweater I had put on were no defense against the bitter winter cold. Twenty minutes later I was sitting in the reception room of the University admission block, feeling sorry for myself, trying not to cry as my ears, toes and fingers painfully thawed. I would have gone back home that second if my ticket had not been one-way.

A party in America

I eventually settled in, made some friends and was soon invited to my first party. The word “party” should mean the same thing wherever you are, right? For me at that time it meant dressing up in something sexy and provocative, make-up, jewelry (I still secretly believe that it was I who introduced the whole bling concept to the US), high heels and looking forward to dancing and meeting gorgeous and dateable guys. I marvel today at how many eligible men there were to choose from back then at any party, I was always spoilt for choice.

So of course I arrive at the party Kenyan style, dressed to the nines and fashionably late, to make my entrance and to envelope myself in the “whose that girl” factor. The cachet in being remembered translated directly into the attention of at least three of the hottest guys at the party. And then the routine. Open the door of the crowded room, stop, framed by the door, hold pose as if looking for someone while what you are actually doing is allowing them to look at you, and then step into the room sure of the impression you have created.

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

I went into routine mode and nearly gagged as I realised just what an overdressed spectacle I was. One woman was still in the droopy old t-shirt that she had used when we went jogging that morning. The only difference now was that the widening sweat marks under her armpits were not because of the jogging but because of the heat in the room. I couldn’t believe it! The other students were similarly dressed in old jeans, t-shirts, sweats and ill-fitting sweaters. I was now embarrassed as all eyes turned on me just as I had intended but retreat would only have made me even more conspicuous. I held my head up and, deciding to brazen it, walked into the room. This was only the beginning of my introduction to party etiquette in America.

Did I mention that I was a geek from University of Nairobi? I soon learned a new definition of geek because a Nairobi University geek took time out to party and one of our rules was that you never talked about anything remotely related to the courses you were taking during party time. I don’t remember what we talked about but what we did at parties was dance like mad, and tune and be tuned. But here at university in the US life was one continuous seminar without end.

I joined a group of friends and my face lit up in a smile anticipating delicious banter with that cute guy I had the hots for. As I stood there awhile, I realised that I needed to quickly disappear the smile; it was clearly inappropriate during a discussion about historical materialism, Hegel, Marx, Gramsci… After 15 minutes looking for an opportunity to make an impression I gave up. I knew the language. English. But if you had held a gun to my head and asked, “Tell me what they are talking about or I shoot,” I would have had to let you shoot my brains out. I had no idea. I moved to another group of my friends and found them similarly engaged in what can only be referred to as deep intellectual discourse and again I could not understand them. My frustration was growing; you can understand what this was like for a loud and voluble person. This is my only point in mitigation for what happened next. The third group held some promise. There was a word I found familiar, and as I write what I said, my toes still curl up in embarrassment twenty years on. The word was “reactionary”. I had to seize the moment and make my intellectual mark. “Oh!” I said, “President Moi is a reactionary, he always reacts to everything.” I looked around at the upturned faces with pride at this insight.

And then I launched into a story about President Moi and his reactions, by way of illustration you understand. “One time when we were at the university, President Moi had gone to India on a state visit. By the time he returned it was a week before JM Day, the day on which a populist member of parliament called J.M. Kariuki had been assassinated 10 years before. The students always marked the day with demonstrations which soon deteriorated into riots and running battles with the police. The university was always closed after the fracas. This year though, we students had gone against the grain and decided that we would mark the day by doing good in the community. We had decided to establish a J.M. Kariuki Foundation and to clean up slum areas and donate to poor people. So when we heard the president’s declaration even before he set foot on Kenyan soil that all third-year students would be expelled and ‘the nation would feel nothing if we dared riot on this year’s J.M. Kariuki Day’, we were so outraged that we were simply provoked into action. We rioted. And funnily enough, for the first time he did not react for the first week. We then decided that we would riot until he sent us all home. So we did.”

Many years down the road, I am still grateful that they did not burst out laughing. Instead, someone politely said one word “yes, that’s an interesting perspective to the word reactionary, you are quite right President Moi is a reactionary”, and the conversation continued seamlessly.

Going home a feminist

I soon got used to the American party style, so much so that when I came back home I had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan approach. More so because I had come back with a head full of ideologies that did not mix well with the oglefest that is the Kenyan party. I took years to get back on track, spending time at parties skulking in corners with one or two other like-minded people, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both habits picked up in America and now used to camouflage my despair at the lack of opportunity for rigorous intellectual discourse at these Kenyan affairs.

Of all the ideologies I picked up abroad, the most incompatible with my country was my hardcore feminism. It was not just any ordinary feminism, but one that looked for converts with the fanaticism of a born-again Christian from the American Bible Belt out to capture souls in Africa. And I never missed a chance to advance my mission. I was a one-woman missionary determined to be martyred at the altar of feminism.

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Like red flags to a bull, statements that would spur me into action were endless. “Oh you know women are like that” or “Oh you know women are their own worst enemy.” Back then my country was still so innocent that it did not know that it should hide its chauvinism from view, at least in public. There were many sexist and misogynist statements made in my hearing by men and women on a daily basis.

Just so that there would be no room for speculation, I would declare my feminism openly on introduction. It wasn’t quite, “Hi my name is Sitawa and I am a rabid feminist who is vigilant and looking for opportunities to spring into action in defense of women everywhere by lecturing you into submission for any anti-woman statement that I may detect”. But it might as well have been. How I actually introduced myself was “Hello my name is Sitawa and I am a feminist”, I said, looking them straight in the eye, daring them to make a joke of my declaration.

Just in case you might be misled into thinking that there was any irony here and maybe laugh out loud because you found the introduction funny, the clothing and demeanor completed the picture. I wore a uniform of black jeans, shapeless t-shirts and sneakers, the drab universal uniform of feminists — in the US at least. “Appreciate my mind not my behind” is what I meant to say with my whole presentation to protect myself from another little trait I had picked up in the US, an aversion for unsolicited male attention.

All my friends were innocents. After I had lectured three or four of them for half an hour each on separate occasions I soon found myself alone. I wore my aloneness like a badge of honour, seeing it as the inevitable price paid by any champion of a cause who sticks their neck out. Thank goodness I had seen the film “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner”; I could use the image conjured by the title to console myself when I felt like giving up.

In an act of rebellion against my society, I smoked openly even in front of my father. This particular statement was especially effective in establishing my rebel credentials to no one in particular. When my friends gasped and questioned this particular act as going too far, I had another lecture prepared for them. “My aunts,” I would say from my imaginary soapbox. “Upcountry, in the rural areas, women smoke and drink so why shouldn’t I?” In the western part of Kenya women can smoke cigarettes. Some of my aunts smoke cigarettes but with the lit end inside their mouths. I have never seen a man smoke in this fashion and I don’t know why. I have one particular aunt who is hard-smoking and hard-drinking, who has always gone drinking with her husband, so I just don’t understand the sanctions levied against the so-called modern African woman, the city woman.

I have long since quit all those habits I picked up in America. I gave up picking on everybody around me because I realised that I had mistaken being constantly angry and fighting with people who did not agree with my opinion with championing a cause. Besides, it was alienating and exhausting and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was so intense. When my friends could talk to me again they told me that they had run away from me because I was just plain boring.

Impressions of the American South 

I went to visit my cousin’s in-laws in the American south in Albany, Georgia for a week and discovered I could not hear so I took to endless grinning and nodding my head. I left those people thinking I was simple in the head. But I couldn’t understand them and I soon got tired of asking them to repeat themselves so I withdrew into an African grin of protection and lost my reputation in the process. They speak English in the south so it wasn’t the language, but there was still a language barrier. The long dragged out words that go on seemingly forever lost my short attention span. I found that my mind had wondered before the end so I never heard the finish. “Caaaahhhn aaaaah speeeek to Eyyyyd Coooook” is what I thought I overheard a woman in a bank asking. It was shocking to hear, like somebody caricaturing an American. I tried not to laugh and asked my cousin-in-law what the woman was saying. And she translated, “Can I speak to Ed Cook?”

I visited my first flea market during that visit to the south. A large African-like market selling what we call mitumba in Kenya; old clothes and shoes, kitchenware, furniture, as well as more specialised things like vintage clothing (read very old mitumba) and stuff that was ordinary people’s artistic expressions of themselves. My cousin-in-law introduced me to a little old black woman at a stall selling miscellaneous mitumba as her cousin from Africa.

“What!” proclaimed the little old black woman, “But you real pretty, I thought Africans were dark black with kinky hair and big fat noses and mouths but you real fine,” she declared in amazement.

I was equally astonished at the casual black-on-black racist stereotype that she spewed, blithely unaware that she should hide it or at least not say it straight to my face. But she was simply the first of many to air such views. During my two-week sojourn in the south, I soon grew accustomed to hearing from black people similar guileless declarations about some African stereotype that I didn’t fit. From questions about where I learnt to dance like that (I can dance!), to where I had learnt to speak “so proper”, to my dress sense and on and on.

Virtual segregation in the American South

The other big thing that I experienced for the first time in the US was hardwired virtual segregation. There were no signs designating white and black zones anywhere in Albany that I saw. Indeed, on the surface all seemed well in terms of race relations. But even my cousin’s Republican father-in-law made sure he hid his de-segregated business to keep up appearances. He was in business with a white person because the partnership allowed him to get white business. But to keep that lucrative white business he had to keep his partnership hidden and so he passed himself off as a worker in the business. I realise the logic is challenging.

The two groups occupied the same physical spaces, they ate at the same restaurants, entered all buildings and transport from the same entrance, sat anywhere on buses. And yet my foreigner’s eyes quickly saw through this façade and identified the fault lines of virtual segregation. The new apartheid still did not allow the twain to commune freely even as they congregated. I could feel the barriers as soon as I stepped into those spaces. There was a sense of forced togetherness. If the gap between the two races could speak it would say, “Ok, we have to share this same physical space but we are not giving up our right to be separate. They can take away our right to segregation but they can’t take segregation out of our hearts”. It was in what was missing in the interaction between black and white. There was no ease, peacefulness, insignificance, silence, freedom, love.

What existed in that gap was tension, a hateful watchfulness and worst of all an embryonic violence that was always ready to grow into fully-fledged adulthood. You could feel it. This violence ebbed and flowed and hung around like a dark threat. When I was amongst black people everyone was relaxed, very laid back, but in the presence of a group of white people in the segregated spaces there was an all round tensing alertness, an expectation of something unpleasant.

Black and white people occupied those common public spaces differently too. White people seemed to strut and begrudge black people’s presence. It was white people who still seemed to be the bona fide owners of the space. Black people were the interlopers, but they had no choice, they had to occupy the spaces, otherwise they risked recreating segregation by their absence. But the sense of threat in those spaces implied that black people occupied those spaces at their peril. Desegregation had been about pulling down the limits placed on the existence of black people. It was not white people who were fighting to sit in the seats reserved for black people on buses or to use the blacks-only entrances. Desegregation demands that white people cede the space and privileges that define their superior place in society.

Race in the north

My experience of race in the American north was not one of absence but rather that the north was racially clandestine, a state I much preferred. It gave me freedom to spend many more hours in a day being just another human being. The colour of my skin was not a constant conscious presence foisted on me by open racial hostility. Thank you but I am not black, I really am just a person. I am an African living in Africa so although I have many identities, being black is not my premier identity. That is the advantage of growing up black in Africa.

When I brought this to the attention of my southern black relatives-in-law they made that claim that always bemuses me. “I like the south,” they said, “the boundaries are clear, people here are not hypocrites like in the north. I know where I stand with them here”.

“I know where I stand?” What the hell is that? What I understand from that telling statement is an admission on the part of black people that it’s OK for there to be limits on a black person’s existence. I never heard a white person say things like that, only black people. For a person to know where he or she could go and what he or she could expect from their world simply because of the hue of their skin. In other words there was a limit of possibility which means that there was no possibility at all. And it was fine for white people to have veto powers over the dreams, the scope of existence of black people. You can dream so much and no more. You can aspire so far and no further, these are the limits on your movement. And black people accepted this proscribed world and were happy that they knew their place in this controlled world. That world was a banned dream which they passed on to their children and this was done with the active connivance of black people.

I understand how dangerous the world in which black people live in the south is. I imbibed a small part of that fear many thousands of miles away from movies and media reports of the Ku Klux Klan. So much so that I arrived in America terrified. For four days I refused to leave my sister’s apartment because I was sure the Ku Klux Klan were going to gun me down. Living with that dreadful history can skew anyone and the wonder is that black people have lived to step out of the shadow of such terrors and nightmares. The journey has had its negative impact such that sometimes their ability to see beyond the boundaries of their terror has been compromised.

This is where Africans can lend their sight when dreams have been extinguished. We have the same racial reality because our existence in the world gives us the same reference points. Yet we live in our own homes largely amongst our own people. We are not vested only in a racial reality. Our human reality predominates. We can fly above “black person negatives” and separate fact from damaging fiction.

A person exposed to these negatives on a daily basis for most of their life will lose their perspective. Such an environment can beat down the most thick-skinned, sanguine, optimist man and woman and create an oversensitive “defensive human” who can no longer see the forest for the trees and perceives racism under every bush. Such an environment can leave people severely embattled and debilitated. The centuries of actual and virtual lynching that black people have been subjected to in the US will do that.

Psychologically I am rather sensitive. I found the race issue to be intrusive enough in the north where it was not so in-your-face.. I found myself engaged from time to time in what manifested as flash-back-filled bouts of mother-less-child weeping. The kind of crying that was inconsolable, with heaving and copious tears. The kind that is only done in hiding. The first time it happened I did not understand what was going on. From nowhere came floods of tears. At first they were quite frequent, every three months or so. Soon the stretch between one bout and another grew and they finally stopped. I had stopped expecting more out of this country.

What were they? They were silent tears of rage and despair at the seemingly unseen-with-the-naked-eye accumulation of incidents of racism that I encountered on a daily basis. My mother has always told me that I am too thin-skinned, I let things get too easily under my skin. And it’s true. I just let the incidents seep into my subconscious. I never could speak out at them. I had no skills to deal with them in the moment. The moment of action would be long past before I recognised what had happened. And some were subtle, only discernable in the pattern my subconscious registered as I remained preoccupied with the hunt for that cut price designer shoe that I desired and could afford on my student stipend only if I bought it in a bargain basement-type store. It wasn’t until it had long happened, again and again, from store to store, in a single day, that I finally recognised what had been going on. The only black person in the group of friends being singled out for kindly help, again and again.

So what about the Marxism?

So what about the Marxism itself? I know that many people will find it surprising that I became a Marxist in America but it was common knowledge back then that you were likely to become Marxist, or at the very least end up leaning way to the left ,if you did your studies in the US. The reverse held true if you went to study in the USSR, you turned irrevocably capitalist and probably ended up holding some extreme rightwing perspectives. Certainly, I found many of my friends and relatives who went to study in the USSR ideologically bereft. For both groups it was shopping that did it. According to my friends who went to the USSR, the empty shelves turned them to the right.

In the US the shopping experience couldn’t have been more different. Walk into a supermarket, any old supermarket, not even some hypermarket, and there were shelves and shelves of different brands of detergents. Twenty different brands of dog food. Try buying toothpaste and you had to choose from a row of thirty brands. I was confused about what parameters to base my choice on, and offended at the waste. As a consumer, I had to ask myself why would I need thirty varieties of toothpaste to choose from? What’s funny is that back home the thought of such a long list of western goodies had always sounded delicious. Back then, western goodies were in short supply and some were not available in real time. You did not expect to keep up with trends in music or fashion in real time for example. There was a genuine difference between the third and first worlds largely based on time.

This time difference meant that at home there was a premium to being ahead of the pack. I still remember the cachet of being one of the first to own those skin-tight Jordache jeans that were not going to hit the Nairobi streets for another two years at least, the first to wear the latest lip gloss, the really glossy kind. This particular trend might become extinguished before it’s existence is even heard of in Nairobi, and there I was wearing it because I had made a trip to New York city. With some of these more transient trends there was always the danger that no one ever got to even hear about them and decide that they were a “must have” fashion item. The extreme third world trendoid ran the risk of simply looking strange and eccentric rather than enviably trendy. Sometimes I thought that it would have been useful to wear a T-shirt reading, “This thing that I am wearing really is the latest trend in London, New York, Milan.”

The road to my becoming a Marxist was littered with hardship though, and I almost didn’t make it. First, it was clear that I had a problem, I was the problem. When I stepped into the graduate class at C University, I was the first African for over ten years. And I was the first African woman in more years than that. I am Kenyan, which back then had a baffling specialness. I still remember the whispers as I walked past fellow students during the first few weeks. Later, when I made friends, I found out that my arrival had been announced and was anticipated, “Class we will have a real Kenyan woman”. I was used to being taken for granted much more at home. For a while I basked in this adulation. Soon enough it was rudely interrupted. Apparently it had come to everyone’s attention that I was bourgeois. This according to the Marxists made me a criminal. It was my political class in Africa that kept the peasants downtrodden while my economic class exploited the workers. I was held personally culpable for the ills of the continent. I kid you not; when the lecturers talked about the problem the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented in Africa, my fellow classmates turned round and looked at me with accusing eyes.

And it gets worse; I had servants. This particular thing was treated like some sort of character flaw. A friend of mine captures the dangers of being found out as an employer of servants by left-leaning elements in the US at that time. She was doing the bleeding-heart liberal thing, working in one of those poorly paid jobs while learning at the feet of some feminist guru. One day she was called into the boardroom where the head feminists were meeting. The interrogation revolved around questions of whether she had servants at home. She turned red (she is a Kenyan of a hue that can blush) and fidgeted violently, giving her discomfort away. She realised she was on the horns of a dilemma. What was she to do? If she admitted that she had servants she could be fired. But she realised her behaviour had given her away so an outright lie was out of the question. She chose to limit the potential damage by making a partial admission.

“Yes we have servants”, she admitted with her fingers crossed, “But only part-time.” Many years later we roared with laughter at how much we lay down at the feet of little tyrants just because they were supposed to be ideologically sound.

To be honest, although I would have chewed razorblades before I admitted this back then, the logic of my fellow students escaped me, but I was still intimidated into silence. This is what I would have told them had I been able to speak up. “Any African attending university is by definition no longer a peasant, a worker or a proletariat even if they are a direct descendent of any of these preferred classes. A real worker is out there being just that, a worker, not attending graduate school in the USA. Not all Africans are guilty of oppressing their brothers and sisters back home. Heck, Africans have the right to not be poor, peasants or workers. We can be anything.” This is what has always been so intriguing for me. The attitudes of my fellow students were not strange. Africans are allowed only to be poor. It seems to me that the logic that follows is that then they can be saved or rescued from their conditions by kindly Westerners. There is no place for Africans who can look after themselves in the psyche of the West. And interestingly, there appears to be no scenario for what happens when the “helping” has worked. The logic seems to suggest that for Africans there must be no rainbow.

News of a coup

In 1982 news of a coup in my country was met with all round gloating. A fellow student whom I considered a friend broke the news of the coup with words to this effect:

“You Kenyans have been the darlings of the West and now finally you have fallen!” he announced with glee.

He was not simply being mean, he was just being a Marxist. Others joined in, expressing joy at the collapse of this false citadel that was often touted as a capitalist success story by the West much to the chagrin of the leftist elements in the same West. Today that Kenya seems too good to be true. A few years earlier, in 1975, a World Bank report had noted that “Kenya is now in the second year of its second decade as an independent nation. Behind it lies a record of sustained growth in production and income that has rarely been surpassed by countries in Kenya’s stage of development”. These are some of the statistics that offended people: In 1975 27 per cent of Kenya’s population was living below the poverty line. GDP grew at a rate of 6.6 per cent. It is true that by 1982 things were beginning to collapse as the post-Kenyatta regime that we like to call the “Moi error” began to slash at the progress made in the first decade of the country’s independence.

Today Kenya is very different; World Bank statistics reveal a country deeply mired in poverty. Poverty levels are at 57 per cent and, between 1997 and 2002 GDP has reached a low of 1.1 per cent. Although it is doing much better now, it is literally digging itself out from a deep hole. Is Kenya today a Marxist’s wet dream? I don’t know, all I can say that it is uncomfortable to live in the midst of all this poverty. And now, many years later, we know that extreme poverty does not a revolution make. From examples everywhere, it can lead to a total implosion as a country sinks into civil war or worse.

My response to the coup

Whilst my fellow students celebrated back then, all I could think of was the safety and security of my family and friends. Beyond that I didn’t know what else to think. We Kenyans had grown used to the idea that we were special, not like other African countries which we saw as prone to coups and other forms of violent unrest and crazy despotic leaders. Our leaders were mild in comparison. With this mindset, I was simply unprepared. Over the next four days, my alarm grew when I was unable to get through to my parents when I tried to reach them by phone. I eventually got through and confirmed that all my family were safe. One of the symbols of our success was an efficient telephone system. I could always get through. What is amazing is the accuracy of some of the stories I heard about what happened to people I knew thousands of miles away. I heard about a guy whom I knew getting shot while looking at the unfolding coup through the window of a second-floor apartment and I came home to find this story to be true; he had indeed died in exactly the way it had been described to me.

This meanness not withstanding, Marxism gave me a huge measure of freedom by giving my mind options to go beyond. It gave me alternatives to understanding how life works. I came to appreciate that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical and that there was a wider context for my existence. As for Ronald Reagan, he unwittingly played his part in expanding my mind and making sure that I had to step out of the shadow of ideas of America as the land of salvation for myself or my continent. For two years, I watched this man behave as if he had come from a village in the dark ages and I gave up all my notions of the West as the source of wisdom, hope and help for my continent.

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Sitawa Namwalie is an award-winning Kenyan poet, playwright and performer known for her unique dramatized poetry performances which combine poetry and traditional Kenyan music.

Long Reads

Dark Web: How Companies Abuse Data and Privacy Protections to Silence Online Media

A whole industry of reputation management has been spawned online with companies dedicated, through means fair and foul, to gaming the system in favor of their clients. An investigation by Qurium shows how some are utilizing intimidation and deception in campaigns to suppress unflattering information in the online press.

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Dark Web: How Companies Abuse Data and Privacy Protections to Silence Online Media
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Around the world, the internet has become an important source of information, influencing decisions on everything from news and politics to shopping and recreation. Employers today will use internet search engines to check out prospective employees just as voters are likely to “google” politicians they are considering voting for. The search engines, of which Google is the most dominant, categorize the mass of available online information on any particular topic into consumable chunks and decide which ones are most relevant for any particular search.

With so much resting on search results, it is no surprise that a whole industry of reputation management has been spawned with companies dedicated, through means fair and foul, to gaming the system in favor of their clients. While some engage in enlightened best-practice, such as optimizing content and websites for the search engines, others are practitioners of the dark arts, utilizing intimidation and deception in campaigns to suppress unflattering information.

According to its website, the Spanish firm, Eliminalia “was born to ensure every individual and company maintains its privacy and network security, regardless of the uncensored information that has been posted on the Internet – whether malicious, incorrect, or embarrassing”. In short, its mission is to erase internet content its clients consider objectionable. Media reports in August last year – denied by both parties – claimed that Kenya’s Deputy President, William Ruto, had retained the company to spruce up his online image as he prepares for a run at the country’s presidency in 2022.

While some engage in enlightened best-practice, such as optimizing content and websites for the search engines, others are practitioners of the dark arts, utilizing intimidation and deception in campaigns to suppress unflattering information.

However, the techniques the company utilises are not always transparent and could even be illegal. A newly released investigation by Qurium has found that the company is involved in a campaign of intimidation and deceit using fake lawyers and impersonating regulators to threaten websites into taking down content, and creates fake websites to manipulate search results.

In an initial report summarising some of their findings, Qurium shows how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a US law enacted in 1998 that requires hosting services and internet service providers to take down content when notified of copyright infringements, and data protection regulations as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), are systematically abused to restrict the freedom of the press, particularly when investigating corruption or abuses of power.

Some of the techniques used by Eliminalia to eliminate, modify or de-index content from the Internet identified by Qurium include creating copies of original content in other websites, backdating it and then filing a DMCA complaint to Google for copyright infringement. Thanks to research access granted by the Lumen Database, Qurium found several identities used by Eliminalia to file such complaints. The company also sends fake GDPR abuse reports using fake legal e-mails and domain names.

De-indexing agreement

Part of a de-indexing agreement

De-indexing is a process that involves removing a website from the search engine’s index but not from the page where it originates which means that a website or a specific URL stops being seen in search results. The Google search engine will automatically de-index content that it determines is not original, that is, which has been previously published on another web page. Cloned websites abuse this by making it difficult for the search engine to determine which is the authoritative source.

One of the methods to push down results in search engines is to clone the full content of the websites in similar domains. During the cloning of the content, all articles that their clients do not want to be published are avoided. This strategy is consistent with their definition of de-indexing in their contracts.

The forensic analysis by Qurium determined that Eliminalia creates fake domain names and impersonates the EU Commission in order to send fake take down requests. The company also submits fake copyright complaints to Google and clones original articles from websites in an attempt to de-index content from search engines. It also uses hundreds of fake newspapers hosted in the Ukraine to support disinformation campaigns on Social Media.

The Google search engine will automatically de-index content that it determines is not original, that is, which has been previously published on another web page. Cloned websites abuse this by making it difficult for the search engine to determine which is the authoritative source.

The Elephant has been among those targeted by such content take-down campaigns. They involve notices from fake legal firms claiming copyright infringement or invoking data protection legislation and demanding removal of the content without revealing the identity of who is paying for their legal services.

After exchanging dozens of e-mails with different “lawyers” in the course of several months, Qurium, which provides secure hosting services for human rights organisations and independent media – including The Elephant – from more than twenty countries, managed to identify those behind such campaigns and the infrastructure that has been put in place to support such businesses.

Emails from IP addresses associated with Eliminalia, which has registered offices in Spain, the US and the Ukraine, were sent to Qurium, purporting to be from lawyers and from the Legal Department of the European Commission in Brussels demanding removal of articles related to corruption in Angola involving Isabel dos Santos or Vincent Miclet.

The Elephant has been among those targeted by such content take-down campaigns. They involve notices from fake legal firms claiming copyright infringement or invoking data protection legislation and demanding removal of the content without revealing the identity of who is paying for their legal services.

One of the emails concerned a story published in The Elephant two years ago regarding French businessman Vincent Miclet’s corruption-tinged exploits in Angola. It was sent February this year to one of Qurium’s internet service providers in the Netherlands by one “Raul Soto” claiming to be from the Legal Department of European Commission.

Fake take down requests

Fake take down requests

The physical address provided was actually that of Regus, an office space rental agency in Brussels, Belgium, which happens to be situated in front of one of the buildings of the European Commission. However, the information on the header shows that the email was actually sent from a Ukrainian IP address using a server in France.

The domain it was sent from, abuse-report.eu, appears to have been registered in September last year for the sole purpose of sending fake data protection complaints as it lacks a website or other contact details. Queries on both Censys and Shodan, which are internet search engines that enable researchers to probe hosts, networks and devices, quickly revealed that Eliminalia was behind the fake setup.

Who.is data on the abuse-report.eu domain name

Who.is data on the abuse-report.eu domain name

A further examination of the internet infrastructure of Eliminalia in the Ukraine found that several of their servers are within an IP address range (62.244.51.50 – 62.244.51.58) which includes the servers of World Intelligence Ltd, a company registered to Diego Sanchez. Diego (Didac) Sanchez Jimenez/Gimenez is also the founder and CEO of Eliminalia. World Intelligence Ltd. hosts almost 300 fake newspapers which are used to run all sorts of “information campaigns” and to clone existing websites in order to “de-index” content out of search engines.

To understand how the 300 fake newspaper websites were used and whether they were used in a coordinated manner, Qurium analysed 3,000 articles published by them during one calendar month. They found that many of the newspapers shared common articles and groups of them posted the same content simultaneously.

The domain it was sent from, abuse-report.eu, appears to have been registered in September last year for the sole purpose of sending fake data protection complaints as it lacks a website or other contact details.

Apart from trying to de-index content from Google Search, they also found that clusters of websites are used to promote fake content. For example, a campaign targeting the Tanzanian whistle-blower website Fichua Tanzania used social media and a cluster of websites to distribute the fake news.

Campaign bots use dozens of registered domains to run disinformation campaigns against a target.

Campaign bots use dozens of registered domains to run disinformation campaigns against a target.

The dangers posed by such tactics to democracy are obvious. Information is the oxygen of democracy, allowing citizens to hold governments to account and to accurately assess their options when making selections in voting booths. Much of this information is today to be found online where it is curated by search engines. However, when companies use laws meant to protect online privacy and guard against copyright theft are abused to silence the press, and when they use fraudulent means to manipulate search results, then the public is deprived of the tools it needs to meaningfully participate in democracy.

This is a problem for the search engines as well. Trust is the currency of the internet. Left unchecked, companies like Eliminalia will inevitably damage public confidence in the results delivered by the engines and thus the public’s propensity to use them.

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Long Reads

The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant

The claim by Amu Power that the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will generate cheap electricity and provide employment does not hold up to scrutiny.

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The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant
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It is common knowledge that coal has significant impacts on the environment, human health and livelihoods, and oceans and marine life yet Amu Power, the entity behind the proposed 1,050 MW Lamu Coal Plant, is minimising these risks and arguing that the plant is necessary on economic grounds.  Their arguments do not hold up under scrutiny.

Amu Power makes three claims about the plant:  1) that it will provide cheap electricity – their marketing states that the plant will provide electricity at KSh7.8/kWh; 2) that it will create employment opportunities for Kenyans; and 3) that inexpensive electricity from the coal plant will spur manufacturing in Kenya and transform the country into a middle-income economy by 2030.

In January 2021 the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) sold electricity to domestic consumers at KSh24.06/kWh. In comparison, the KSh7.8/kWh promised by Amu Power looks great. But that is what KPLC, not its customers, will pay. This amount is a component of only one line item, known as the Fuel Cost Charge (FCC), of the total cost per kilowatt hour that KPLC charges consumers.

In January 2020, the Fuel Cost Charge was KSh2.58/kWh for residential and commercial consumers. This means that the electricity Amu Power is offering is at least three times more expensive than what KPLC is currently paying.

That in itself should put an end to any economic argument for the Lamu Coal Plant.  However, and as we shall see, the true costs of this plant are much higher.

1) Claim: Coal as a cheap source of power

Three inputs to the cost-of-electricity equation demonstrate that power from the plant will always cost more than KSh7.8/kWh and will therefore never be competitive against renewable resources:  1) price of coal; 2) capacity factor; and 3) hidden costs.

Price of coal: When Amu Power sold the idea of the Lamu Coal Plant to Kenya in 2014, their plan was to import coal from South Africa because there will be no coal available in Kenya to fuel the plant in the foreseeable future.

Amu Power’s claim that electricity from the plant would cost KSh7.8/kWh was based on a coal price of US$50/metric tonne. However, even at the time they made the claim, the average price of South African coal delivered to Kenya was already 50 per cent higher — over US$77.3/metric tonne. Coal prices fluctuate and so will the cost of power from a coal plant. At least once in the past six years, South African coal has been higher than US$106/metric tonne — more than twice what Amu Power quoted to convince the Kenyan government to give the company a permit.

The Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) between Amu Power and KPLC provides formulae to calculate the cost of electricity from the plant. Inputting a coal price of US$77.3/metric tonne — with all other of the proponent’s assumptions holding steady — increases the cost of electricity from the plant to KSh8.98/kWh. At a coal price of US$106/metric tonne, it would go up to KSh10.21/kWh.

In 2017, the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum (MoEP) projected the price of coal will be USD$108/tonne in 2040. That would make the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant at least KSh10.27/kWh, almost four times the FCC today.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalBut accounting for a more accurate cost of coal does not bring to an end the adjustments necessary to Amu Power’s fantasy pricing. There are two other factors that must be taken into account to arrive at a more realistic price for the electricity from the proposed coal-fired plant.

2) Capacity Factor:  This is the actual amount of electricity generated by a plant as compared to the maximum amount it can produce. Amu Power’s projected price of KSh7.8/kWh is not only based on an inaccurate price of coal, but it is also based on the assumption that the plant will run at 85 per cent capacity.  For context, the global average utilisation for a coal-fired plant in 2019 was 54 per cent.

According to Amu Power, at 85 per cent capacity the Lamu Coal Plant would generate 7,305 gigawatt hours of electricity each year, which would enable it to meet the inflated demand forecasts presented in the MoEP’s 2011 Least Cost Power Development Plan. Based on more realistic demand forecast scenarios, in 2017 the Ministry calculated that the plant would generate – at most – only a third of Amu Power’s pledge. More damaging, in 2020, the MoEP calculated that in a fixed-case scenario the Lamu Coal Plant would operate at 2.8 per cent in 2030, at 4.6 per cent in 2035, and at 14.4 per cent in 2040. In an optimized, best-case scenario, the MoEP calculated that the plant would reach an operating capacity of only 26.2 per cent in 2040 (two-thirds into its lifespan). Therefore, based on the MoEP’s own calculations, Kenya does not need a 1,050 Mw coal plant.

The PPA commits ratepayers to paying Amu Power KSh37 billion annually for each of the 25 years the plant is expected to operate – a total of KSh900 billion. This capacity payment – approximately KSh100 million every single day – will be paid regardless of how much electricity the plant produces. If the plant is operating, the annual capacity payment is amortised and included in the price we pay per kWh for electricity.  That is significant because the higher the capacity factor, the less we pay per kWh.

The MoEP’s 2020 calculation that in an optimised, best-case scenario, the plant will operate at 26.2 per cent capacity – and not the 85 per cent capacity that Amu Power needs to make their electricity even marginally cost-competitive with geothermal and wind – is thus significant because a change in the capacity factor has more of an impact on the price of electricity from the plant than a change in the price of coal.

Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation.

If the plant operates at 26.2 per cent, the cost of electricity will be KSh19/kWh (using Amu Power’s claim of US$50/tonne). But if we also include a more realistic price of coal (US$77.3/tonne – the actual price in 2014), electricity from the plant would cost KSh20/kWh. Using the most recent highest price of South African coal (US$106/tonne), the cost would be KSh21/kWh, nearly eight times what we are paying now.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalWhen the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) analysed the 2017 MoEP data, it found that the plant would more likely run at between 5 per cent and 34 per cent capacity. If the plant runs at 5 per cent capacity, the price of electricity increases by KSh79.3/kWh, and at 34 per cent capacity, it goes up by KSh7.4/kWh, for a price range of between KSh15.2 and KSh87.1/kWh (assumming coal were miraculously available at US$50/tonne).  If coal were at US$77.3/metric tonne, the price of the electricity generated by the Lamu Coal Plant would be between KSh17/kWh (at 34 per cent capacity) and KSh88/kWh (at 5 per cent capacity).

Cost of electricity based on price of coalPlotting the price of electricity under the MoEP fixed-case scenarios, things look even worse.  At 2.8 per cent capacity – assuming US$$77.3/tonne of coal – electricity from the plant would be KSh154/kWh, at 4.6 per cent it is KSh95/kWh, and at 14.4 per cent it is KSh33/kWh.

This is not looking good for Kenyans. But there are more adjustments needed to generate a more realistic price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant.

3) Hidden Costs:  There are two hidden cost centres that make the economics of the plant even worse for Kenyans – the Power Purchase Agreement itself and unaccounted-for construction costs.

The PPA and Letter of Support signed by the Kenyan government guarantee that Amu Power will be paid KSh37 billion annually for providing a plant to generate electricity – even if the plant does not produce a single kilowatt. These two documents guarantee that the Government of Kenya will pay Amu Power if the plant ceases to operate due to a political event, a change in the law, or a force majeure event including acts of God, epidemics, plagues, terrorism, labour disputes, public unrest, or piracy.

If the Government of Kenya is on the hook for the bill, this means that Kenyans will need to pay extra to ensure that Amu Power makes its profits for the remainder of the 25 years.  Based on the amount of electricity consumed annually in Kenya in 2018 and 2019, paying the KSh37 billion to Amu Power via KPLC would increase the price of electricity by KSh4.6/kWh for 25 years.  We would not be getting even a kilowatt of electricity for this tariff while Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

The other hidden cost is that of construction. In order for the electricity generated in Lamu to be available on the national grid, a transmission line must be built to transport the electricity from Lamu to Nairobi and in order for coal to get from the proposed mine in Kitui, a railway line must be built from Kitui to Lamu. Neither of these costs is included in the price of the plant.

The latest Least Cost Power Development Plan 2020-2040 estimated that the transmission line will cost approximately KSh55.9 billion.  The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) estimates that the railway line will cost KSh290 billion.  In addition, prior to coal being sourced from Kitui, a 15 km conveyor belt must be built to bring the coal that is delivered to the port at Kililana in Lamu to the site of the coal plant at Kwasasi. The ESIA does not provide a cost for the conveyor belt.

Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.  Because the costs for transmission lines and railroads were not included in the formula calculating the price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant that was disclosed in the PPA, we do not know if our electricity bills will increase per kWh to cover the cost of these necessary components of the plant or if, instead, Kenyans will pay for this via taxes. A rough calculation using the formula for electricity pricing shows that if KSh345.9 billion is repaid over 25 years via our utility bills and the plant is operating at 26.2 per cent capacity (the MoEP’s best-case scenario), the cost will increase by an additional KSh6/kWh.

Looking at the reality of the price of coal inputs, plant utilisation, and the full cost of construction, it is clear that the Lamu Coal Plant cannot possibly generate electricity for KSh7.8/kWh. It is much more likely that the electricity from the coal plant will cost KSh26/kWh assuming a more realistic cost of coal (US$77.3/tonne), with the plant running at 26.2 per cent capacity as predicted by the MoEP, and that rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 26.2 per cent capacity factor.

It is possible for the cost to be as low as KSh15/kWh if the cost of coal is US$77.3/tonne and the plant operates at the international average of 54 per cent utilisation, with rail and transmission costs amortised over 54 per cent capacity factor. Or it could be as high as KSh213/kWh if coal costs US$100/tonne, the plant operates at the 2.8 per cent utilisation rate in the MoEP’s lowest fixed-case scenario, and rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 2.8 per cent capacity factor.

Cost of electricity based on price of coal2) Claim:  Coal as an employment creator

The Lamu Coal Plant Environmental Impact Assessment states that the plant will employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people during the 42-month construction period and 400 people during its 25 years of operation.

While on the face of it this seems like a good thing for Kenya, it is important to look closely at the jobs lost due to the construction and operation of the plant, the jobs gained, and who gets these jobs.

To explore this, we can look at the two main industries in Lamu, tourism and fishing. Pre-COVID data found that tourism injects over Ksh2 billion per year into Lamu’s economy and pays over KSh500 million in taxes each year. This sector directly employs more than 3,000 locals in hotels and restaurants and several thousand more as boat operators for the visiting tourists, and tourist guides.

Particulate emissions from the coal plant will result in significant damage to the historic buildings and structures in Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The effluent emissions will cause ocean temperatures to rise, destroying the coral reefs and increasing toxicity which will make it unsafe for tourists and locals to swim, snorkel, and dive.  With the plant in operation, Lamu will no longer be a pristine and unique tourist attraction.

Most significant is the impact of the smoke from the stacks at the plant. The Kaskazi winds blow from October through May, when the island welcomes 80 per cent of its tourists. The winds blow from the northeast – the direction of the plant – and across the archipelago.  This air will carry the toxic, noxious emissions from the plant to Lamu as well as cause haze pollution that will reduce visibility of the shoreline so beloved of tourists and locals.  The Lamu Tourism Association expects that business will drop by at least 80 per cent due to this pollution.  As such, the industry expects to lose, at a minimum, 2,400 jobs. There are not many alternative sources of income in Lamu and most of these people will be permanently unemployed.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.

The approximately 6,000 people who derive their livelihoods from participating in Lamu’s KSh1.5 billion fishing industry will be similarly affected.  Most are local fishermen who use hand-crafted fishing boats and equipment to fish close to the shoreline.

The plant’s emissions and effluent, and the leachate from coal ash waste which is to be stored in a flood zone along Manda Bay, will increase the nitrogen content, water temperature, and heavy metals and carcinogens in the bay. This will negatively impact the quantity, quality, and health of fish and shellfish.

As the water in the bay becomes inhospitable for fish, the industry will move farther into the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the boats and equipment used by most of the local fishermen are not appropriate for deep ocean fishing. The move to deeper waters also leads to a transformation and consolidation in the industry where larger companies with petroleum-based deep-sea fishing vessels make it noncompetitive for local independent fishermen even if they were to obtain the necessary boats and equipment.  In addition, not as many fishermen are needed on the commercial vessels and few locals will be able to retain their jobs. The work requirements on a commercial fishing boat are such that the Chair of the Lamu Beach Management Unit estimates that only 1 per cent of current fishermen will find work on commercial vessels and that 70 per cent of local fishermen will completely lose their livelihoods.  The rest of the fishermen are expected to find other, non-fishing, work locally.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation. But they are not transparent about who will get these jobs.

If built, the Lamu Coal Plant would be the first in East Africa. This means that, as a country, we do not have the experience and expertise needed to be among the skilled workforce that will get the better-paying jobs. The coal plant’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment confirms that 1,700 Chinese expatriates will construct the coal plant leaving us with between 300 and 1,300 jobs to allocate to Kenyans during the construction phase of 3.5 years — less than half what was promised, even in a best-case scenario. The jobs allocated to Kenyans are not skilled labour and do not make up for the thousands who will have lost their livelihoods due to the impacts from the plant.

The ESIA states that the plant will employ 400 people once it is operational. It does not disclose how many of these positions will be technical, requiring experience and expertise that we do not yet have, nor how many will be unskilled jobs – such as coal handling, which comes with health risks – given to Kenyans. Even so, 400 jobs over 25 years neither reemploys the number of local fishermen and people in the tourism industry who will have lost their jobs due to the plant, nor reduces current levels of unemployment in the region.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation.

The plant will therefore create job opportunities for expatriates at the expense of thousands of fishermen and locals who are dependent on fishing and tourism as a source of employment while creating – at best – 1,700 jobs over a 25-year period and causing approximately 4,200 job losses in the fishing industry and 2,400 in tourism – a net loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.

3) Claim:  Coal will help Kenya transform into a manufacturing economy 

Manufacturing is one pillar of President Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda. The government’s aim is to raise the contribution of manufacturing to GDP from the current for 9.4 per cent of constant-price [inflation-adjusted] GDP to 20 per cent of GDP by 2022. Amu Power has sold the point that coal provides inexpensive baseload power that is required to boost Kenyan manufacturing to achieve President Kenyatta’s goals. Baseload electricity is the electricity that is always available to commercial and residential consumers. Coal plants run 24-7 so historically they have been used for baseload electricity (as have natural gas and diesel turbines). In contrast, wind and solar are considered intermittent sources of electricity because wind does not blow and the sun does not shine 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

But Amu Power ignored two things:  1) there are less expensive options for baseload power in Kenya and 2) coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya.

1) There are less expensive options. Amu Power’s claim that Kenya needs coal for its baseload electricity ignores both that coal is more expensive per kilowatt hour than natural gas and wind power and – more significantly for Kenya – that it is cost competitive with geothermal. Kenya has among the highest geothermal potential in the world – 7,000 to 10,000 MW.  Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is available for electricity generation 24 hours per day, every day of the year. Unlike coal, it is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

Kenya’s Least Cost Power Development Plan 2017-2037 states that the price of power from geothermal plants is, on average, about a third the cost of electricity from coal: US$10 cents/kWh compared to US$29.5 cents/kWh.  Because geothermal (like wind and sunshine) is free, it is less expensive in the long-term than coal-fired electricity (and has none of the environmental impacts of coal which increase the community’s burden of costs for environmental clean-up and healthcare due to increased cases of pulmonary and cardiac diseases).

Unlike coal, geothermal energy is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

2) Coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya. Considering more realistic capacity factors and the prices of coal, rail, and transmission lines, the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant ranges from KSh15 to KSh213/kWh (instead of the KSh2.58/kWh commercial enterprises paid for FCC in January 2021).  If the Lamu Coal Plant is built, the price of electricity for industry could be more than ten times higher than what they are currently paying (in January 2021, commercial consumers paid between Ksh14.61 and KSh23.82 per kWh of electricity).

In order to manufacture with such electricity costs, the prices of goods produced in Kenya would also have to increase, rendering Kenyan products uncompetitive locally and undesirable on international markets.

Conclusion

None of the three claims made by Amu Power to convince the government that Kenyans not only need, but will benefit from, a coal plant hold up under examination.  Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation, causing dramatic increases in our electricity bills. The Lamu Coal Plant will create jobs for Chinese expat workers and cause an overall loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.  The cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant will make manufacturing in Kenya so expensive that not only will the country not deliver on the president’s Big Four Agenda, but Kenyan goods will become non-competitive on local, regional, and international markets.

The poor economics of the Lamu Coal Plant will be disastrous for Kenya’s economy. It will make electricity unaffordable for most Kenyans and will eliminate competitive growth in the manufacturing sector. Furthermore, with the Lamu Coal Plant saddling Kenyans with billions in debt and hundreds of megawatts of expensive excess generation capacity, the Kenyan government will be prevented from investing in sustainable, low-cost, local sources of electricity generation, hampering the country’s economic development for decades.

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BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities

The issues that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have identified as bedevilling the country have already been assigned by the constitution or the law to existing and established state agencies.

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BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities
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The phrase “compounding illegalities” aptly describes the approach and processes taken by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to change the constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

The following have been the defining processes for BBI thus far. One, the formation of the BBI Steering Committee and Taskforce; two, the decision that the mandate of the BBI is to propose constitutional reforms; three, the decision that BBI constitutional amendments will be introduced through a popular initiative; four, submission of the BBI Bill and verification of its support by the IEBC; five, the referendum path being scripted by BBI proponents. Each of these steps has been riddled with a myriad of illegalities.

Let us discuss these processes one at a time.

BBI taskforce

The BBI Taskforce was born out of the opaque “truce” between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta following the dramatic swearing in of Raila Odinga as the People’s President on 9 March 2018 that was presided over by Miguna Miguna. It is unclear the extent of the considerations that placated Raila and led him to the “handshake” with Uhuru at a time when he professed that everything he stood for was diametrically opposed to Uhuru’s beliefs. What was made public, however, were the nine issues that the two identified as afflicting Kenya’s democracy. The issues ranged from ethnic antagonism to a lack of a national ethos with regard to corruption.

The launch of the BBI Steering Committee soon followed on 24 May 2018. The membership of the Steering Committee was drawn from Uhuru and Raila’s long-term loyalists, with persons considered politically non-controversial included to give the membership a veneer of diversity. The Steering Committee had only three terms of reference: (i) evaluate the national challenges identified in the BBI (handshake) communiqué and make recommendations on the necessary “reforms that build lasting national unity”; (ii) draw up policy and administrative reform proposals to address the challenges identified, and (iii) consult with members of the public.

After it issued its first report, the Steering Committee’s term was extended on 20 January 2020 and its description was changed to a Taskforce. Its revised terms of reference were to conduct public participation to validate its report. However, a mischievous mandate was sneaked into the Taskforce work: “proposing constitutional reforms”.

I must pause here and identify how, even this early in the process, Uhuru violated the constitution and the law. The illegalities are at least at three levels. First, all the nine issues that he and Raila identified as bedevilling the country were already issues assigned by the constitution or the law to already existing and established state agencies. Let us sample a few. One – ethnic antagonism and inclusivity are the mainstay functions of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC). Two – corruption is the single issue assigned to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC). Three – the constitution and other laws have already established all manner of agencies and structures to deal with every aspect of devolution, including the Summit (the body bringing together the president and all governors), the Inter-governmental Relations Technical Committee and the Inter-governmental Budget and Economic Council. Finally, we already have institutions – ranging from the IEBC, the NCIC, and the judiciary among others – to deal with electoral justice.

Essentially, what Uhuru did in establishing the Steering Committee and Taskforce to deal with his and Raila’s nine issues was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions and hand them over to a select group of friends and loyalists to steer.

But there are those who will argue that part of Uhuru’s constitutional mandate as the President and Head of State is to foster national unity and it is therefore within his powers to appoint a taskforce to assist with this constitutional task. But this argument misses the fundamental point that the President is required to be the first in line to respect the functional mandate of the institutions established by the constitution and the law and not to do anything that undermines or minimises their authority.

The second level of illegality has to do with how Uhuru and Raila settled on members of the taskforce. The constitution insists that, with the exception of the personal staff of the president and his deputy, anyone selected to undertake a public function by and for the executive must undergo a merit-based and competitive selection process. This is to ensure that those assigned public duties are qualified to do what they are assigned to do and are not just sycophants of the appointing authority.

Essentially, what Uhuru did was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions.

The third illegality is unilaterally starting a consequential constitutional revision project without first creating a legal framework to guide the process. Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice and assigning the work to a taskforce that is not accountable to the people. Worse, the fact that the constitutional mandate was sneaked into the terms of reference of the taskforce at the last minute only aggravates the disregard Uhuru has for the law.

Popular initiative

The constitution provides two pathways to its amendment. The first is through a parliamentary initiative. The second is the popular initiative. The parliamentary pathway to amending the constitution largely mirrors the manner in which regular laws are introduced in parliament. Ordinarily, and ideally, the executive formulates policy on an issue. That policy is transmitted to the office of the attorney general who works in tandem with parliament to translate it into a draft law. The draft is then introduced in parliament by a member of parliament – ordinarily the majority leader or a member of a political party aligned to the executive.

There is logic to this process. Parliament exists largely to ensure that whatever action is taken by the executive is regulated by law. Ensuring that every action of the state derives its authority from the law is essentially what the principle of the rule of law is all about. But, importantly, the law-making function of parliament is intended to restrain the executive or other arms of government from transgressing on areas not assigned to them or undertaking their work in a way that is inimical to the principles of constitutionalism and rule of law. Hence, the law-making power of parliament is not passive but, at its core, involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power and sufficient guidance to those charged with implementing public responsibilities.

But how does this relate to the popular initiative process? The point here is that the constitution created the parliamentary initiative process for use by state actors including the executive and this is the path the constitution expects Uhuru and other government actors to take if they want to amend the constitution.

Why then the popular initiative process?

The constitution created this path for the people who do not wield state power to initiate the process of changing the constitution. Understanding the popular initiative as the people’s pathway to amending the constitution is critical for a number of reasons. To start with, it reaffirms the constitutional principle of sovereignty of the people – giving the people a pathway to changing the constitution that is not at the mercy of the political leadership.

The second reason is perhaps the most relevant given our circumstances and experience with the BBI thus far. The constitution and the law intend that the person or persons sponsoring amendments through the popular initiative fully bear the costs and inconveniences of initially mobilising the required threshold of at least one million voters to support the proposed amendment. It is only after the promoters deliver the bill and the supporting signatures to the IEBC that the constitution requires that state agencies – starting with the IEBC – engage with and deploy state resources in processing the bill and other ensuing procedures.

Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice.

When the state hijacks the popular initiative process it unfairly inverts power relations between the people and the ruling elites. It also negates the entire constitutional intention of creating a popular initiative pathway since the use of state resources by state officers in order to popularise and attain the initial support of at least one million voters is unfair and discriminatory because similar public resources are not available to the people – who have no favour with the state – when pushing for amendments through the popular initiative.

Briefly, not only did Uhuru violate the law by hijacking the popular initiative pathway to amending the constitution when the law required him to use the parliamentary initiative pathway, but he has also abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

IEBC verification and approval by county assemblies

The constitution imposes three foundational obligations on the IEBC as an independent constitutional commission: to protect the sovereignty of the people; to secure observance of democratic values and principles by all state organs; and to promote constitutionalism. However, the IEBC’s handling of the BBI process goes against these obligations. The violations range from caving into undue pressure from the promoters of BBI, failing to observe the basic requirements of verification of signatures, using a makeshift administrative (legal) framework that was promulgated without complying with the law and, worse, violating the provisions of that framework.

Let us start with the lack of a proper legal framework. There is no law that guides the IEBC in its verification of signatures or any other aspects entrusted to it in processing the request to amend the constitution through a popular initiative. Yet there are very many issues where it is unclear  what the IEBC can or cannot do with regard to a popular initiative to amend the constitution. A law or proper guidance from the court is necessary if for no other reason other than to render IEBC actions legal.

A few examples of the gaps will suffice here. Although the constitution requires that a popular initiative have “supporting signatures” and that the IEBC will then “verify that the initiative is supported by at least one million registered voters”, given that the IEBC does not maintain a database of signatures of voters, it is unclear how it should undertake the verification exercise or what it would actually verify. Similarly, it is unclear whether the IEBC has an obligation to provide the public with information about who signed to support the popular initiative, and if so, through which medium.

Yes, the IEBC does not make law. That is the work of parliament. However, the IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law. Where parliament refuses or fails to enact a guiding law, the IEBC has the option to go to court to seek guidance, especially given the importance of the process.

The law-making power of parliament is not passive but involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power.

An illustration is necessary here. In 2014, when the Embu County Assembly impeached Governor Martin Wambora it quickly noticed that, while the constitution allowed the deputy governor to take over the governor’s position, there was no national law to determine how the arising vacancy of a deputy governor would be filled. Parliament, which has the authority to pass such a law, had not done so. The County Assembly moved to the Supreme Court to ask for guidance. The Supreme Court provided that guidance because it found that both the position of the governor and of the deputy were so crucial “to the operations of County Government, it is inconceivable that, constitutionally, they could remain fallow until the next cycle of a general election.” Equally, the amendment of the constitution is too crucial a matter for the IEBC to allow itself to rely on guesswork when it has all along had the option to seek authoritative guidance from the Supreme Court.

What the IEBC has done is to illegally arrogate itself law-making powers by cobbling together some vague administrative procedures that it claims to use to guide its verification process.

But this is where it gets even more interesting. The IEBC failed to follow even its own procedures when verifying BBI signatures. First, its administrative procedures require it to compile and publish the list of supporters on its portal for two weeks. The procedures further allow it to receive complaints from members of the public whose information is either wrongly included or is excluded. However, the IEBC was in such haste to facilitate the BBI bill that it published the names for only four days before forwarding it to the County Assemblies.

Lack of a regulatory framework to guide a constitutional amendment driven by a popular initiative not only affects the IEBC but also nearly every step of the process. For example, there is no law that guides the county assemblies on how they should undertake the crucial step of approving the amendment bill. In fact, in 2019, the High Court ordered parliament to enact a law to seal this legislative lacuna. Again, parliament has failed to pass that law.

Yet, it is quite ironical that when the two Speakers – Justin Muturi and Ken Lusaka – were notifying parliament that it would start the process of considering the BBI bill they loudly stated that even parliament did not have the necessary law of parliamentary procedures to guide its own procedure of processing the bill. The Speakers had a quick solution to this – make up the rules and procedures as you go. Then parliamentarians were quite surprised when their process quickly hit a snag as they were unsure whether they were permitted to amend the BBI bill or not.

Uhuru violated the law and abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

Admittedly, there are currently two unsatisfactory bills pending in parliament intended to guide the entire constitutional amendment process – including how to resolve issues relating to preparing for and conducting the referendum. Those bills are full of regulatory gaps including the procedure in parliament. Still, instead of parliament prioritising the passing of these laws, it is focussing on pushing the BBI bill through. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

But why does passing a law to regulate the process matter?  Because that is what rule of law is all about – the authority to exercise public power must find its validity in a rule, a law. Law provides a framework through which those entrusted with public power to undertake certain processes can be objectively audited for compliance with the law and the constitution. Discretion, especially unregulated discretion, only breeds anarchy. It allows those with power to manipulate public processes for their own personal gain. In many ways, that is the story of BBI.

Crystal-balling future violations

The BBI bill is now before parliament. There are a few things that should be constitutionally clear about how parliament should process the bill. First, and unlike most county assemblies which voted for the bill using a single motion to approve it, parliament must subject the bill to the rigours of the mandatory three readings that bills undergo in parliament before they become law. This is because, under the constitution, parliament has the ultimate responsibility to pass the constitutional amendments into law – especially where a referendum may be unnecessary. The enormity of this responsibility demands that it must use a proper, predictable, accountable and constitutionally compliant procedure.

Second, parliament has the obligation to facilitate adequate public participation. The constitution requires that, for a constitutional amendment proposed through a parliamentary initiative, the period provided by parliament for public participation should not be less 90 days. Yet, this minimum timeline is constitutionally ring-fenced between the first and second reading of the bill. Similar timelines should apply for a popular initiative and for parliament’s passing of the BBI bill. However, Parliament has already indicated it will not comply with this timeline because Uhuru and Raila have imposed a deadline for passing the BBI bill.

Third, the bill is passed by parliament if it is supported by a majority of members in both houses. This is important. A majority of members means at least over 50 per cent of all members of each house and not just those present in parliament at the time of voting.

But given the extent to which promoters of the BBI bill have already violated the constitution, and the haste with which they are pushing for the bill to pass, it is highly conceivable that parliament will violate the very clear rules and expectations of the constitution. Parliament has already committed the first sin by rushing public participation.

Another likely BBI illegality will relate to the referendum. As it is, the BBI bill cannot avoid a referendum because it is packed with issues that require a referendum based on Article 255 of the constitution. This includes re-organisation of the executive, changing the composition and roles of the National Assembly and the Senate, and numerous issues concerning devolution and tampering with the independence of autonomous institutions. There is much more.

At least two violations relating to the referendum are being primed. The first is the possibility that BBI proponents – and especially the president – will only designate certain matters to go to referendum and insist that those issues not submitted to the referendum are adopted into the constitution regardless of the outcome of the referendum. This is problematic because the constitution provides that “if a bill to amend the constitution proposes an amendment relating to a matter” that requires a referendum, the president cannot assent to the bill until after the referendum is held. This means that if the bill is not approved through a referendum the entirety of the amendment bill fails.

The IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law.

But in the case of the BBI bill, there is a more fundamental problem which makes it impossible to reconcile the process concerning the referendum and assent. The BBI bill has always been constitutionally irredeemably defective in its content. Irredeemably defective because a bill to amend the constitution – either though a parliamentary or a popular initiative – should not contain more than one matter. Essentially, it was illegal for BBI promoters to include in one bill so many unrelated issues. Each issue should have gone into a separate bill. This is actually the issue I should have started this analysis with because the point I am making here is that the BBI bill that was force-fed to the IEBC, bribed through the county assemblies and is now being walked through Parliament has – in its content – been unconstitutional from the start.

This brings me to the second likely violation concerning the referendum that we can expect and this is what the BBI proponents have told us already; the BBI referendum will field only one question. This is wrong. Firstly, the law already authorises multiple questions and leaves that decision to the IEBC to make. Secondly, not only was it unconstitutional for BBI proponents to include in the amendment bill a myriad unrelated changes but demanding that only one question be presented at the referendum will be aggravating this cardinal sin.

It is not over yet

When on 8 February 2021 the High Court issued orders restraining the IEBC from facilitating and subjecting the BBI bill to a referendum, it made a fundamental observation. It observed that that rushing the bill through the various stages “does not inoculate the resultant proposed constitutional amendment from the possibility that it could yet, upon final disposition of these Petitions, be declared invalid.” The litany of violations of the constitution that litter the path the BBI has travelled would make a great mockery of the constitution if the amendments proposed by BBI are eventually pronounced to be part of the Kenya 2010 Constitution.

Ultimately, the passing of the BBI will represent the moment that tested whether Kenyans recognise that the supremacy of the constitution, rule of law and the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the 2010 Constitution are not mere words. It will be the true and defining moment pitting the people against a gluttonous, insatiable and incorrigible ruling elite.

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