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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

Museveni’s Paradox, Class Dynamics and the Rise of Hustler Politics in Uganda

In this long-read, Liam Taylor explores the politics and class dynamics of Kampala, Uganda. Taylor unpicks the enigma of Yoweri Museveni’s background – a former student militant who was taught by Walter Rodney, and argued for the necessity of revolutionary violence, socialism and radical transformations. Yet he soon became the apostle of neoliberal change, always promising that real change was forthcoming.

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Museveni’s Paradox, Class Dynamics and the Rise of Hustler Politics in Uganda
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During thunderstorms in Kampala the rainwater comes rushing down the hillsides in torrents, through clogged drainage ditches and silty channels, inundating the valleys with sudden floods. The rich make their homes on the hilltops, where the rain runs off their paved compounds. The poor crowd into the wetlands, in one-roomed mizigo rentals sometimes built with small brick walls around the doorway, to hold back the impending tide. In Luganda, an ordinary person is omuntu wa wansi, literally, a “person from down”. It is a metaphor that maps onto the very contours of the city.

The ruptures in Ugandan politics can be seen in the contrast between those valleys and hilltops. January’s tumultuous election was a generational contest and a struggle against dictatorial power.  But it was also an eruption of class politics, embodied by the rise of Robert Kyagulanyi, a popstar-turned-politician best known as Bobi Wine. “If parliament will not come to the ghetto,” he said when elected MP in 2017, “then the ghetto will come to parliament.”

For Yoweri Museveni, now in his 36th year of rule, this upsurge is baffling. His self-proclaimed mission is to haul Uganda out of the sectarian logic of peasant society into the industrial age. In that brave new world, class would replace religion and ethnicity as the axis along which politics was organised. But the distortions of his rule have instead perpetuated old logics and blocked economic transformation, creating alternative forms of urban class politics that he can neither understand nor control. This long-read explores the politics and class dynamics of Museveni’s rule.

The next section explores Museveni’s sociological understanding of politics. Subsequent sections examine how its premises are undermined by the economic realities of neoliberalism and the rise of the “hustling class”. The conclusion considers how Museveni maintains his power in the Uganda he has created.

It’s not like in genesis chapter one

In the 1960s the western region of Nkore was going through a social upheaval. The spread of Christianity and colonial education had reconfigured relations between the high-status, cattle-keeping Bahima and the lowlier Bairu cultivators. Cash-cropping and enclosures were fuelling land conflicts. Politics had fractured along religious and ethnic lines.

The young Museveni was a schoolboy in Nkore at the time. He wrote later of his “revulsion at the sectarian politics in Ankole [which] was a microcosm of the sad story of political sectarianism in the whole of Uganda”. In 1967, when he enrolled at the University of Dar es Salaam, he found the intellectual tools to make sense of his experiences. Campus life was a cauldron of socialist and pan-African politics. Museveni attended a study group taught by Walter Rodney, and argued for the necessity of revolutionary violence in his dissertation on Frantz Fanon.

Museveni’s formative years in Nkore and Dar have shaped his politics ever since. They instilled in him the teleological notion that society progresses in stages from “backwardness” to “modernity”.  As a young man in Nkore he had trekked between kraals, encouraging nomadic cattle-keepers to “modernise” and  settle down. In Dar he learned a certain version of Marx’s historical materialism, with its dialectic unfolding from feudalism to capitalism to the coming era of communism. But he saw that if history had a direction, it could also be thrown off course. He thought that the petty local divisions in Nkore and the great divisions in African society had opened the door to imperialists and left the peasants poor.

In his speeches, Museveni still reiterates these themes of modernisation and unity. And yet they ring hollow. The long war he waged against the Lord’s Resistance Army has left a legacy of trauma and dispossession in the Acholi region of the north. In the Rwenzori mountains families mourn more than 150 people who were massacred by the army in 2016. There is resentment almost everywhere against the westerners, especially Bahima, who dominate the security apparatus. Division endures.

How can we reconcile Museveni’s political thought with his political practice?  The temptation is to reach for psychology: to insist either that he was a imposter from the start, or a young idealist corrupted by the spoils of office. But a better solution to the Museveni enigma lies in political economy. One way to read Uganda’s predicament is as a dialogue between Museveni’s ideas, refracted through militarism, and the international economic order which confronted him.

Museveni was never a liberal. Political competition is dangerous, in his view, because opportunists will sow division for personal gain. After fighting his way to power in 1986, he established a system of “no-party democracy”, in which candidates stood for office without party affiliation. His own National Resistance Movement (NRM) was to be the all-encompassing arena of politics, containing the fractures which had once torn the country apart. Calls for multiparty democracy were missing the point, he told other African leaders in 1990. Democracy was like water, which can exist as liquid, vapour or ice: “Yes, I need water, but let me determine the form which I want to use.”

Museveni, with his Marxist training, believed that political institutions were hostage to the material circumstances of their time. “A society like ours here is still preindustrial,” he said at Makerere University in 1991, “which means that it is still primarily a tribal society, and that its stratification is, therefore, vertical. In an industrialised society, on the other hand, you have horizontal linkages and, therefore, horizontal stratification.” For example, British workers had united around their common class interests, rather than their English, Scottish or Welsh identities. “An industrialised society is really a class society,” Museveni continued. “A multiparty system in an industrialised society is likely to be national, while the propensity of a similar arrangement in a preindustrial society is likely to be sectarian.”

That rather self-serving logic underpinned Museveni’s view that the wrong sort of democracy, too soon, threatens cohesion and thus hinders modernisation.  Even after a multiparty system was restored in 2005 – partly as a quid pro quo for the lifting of presidential term limits – the NRM remained the substrate of local politics. The leading opposition force, the Forum for Democratic Change, had itself splintered off from the ruling party. Politicians such as Kizza Besigye, the FDC’s tireless leader, were hounded by the police. They were treated less as rivals than as enemies of the state.

How do Museveni’s disciples think today? Last August, I spoke with David Mafabi, a presidential advisor and NRM ideologue. In 2017 he had convened a meeting to plot the removal of an age limit from the constitution – the last legal obstacle to Museveni ruling for life.

“We are a nation in the process of becoming, an unstable multinational entity,” Mafabi told me, in the same restaurant where that notorious meeting was held. “Democracy, constitutionalism, are not acts of creation. It’s not like in Genesis chapter one: let there be prosperity, stability and everything. No, it cannot be like that.”

NRM activists buzzed around us in canary-yellow shirts. “With the advent of industrialisation, the advent of capitalism, you’ve had individuals who have acted as midwives so to speak of new societies,” Mafabi continued. “And sub-Saharan African countries are generally overall at that point… Leadership in such societies gravitates around the charismatic, visionary leaders, who in themselves express the objective needs of societies at those critical times.” He listed examples. Cromwell. Washington. Napoleon.

A technocrat’s dream

In 1984 the British journalist William Pike went to meet Museveni in the bush. He found a self-confident guerrilla in faded fatigues with a “faraway look in his eyes… the look of a dreamer, a revolutionary”. But Museveni was also the kind of man who would spend an evening debating exchange rate policy. Minutiae obsessed him.

What kind of economic policy could Ugandans expect when, eighteen months later, a victorious Museveni was sworn in as president? Nobody really knew. Many NRM leaders assumed that their Marxist commander would not allow them to own land or businesses, writes Matthew Rukikaire, who had chaired the movement’s external committee during the war. It was only when Museveni himself started buying up cattle ranches that his comrades “breathed a sigh of relief and followed suit”.

Like many post-colonial intellectuals, Museveni had always been a nationalist first, and a Marxist second. “Socialism is not the main issue for Africa,” he told Pike in the bush, “the crucial issue is disengagement from strangulation by foreign interests.” Perceptive rivals poured scorn on Museveni’s radical credentials. As early as 1980, the socialist thinker Dani Wadada Nabudere dismissed Museveni and his comrades as “petty bourgeois anti-Marxist reactionaries”.

In power, Museveni initially resisted IMF-inspired structural adjustment, and even bartered with Cuba. But with inflation running at 191%, and foreign aid funding half of government expenditure, he soon changed course. “In his search for the new Jerusalem, President Museveni went to the precipice, peered over the edge and did not like what he saw,” writes Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, a liberal economist and the most influential technocrat of the Museveni era. “It was scary. That is why he will never go back.”

How do Museveni’s disciples think today? Last August, I spoke with David Mafabi, a presidential advisor and NRM ideologue. In 2017 he had convened a meeting to plot the removal of an age limit from the constitution – the last legal obstacle to Museveni ruling for life.

The Cold War was over. Free market ideology was at its zenith, pushed aggressively by the West. A new constitution and elections were still several years away. “Uganda was effectively a ‘benign dictatorship’,” write two foreign economists who worked as advisors to the Ugandan government in the 1990s. “The next few years were a technocrat’s dream.”

The government cut spending, crushed inflation and halved the number of public servants in just four years. The shilling was allowed to float freely. Foreign investors were welcomed with generous tax breaks. Between 1992 and 2007 the state sold its stake in 90 public enterprises, in sectors such as telecoms, banking, hotels, power, agro-industry and railways. Museveni still quoted “our friend Mao Tse-Tung” at startled World Bank officials, but his policies had made him a poster child for the Washington Consensus. When debt relief was granted to the Global South in the 1990s, Uganda was the first country to benefit.

And some things did get better. The proportion of Uganda’s population living below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line fell from 58% in 1989 to 36% in 2012. Over the same period, GDP growth averaged 6.9% a year, faster than in Singapore. Museveni lapped up praise – and money – from the Western governments that bankrolled him. The Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby described Tumusiime-Mutebile, the top civil servant in a new economic super-ministry and later central bank governor, as “the greatest contributor to Africa’s struggle against poverty in his generation”.

But reforms premised on the power of the market were simultaneously blind to its failures. The withdrawal of the state from coffee marketing gave farmers a greater share of the export price, but meant they got little support to improve quality or withstand disease. Reduced tariffs on garments led to a flood of cheap imports, swamping domestic industry. The sale of parastatals was opaque and allegedly corrupt. Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh was tangled up in several notorious deals, from the sell-off of a state bank to the privatisation of cargo handling at Entebbe airport (the latter with Sam Kutesa, the president’s in-law, who was investment minister at the time).

There was a deeper problem too. Arthur Lewis, the St Lucian economist, famously observed that poor countries become rich ones through a process of structural transformation, as workers move from subsistence activities into more productive sectors. In east Asia, this kind of industrial revolution was steered by an activist state. But Museveni’s Uganda instead became a test case for neoliberal reform in Africa, with all of its achievements and failures: low inflation, industrial torpor, precarious employment, and the expansion of the informal services sector. There was some initial export diversification and manufacturing growth, especially in areas such as food processing, but by the mid-2000s progress had stalled (some recent experiments with industrial parks notwithstanding). As a share of employment, industry has shrunk. Poverty is rising again.

“The historical mission of the NRM,” Museveni said last year, “is to make the Ugandan jump on the historical bus of machine power and gunpowder power… and, as a consequence, cause the metamorphosis of our society into a middle class, skilled working [class] society and away from the society of peasants, low skill artisans and a miniscule and powerless feudal class.” By that standard, although he did not say it, his government has failed. The people hustle, as best they can: flogging second-hand clothes, baking bricks, hawking herbal supplements, burning charcoal, cultivating wetlands, or toiling in Arab countries as maids and guards. If Ugandans have jumped on any machine in the Museveni era it is the boda-boda, the motorbike taxi, spluttering over hills and round potholes, choking out fumes and frustration.  Museveni had once argued that economic transformation would create European-style class politics, which would make true multipartyism possible. But an industrial revolution has not come to pass. And so, by Museveni’s logic, democracy must wait.

The rich eat chicken but it is tasteless

But society is not static. Urban growth, a youth bulge and the informalisation of labour are producing new economic relations and identities. And perhaps the most important of these is the hustler, scraping by in the interstices of the city. In elite eyes, the hustler is an irritant and a threat. Intellectuals sneer about the “lumpen proletariat”. In Luganda, the lingua franca of the Bantu south, the hustler is often caricatured as a muyaaye (plural: bayaaye, adjective: -yaaye): a marijuana-smoker, a trickster, a thug.

Hustles, in many guises, have been around since the era of magendo, the black-market that flourished under Idi Amin. In those days Museveni was in Tanzania, trying to recruit Ugandan exiles into his guerrilla army. “These boys,” he wrote of one batch of idle recruits, “had mostly been working in towns like Nairobi and had a kiyaaye (lumpen proletariat) culture… They would start drinking and moving out of the camps.” He concluded that true peasants, uncorrupted by city life, were a more pliable material to work with.

But under Museveni’s rule the hustling class grew like never before. It was the hustlers – and not an industrial proletariat – that became the lifeblood of urban culture. By the late 1990s, when cheap recording equipment became available in makeshift studios, they were ready to take over the music scene, displacing the rustic kadongo kamu troubadours and imported Congolese soukous. “Eh, I remember in ’96 they called us bayaaye from Kamwokya,” sang one dreadlocked bad boy, mixing English, Luganda and street slang. “They said we stayed in the ghetto, in ramshackle houses, that we are failures / They say me come from a poor family / They don’t know ghetto life is the best.”

That singer was Bobi Wine, the man who now poses the greatest threat to Museveni’s regime. His People Power movement has been characterised, with varying degrees of accuracy, as a youth rebellion, a freedom struggle, or a rejection of Bahima dominance. But it is also, significantly, a class revolt. Bobi Wine – whose family had fallen into the ghetto, and who has long since clambered out – is the great rhapsodist of ghetto life, of its indignities, its promise. “Born hustling,” as he himself has said.

But under Museveni’s rule the hustling class grew like never before. It was the hustlers – and not an industrial proletariat – that became the lifeblood of urban culture.

The message is in the music. In “Ghetto”, released before a summit of Commonwealth leaders in Kampala: “Now see in Katwe that on the day the Queen comes, the poor man is cleared away.” In “Kikomando”, named after a cheap snack of beans and chapatti: “Sometimes you sleep hungry, sometimes you eat kikomando / and you think that God forgot about you / the rich are many and drive cars / they eat chicken but it is tasteless.” In “Situka”, the 2016 overture to his political career: “When leaders become misleaders and mentors become tormentors / when freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression / opposition becomes our position.”

These songs were an affirmation of all those who had been kicked down, boxed in, shut out. Young men like Rajabu Bukenya, from the flood-prone ghetto of Bwaise, in northern Kampala. Slight and neatly-bearded, he introduced himself to me by his street name: “Rasta Man e Bwaise Mulya Kimu” (Rasta Man in Bwaise who eats once a day). He dropped out in the third grade of secondary school, unable to afford the fees, and found work as a porter, lugging sand and bricks. These days he runs a small laundry business, and spends his spare time calling radio stations with the ten phones that he carries in his pocket.

“Bobi Wine also came from the ghetto – that’s why the people in the ghetto love him so much,” said Bukenya. “The pain they have, even Bobi Wine passed through that pain… Eating once a day, eating kikomando: in Uganda people don’t have money for food, they just eat chapatti and beans… We have nowhere to go. We have no money to buy land, to build a house. And the land we had in the village? The government took our land in the village.”

Another example: dawn, December last year, in Bobi Wine’s expansive garden, and a cluster of young women who had come to campaign with him. “I’m among those who are the oppressed Ugandans,” said Gloria Mugerwa, draped in a red gown. “The poor can’t access the medical facilities, the poor cannot access the education facilities.” She and her friends had worked as maids in Arab countries where, said Mugerwa, “you are treated as a slave”. In Bobi Wine she saw hope. “He has been through it, and he can help us through this.”

There can be a millenarian tinge to this sentiment: a naïve sense that if only Museveni were gone then Ugandans would “walk with swag”, as the People Power movement’s unofficial anthem goes. Despite his mural of Thomas Sankara and fondness for pan-African iconography, Bobi Wine and his closest associates do not seem especially curious about the dynamics of global capitalism. Yet the radical potential of the movement lies less in the singer himself than in the forces he represents.

Class dynamics have long rumbled beneath opposition politics, from the career of Nasser Sebaggala, a populist mayor of Kampala between 2006 and 2011, to the crowds that thronged behind Besigye. But it has burst to the surface in Bobi Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, which is an uneasy alliance of young intellectuals, opposition stalwarts, the petit bourgeoisie and the hustling class. In the constituency of Kawempe North the party selected as its candidate Muhammad Ssegirinya, a former restaurant cleaner known as “Mr Updates” for his voluble social media presence. He beat off more established rivals for the party ticket, including a former deputy mayor, who has since accused Ssegirinya of forging his exam certificates – a telling line of attack. Bobi Wine, whose own academic credentials have also been questioned, once told me that Ssegirinya’s selection was evidence of “a system that drops the powerful and elevates the unknown”.

Even the NRM elite can feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. A year ago, I met Mike Mukula, a former health minister who fell from grace after he was accused of stealing money intended for medicines. These days he flies helicopters, drives fast cars and serves as one of Museveni’s vice-chairmen in the NRM.

Mukula laid out the classic Musevenist argument. “You know the British have a class setting, the haves and the have-nots – this is what was lacking in the African continent,” he explained in his Kampala villa, as servants laid out lunch. But something was changing. “Now there is this cluster of a new group, which was not there. I call them the urban lumpen proletariat. If you see most of those people who are on drugs, who are musicians, and so on and so forth – that group… Now they see the Museveni group like us having these houses, the vehicles, being in power for some time.” He sank back in his white leather armchair. These rabble-rousers were a “formation in its infancy”, he sniffed, without structure, organisation or ideology.

And that would also seem to be the view of Museveni himself, who has admonished Bobi Wine for focusing too much on the “lumpen proletariat” and “the bayaaye in Kampala”. Perhaps, in his mind’s eye, the old general thinks back to that cohort of recruits on a Tanzanian training ground. When he looks at Bobi Wine he sees a distracted cadet, with no place in his never-ending revolution.

More dangerous than AIDS and Ebola combined

Museveni should re-read Fanon, who wrote of the “lumpen proletariat” with a mixture of horror and awe. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican intellectual argued that the anti-colonial struggle will find a foothold in cities among those who have “not yet succeeded in finding a bone to gnaw in the colonial system… It is within this mass of humanity, this people of the shanty towns, at the core of the lumpen proletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead. For the lumpen proletariat, that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonised people.”

If this was true of the late colonial metropolis, is it not more so of the twenty-first century city, sculpted by corruption, militarism and neoliberalism? On 18 and 19th November last year, after Bobi Wine was arrested on the campaign trail, Kampala exploded in uproar. Young men lit fires, threw rocks, shook down motorists: this was, in the words of veteran journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, “an anger bubbling among the ‘lowerdeck’ people, against the ‘upperdeck’ folks in general”. Security forces shot people dead as they protested, sought shelter, sold food, went shopping, walked home. Stray bullets said the police. Collective punishment, more like.

The ghetto had always been caricatured as a place of tough-guy masculinity, from the cartoon violence of the low-budget “Wakaliwood” flicks to Bobi Wine’s self-depiction as a mubanda (gangster), “more dangerous than AIDS and Ebola combined”. But here were men in t-shirts with automatic rifles, playing out the Rambo fantasy for real. The state had become more “ghetto” than the ghetto of the darkest imagination. “When you want to catch a thief, sometimes you behave like a thief,” said Elly Tumwine, the security minister, defending the use of plainclothes gunmen to shoot unarmed civilians last year.

And then the state started stealing people. Hundreds of opposition activists were bundled into unmarked vans, then disappeared. Many of them later showed up in military detention. One man told me that soldiers had electrocuted the soles of his feet and interrogated him about his links to Bobi Wine. “You, the bayaaye, cannot lead this country,” his torturer said to him. When Museveni spoke about the abductions, he said that the army were detaining “terrorists” and “lawbreakers” who were plotting that gravest of crimes – to “scare away investments”.

The blurring of law enforcement and criminality is not new. Under General Kale Kayihura, police chief from 2005 to 2018, stick-wielding thugs would routinely bludgeon protesters while uniformed officers looked on. One of the most notorious outfits was Boda-Boda 2010, a motorbike taxi gang, which terrorised drivers, attacked registration officials, and once set upon a group of schoolchildren who were wearing red, a colour associated with political opposition. In 2019 the association’s leader, said to be close to Kayihura, was sentenced to ten years in jail for illegal possession of firearms (he has since been freed).

But society is not static. Urban growth, a youth bulge and the informalisation of labour are producing new economic relations and identities. And perhaps the most important of these is the hustler, scraping by in the interstices of the city. In elite eyes, the hustler is an irritant and a threat

But Museveni’s dance with the ghetto is about more than just violence. A few weeks before the November protests I met Andrew Mwenda, an astute and controversial journalist with powerful connections: his older brother, a major general, is in charge of joint security operations in Kampala, and the president’s son describes him as a close friend.

“Museveni has the largest patronage machine of any government I know in Africa,” Mwenda told me. “When there is an uprising here, or demonstrations, the deployment of the police and army is a short-term tactical measure to secure stability, but the medium- to long-term strategy is always to penetrate the groups that are protesting politically and begin demobilising them using bribery. Co-optation. You should see how the system here works! In a very short time, within a month, they will give [their ringleaders] money, put them in party structures. They will find communities where the hotspots are, form co-operatives, put money on the account. They will get hair salon owners, bus drivers, taxi touts, vendors and hawkers, and begin organising them and counter-mobilising politically.”

Perhaps the most striking example of this process is Museveni’s recruitment of musicians. Ragga Dee, a washed-up singer, was the NRM’s candidate for Lord Mayor of Kampala. Buchaman, former “vice-president” of Wine’s Firebase Crew, is now Museveni’s unofficial adviser on “ghetto affairs”. So too is Full Figure, a dancehall star, who once backed Bobi Wine but is now so enamoured with the president that she has named her new-born son after him. Last year I met her in her office, overlooking the welders and mechanics of Katwe. Twice a week, she said, she would visit State House or meet Saleh, the president’s brother. It was the job of musicians to bridge the gap between the government and the ghetto.

That transactional logic is evident even in its repudiation. Before elections, the NRM-state began recruiting boxers in Kampala. Most of them were naturally sympathetic to Wine, an amateur boxer himself, who had his own networks in the sweat-soaked gyms. “We met a certain general during these NRM things,” one boxer told me. “He told us: ‘Bobi Wine is going to make you killed [sic] and he’s not going to support your family and he’s not giving you money. Why don’t you come work for us, and we give you money?’”

The pay on offer was not enough to make the boxers do the NRM’s dirty work. They refused. One former national champion, Isaac “Zebra” Ssenyange, had been mobilising for the party but then fell out with his patrons. Security forces shot him dead in the street.

This is the ultimate rejection of Museveni: to spurn his money. On election day, as Bobi Wine arrived at his polling station to vote, his supporters burst into their favourite chant, which likens the president to “Bosco”, a bumbling character from a mobile phone advert.

Eh Mama! Twagala Bobi si ssente

Eh Mama! Twagala Bobi si Bosiko.

(Eh Mama! We want Bobi not money

Eh Mama! We want Bobi not Bosco.)

Even Museveni is a muyaaye

In 1852 a tousle-haired German journalist called Karl Marx sat down to analyse the politics of contemporary France. Napoleon III, elected president after the uprising of 1848, had recently assumed dictatorial authority. Revolution was sliding towards despotism, just as it had half a century earlier, when Napoleon III’s more famous uncle – the Napoleon everyone knows – had seized power in a coup. The new dictator, scheming and vaguely comical, was a caricature of the old one. History was repeating itself, wrote Marx: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

Marx called his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, after the date in the French revolutionary calendar when the first Napoleon had staged his coup. It is an intricate study of class antagonisms in a society in flux. And reading it in Kampala, it feels strangely recognisable, despite the gulf that separates modern Uganda from nineteenth-century France. Consider Marx’s discussion of how money greases the wheels of dictatorship:

Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that [Napoleon III] hoped to lure the masses. Donations and loans — the financial science of the lumpen proletariat, whether of high degree or low, is restricted to this. Such were the only springs Bonaparte knew how to set in action.

Or read Marx’s description of urban politics, and think of Museveni’s street enforcers like Boda Boda 2010 and its fallen patron, General Kayihura:

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters [the list goes on] — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

David Mafabi, Museveni’s adviser, had told me that the president could play the role of Napoleon. The Napoleon he had in mind was the famous one: the military genius, the moderniser, silencing his enemies with a whiff of grapeshot. It is a (historically inaccurate) vision of the great man bestriding history, wrestling with immense forces, even his violence justified by some larger purpose. This is Museveni the ssabalwanyi, the greatest of fighters.

But strip away these delusions and the Museveni project becomes nothing but an endless game of tactical manoeuvre, whispered deals, grubby handshakes. At times, when he is posing with Buchaman or attempting ghetto slang, there is even dark comedy about it. In this regard, Museveni most resembles that other, lesser, Napoleon, the one that Marx christened “the chief of the lumpen proletariat”. Museveni created the ghetto: now he must cajole, co-opt and crush it. “Even Museveni is a muyaaye,” I was once told by a small-time singer in a cramped recording studio in Kampala. “He’s ruling us in a muyaaye style, like fooling us.”

Museveni dreamt of ushering Uganda through the doorways of history, but his politics was premised on an economic transformation which never came. The blame lay partly in his own policies and partly in the international economic order which moulded them. He continues in power through inertia and intrigue, still chasing a vanished future. In his self-righteous violence and petty machinations, he evokes both Napoleons at once: the blood-soaked general and the wily schemer. This time as tragedy. This time as farce.

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Long Reads

Reflections on the Kenyan Court of Appeal Proceedings in the BBI Case

By all accounts, this is amongst the most – if not the most – important constitutional case under Kenya’s new Constitution, and the High Court’s judgment was a massive setback for both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Hon. Raila Odinga.

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Reflections on the Kenyan Court of Appeal Proceedings in the BBI Case
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On 13 May 2021, the High Court of Kenya handed down a landmark judgment striking down the “Building Bridges Initiative”, a set of proposed amendments to the Kenyan Constitution, on grounds – inter alia – of violating the Constitution’s basic structure [“the BBI Judgment”]. At the time, I had analysed the judgment in this blog post. The High Court’s judgment was appealed to the Court of Appeal, and argued before a seven-judge bench, over four days, between June 29 and July 2. Judgment has been scheduled for August 20.

The Kenyan constitutional courts are unique in that oral arguments are live-streamed, broadcast live by major television networks, and available on YouTube (with an open comments section!). I was thus able to watch the arguments, which raised a range of fascinating issues, from the distinction between direct and indirect democracy (drawn from the Kenyan Constitution’s very particular amendment provisions), the identity of “the People”, the distinction between top-down and bottom-up constitutionalism, the meaning and purpose of public participation, and so on. Perhaps what made the arguments even more interesting was that, having been enacted in 2010, the Kenyan Constitution is a relatively young document, and not yet bowed down by layers of encrusted precedential sediment. For this reason, counsel on both sides were able to make arguments on first principle, presenting the overlaps between concrete constitutional practice and the philosophy of democratic constitutionalism, in a distilled form that we don’t often get to see.

Here, I will examine some of the major arguments made over the course of the four-day appeal hearing. The first two days of the hearing were occupied by the appellants who were challenging the High Court’s decisions. These included the Attorney-General’s Office, the BBI Secretariat, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (whose powers – and their alteration – were central to the High Court’s judgment), the Hon. Raila Odinga (the opposition leader), and HE Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya. I will not here examine all the arguments raised; that would be an impossible task, apart from the fact that some of the issues are beyond the scope of a comparativist’s ability to engage with. I will, however, discuss three issues that, in my view, are at the heart of the appeal.

Perhaps what made the arguments even more interesting was that, having been enacted in 2010, the Kenyan Constitution is a relatively young document, and not yet bowed down by layers of encrusted precedential sediment.

My usual caveat: I am an outsider, and I approach this post with an awareness of my limited knowledge. While I will write as honestly as I can, there is undoubtedly much context that I do not know, and much that I may get wrong; for those trespasses, an apology, in advance.

Who Are The People?

First, Appellants challenged the High Court’s finding that the Kenyan Constitution had a basic structure, which could only be amended through the exercise of a primary Constituent power that – in effect – lay outside the Constitution. Recall that in its judgment, the High Court had not held that the Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure was beyond the power of amendment altogether (thus making the Kenyan basic structure doctrine entirely different from its Indian variant, and indeed, unique in the annals of comparative constitutionalism). Rather – on an analysis of Kenyan constitutional history – the High Court held that in order to amend the basic structure, the conditions around the founding of the 2010 Constitution had to be recreated (primary constituent power). This meant, in concrete terms, a four-step procedure involving civic education, public participation, the convening of a Constituent Assembly, and a referendum.

It was therefore a little surprising to note the amount of time that Appellants spent distinguishing Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, or arguing for its inapplicability to Kenya. As I have mentioned above, the basic structure doctrine of Kesavananda, and the basic structure doctrine of the BBI judgment, are chalk and cheese. In particular, Appellants spent considerable time arguing that Kesavananda was a response to Parliamentary abuse of amending power, while the Kenyan Constitution explicitly envisages a role for the people (via the Popular Initiative method under Article 257) in the amending process. This is correct. But it is also, with respect, irrelevant. The distinction would have made sense if the Kenyan High Court had placed the basic structure out of bounds altogether; however, as we have seen, it did not – arguing only for deeper public participation than is provided in the Kenyan Constitution via the popular initiative method. That argument, however, needs to be tackled on its own terms, and not with reference to Kesavananda and parliamentary supremacy.

That brings us to how Appellants did attempt to tackle it on its own terms. Now here is where things get interesting. Let us go back for a moment to the amendment provisions in Kenya’s Constitution (Articles 255 – 257). Recall that Article 256 prescribes the familiar parliamentary route for certain constitutional amendments. Article 257, however, provides an alternative route known as the “popular initiative”, which requires (a) signatures of one million registered voters to initiate; (b) approval by a majority of county assemblies; (c) passage by simple majority in both Houses of Parliament, and (d) if pertaining to one of ten critical categories spelt out in Article 255, a referendum. Interestingly, therefore, the method under Article 257 is a combination of direct and representative democracy: it has elements of direct democracy in its initiation and completion (in cases of a referendum), and also elements of representative democracy through the process (ratification by county assemblies and Parliament).

It was therefore a little surprising to note the amount of time that Appellants spent distinguishing Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, or arguing for its inapplicability to Kenya

In this context, Appellants argued that the participation of the people is already provided for under the Constitution, when it comes to the question of amendments. Consequently, there was no need for a separate basic structure doctrine that was itself based on public participation, as that issue had already been resolved within the Constitution. To supplement this argument, counsel referred to Article 1(1) of the Kenyan Constitution, which states that “all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution.” Stressing upon the phrase “this Constitution”, Appellants argued, therefore, that popular sovereignty did not – and could not – exist outside the Constitution. It was the Constitution that – through Article 257 – facilitated the exercise of popular sovereignty through the popular initiative amendment process.

But underlying this textual point is a deeper normative claim, which goes to the heart of constitutionalism: who are the People? Effectively, Appellants argued that “the People” had no existence – or identity – outside of the Constitution; quite literally, the People are “constituted” by the Constitution. Consequently, in holding that the basic structure could only be amended by an – effectively – extra-Constitutional process initiated – and led – by the People, the High Court had misconstrued not only the text of the Constitution, but the basic premises of constitutionalism itself.

At first blush, the argument sounds powerful. I believe, however, that in the final analysis, it fails to persuade. I would submit, with respect, that in focusing on Article 1(1), Appellants inadvertently hoisted themselves on their own petards. This is because the phrase “this Constitution” begs the anterior question, which is at the heart of the basic structure doctrine: at what point does “this Constitution” cease to be “this Constitution”, and becomes something else? It is here that Kesavananda Bharati actually becomes relevant – because what many people (especially in its home country) tend to forget is that before it was anything else, Kesavananda Bharati was a textual judgment. The majority judges took great pains to parse the meaning of the word “amend”, and took equal pains to explain how it differed from “repeal” or “abrogate” or “destroy”. To put the point at its simplest: this Constitution – whose entire structure is based on the principle of (say) representative democracy, is no longer this Constitution if all those provisions are replaced with a clause turning the State into a monarchy. Indeed, the bench repeatedly put these hypotheticals to the Appellants’ counsel – without (in my view) a satisfactory answer.

Indeed, Respondents’ counsel made this point on multiple occasions. The clearest exposition of it is to be found from around 55 minutes to 1 hour during the first session of Day 3: counsel distinguished between the concepts of “amendment” and “repeal”, and then further distinguished between two kinds of repeal: express repeal (such as when Kenya’s Independence Constitution was “retired”, in advance of the 2010 Constitution coming into force); but also, repeal by irreconcilable differences, where although a Constitution is not formally repealed, it is nonetheless repealed in effect, by introducing into it principles or provisions that are fundamentally irreconcilable with its core identity.

To this, I would add two brief points. The first is that taking the argument to its logical conclusion, Article 1(1) of the Kenyan Constitution, far from supporting Appellants’ case, is fatal to it. Because if it is true that (a) Article 1(1) only authorises the exercise of popular sovereignty within this Constitution, and (b) that this Constitution is no longer this Constitution if its basic structure is altered, it must necessarily follow that (c) if the People wish to alter the basic structure, they must act outside the Constitution. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise. And if this is conceded, then the High Court’s judgment is not only arguably but correct, but indeed, the only correct outcome. Because not only did the High Court correctly rule that alteration of the basic structure must take place outside of the Constitution, it also set out the logical corollary: that the manner of doing so must resemble, as closely as possible, the manner of the writing of the Constitution. This is so because an alteration of the basic structure amounts, in effect, to re-writing the founding document, and for that, such an activity needs to be conducted within the procedural confines of the manner in which its writing took place.

Counsel on both sides were able to make arguments on first principle, presenting the overlaps between concrete constitutional practice and the philosophy of democratic constitutionalism, in a distilled form that we don’t often get to see.

The second point is that on multiple occasions, Appellants’ counsel expressly conceded that the Constitution does have basic structure. Counsel attempted to make light of the point by arguing that every form of government – including theocracies and one-party totalitarian States – have basic structures. Counsel then argued that the existence of basic structure doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the basic structure doctrine. However, it is in precisely that disjunction where the problem lies: if you accept that the Constitution has basic structure – i.e., a core set of principles that constitute its identity – then the burden falls upon you to show how an alteration of the basic structure, and thus an alteration of constitutional identity nevertheless implies that “this Constitution” at the beginning of the process is still “this Constitution” at the end of it. I believe that this was a burden Appellants did not discharge.

The Njoya Debate

I would suggest that the above argument is also relevant to answering a question that was hotly debated on both sides of the bar during the hearings: that is, the interpretation of the Kenyan High Court’s 2004 judgment in Njoya v Attorney-General. In Njoya – which involved a challenge to the then-ongoing constitutional review process – the High Court had accepted Kesavananda Bharati, and held that under the (now-retired) Constitution, the Kenyan Parliament had no power to abrogate or repeal the Constitution. Now naturally, the Respondents strongly argued that Njoya went in their favour. However, Appellants argued equally strongly that read closely, Njoya actually supported their case. The reason for this was that in Njoya, Ringera J categorically stated that (a) Parliament had no power to abrogate the Constitution, (b) that this power belonged to the People of Kenya, acting in their sovereign capacity, and (c) that the People of Kenya were entitled to a referendum on any new Constitution (paragraphs 32 & 33, Njoya). Now if you look at Articles 255 read with 257, an amendment by popular initiative – that seeks to alter one of the ten categories set out in Article 255 (such as the territory of Kenya or the functions of Parliament) must be put to a referendum. Appellants therefore argued that the dictum of Njoya had already been incorporated into the 2010 Constitution. Indeed, the bench’s question to Mr. Nelson Havi, Respondents’ lead counsel, at around 48 mins of the first session of Day 3, went to the heart to the issue: did not the 2010 Constitution enact the very requirements outlined in Njoya?

I believe that the answer is in Njoya itself, and it is the same answer as that set out above. In paragraph 29, Ringera J wrote that popular sovereignty is “the basis of the creation of the Constitution and it cannot therefore be conferred or granted by the Constitution” – although, of course, it could be juridically recognised by it. These lines, I submit, answer the bench’s question about the referendum provisions under Article 257: regardless of what Article 257 says about a referendum, ex hypothesi, the power to create a Constitution cannot lie within it. Now when you combine this with Njoya’s holding in paragraph 61 accepting the correctness of Kesavananda and holding that “amendment” does not mean “abrogation” or “repeal”, you reach the inescapable conclusion that a Constitution’s amendment provisions – whether or not they contemplate referenda – do not extend to the repeal of this or the creation of a new Constitution, something that can only be done through an external exercise of popular sovereignty. And that was what the High Court recognised.

The Discontents of the Presidential System

The second major issue was with respect to the identity of the initiator of the BBI Amendment(s). Articles 257(3) and (4) of the Kenyan Constitution contemplate the existence of the “promoters” of an amendment by popular initiative. Formally, the promoters of the BBI Amendment(s) were two parliamentarians named Dennis Waveru and Junet Mahomed. However, it was strongly urged before – and accepted by – the High Court that the actual moving force behind the Amendment(s) was the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. The factual dispute continued before the Court of Appeal, and I do not intent to address it here.

However, it was also argued by Appellants that even if it was the President who was behind the BBI Amendment(s), there was nothing wrong with it; in other words, just like any other registered voter, high State officials could also initiate amendments by popular initiative. In particular, Appellants argued that (a) there was no express bar under Article 257 that forbade the President from engaging in amendment(s) by popular initiative; (b) that explicitly, the President continued to retain political rights under the Constitution even on formal investiture, including, for example, the right to vote; (c) that as a matter of fact, even if the President had been acting in this case, he had been acting in his private capacity; and (d) that the entire purpose of Article 257 was to prevent legislative bottlenecks in a Presidential system. It was meant to deal with a situation where the political party with a majority in Parliament was opposed to the elected President’s agenda, and was stymying him. In such a situation of gridlock, Article 257 gave the President an avenue to to bypass Parliament and go directly to the People.

In this context, Appellants argued that the participation of the people is already provided for under the Constitution, when it comes to the question of amendments. Consequently, there was no need for a separate basic structure doctrine that was itself based on public participation, as that issue had already been resolved within the Constitution.

At its deepest level, then, the argument was one about constitutional design. Appellants argued that the Kenyan Constitution did two things: it opted for the Presidential system, with its known problem of veto points and bottlenecks – and then also solved that problem through Article 257, by essentially saying “President + People > Parliament“.

Now there are a few points here. The first is that – as the bench acutely pointed out – Article 255(3)(b) of the Constitution states that the amendment procedure under Article 257 is by “the people and Parliament”. It therefore follows that the Constitution itself draws a distinction between “the People”, and constitutional bodies (such as the Parliament), even though – of course – those constitutional bodies are helmed by members of “the People”. It follows ipso facto, therefore, that much like “the people” and “Parliament” are distinct entities for the purposes of a constitutional amendment, “the people” and “the Presidency” must likewise be so.

Is this dispositive? No. However, what it does show is that textually, Articles 255 – 257 sustain the High Court’s interpretation. Whether it is the correct interpretation – given that the text is ambiguous – is of course a normative question, internal to the Kenyan Constitution. And it is here that the principles of representative and direct democracy come into tension with each other. As I have pointed out above, Article 256 provides the familiar amendment path via representative organs (Parliament), while 257 consciously combines elements of representative and direct democracy, and – specifically – envisages direct democracy at both the beginning and the end of the process.

I would submit, with respect, that this carefully balanced scheme of Article 257 would be nullified were representative organs allowed to initiate the process. Such an interpretation of Article 257 would undermine the fact the bottom-up character of direct democracy that the provision seeks to preserve. During the opening session of Day 3, at around 1 hour 6 minutes, Respondents’ counsel put the point perfectly when they argued that by definition, when the people delegate authority (as in representative democracy), the delegate no longer counts as part of ‘the people’ for the purposes of the exercise of popular sovereignty (as in direct democracy, envisioned by Article 257).

The bench then asked – correctly – whether it would not be possible for the President to “wear two hats” – i.e., remain the President, while initiating a popular initiative process as a private citizen. The answer – which was provided a little later in the day – was that ‘yes, she can, but she needs to formally give up the trappings of office while doing so.’ This, to me, makes eminent sense: the entire point of Article 257 – and the carefully wrought distinction between direct and representative democracy – would be defeated if the President could say “I am President, but I ask for your signature on this popular initiative as a private citizen.” With respect, that distinction could be sustained only by denying reality.

As I have mentioned above, Appellants repeatedly argued that there was no express bar on the President’s powers under Article 257. That is true; but again, going back to Kesavananda – and much more recently, to the UK Supreme Court’s prorogation judgment in Miller v The Primer Minister, limitations upon powers exercised by constitutional authorities are not only express, but – in many cases – implied. In Miller, it was held that when you have two constitutional principles, the exercise of power under one is (impliedly) limited at the point at which the said exercise would frustrate or impede the operation of the other. That is exactly what is happening here: the President’s powers under the Constitution are limited by the operation of other constitutional principles; in the case of Article 257, that principle is the balance between direct and representative democracy in the popular initiative process.

The Nature of Referenda

The third issue also concerned the interpretation of Article 257. The BBI Amendment(s) had been pushed as a package deal, containing as many as seventy-four proposed amendments to the Kenyan Constitution. The High Court had nixed this in no uncertain terms, holding that in an amendment by way of popular initiative, every amendment had to be presented distinctly, and put through the process required by Article 257, separately. Appellants’ response to this holding was primarily textual, noting that Article 257 used the word “amendment”, and not “amendments.” Thus, an “amendment” could take the form of a proposed bill – that amended multiple provisions of the Constitution – but for the purposes of Article 257, the was to be treated as an amendment, in the singular.

Now it should be clear that once again, the text does not determine the issue. It could easily well be argued – and indeed, was argued – that the very use of the singular “amendment” actually means that you can only present one amendment at a time via the popular initiative. For interpretive support, Respondents’ counsel also pointed to Kenya’s Elections Act, Section 51(2) of which provides that “where there is more than one referendum question, persons intending to campaign for or against each referendum question shall, on application to the Commission, form one national referendum committee each and one committee each in every constituency for each referendum question.

At first blush, the argument sounds powerful. I believe, however, that in the final analysis, it fails to persuade. I would submit, with respect, that in focusing on Article 1(1), Appellants inadvertently hoisted themselves on their own petards. This is because the phrase “this Constitution” begs the anterior question, which is at the heart of the basic structure doctrine: at what point does “this Constitution” cease to be “this Constitution”, and becomes something else

Textual ambiguity, once again, brings us into the domain of the normative – and the normative issue here goes once again to the purpose of referenda, and the provision of direct democracy in a Constitution. The core argument against referenda – as we well know – is that they boil down extremely complex and nuanced questions into a simple yes/no binary. In effect, therefore, they distort the expression of public opinion by simplifying an issue to a point where a yes/no vote doesn’t accurately reflect the range of views that people hold. Now, I would submit, with respect, that given that referenda already have this problem with respect to being accurate vessels for the expression of direct democracy, a package deal referendum exacerbates that precise problem even more (the reasons are easy to see). It therefore follows that if the Court is faced with two equally legitimate textual interpretations of the same provision, one of which advances the cause of direct democracy, and the other potentially impedes it, given that the purpose of the section is to facilitate direct democracy, it should choose the former interpretation. In this case, that would be to uphold the High Court’s ruling that a popular initiative can only be for one amendment at a time.

The above analysis has only scratched the surface of the immensely complex and nuanced arguments that I heard. Some of the fascinating arguments I have not dealt with here include, for example, the question of which side bears the burden in a dispute over whether the popular initiative involved adequate public participation or not (I would suggest that if public participation is a fundamental premise of the Kenyan Constitution, the presumption must be that official acts do not acquire a constitutional seal of approval until it is affirmatively demonstrated that public participation has taken place; think of it as a precondition); the role of constituencies in distributing resources, power, and political patronage, and why, therefore, boundary alteration affects the basic structure; whether the popular initiative starts from the moment signatures are collected, or does the public participation requirement kick in before; and so on. Ultimately, what I found most striking is that for a lot of these questions, the Constitution does not provide a textual answer. For a lot of these questions, both sides presented an interpretation that, textually, was plausible; ultimately, therefore, this ruling will turn upon what principles the Court identifies as underlying these provisions, and which interpretation it believes better furthers those principles.

A few parting remarks on the oral arguments themselves. I loved watching them: there was wit, humour, seriousness, and a whole range of styles of advocacy, with consistently high quality throughout. The timekeeping was impressively strict: a big timer showed counsel their countdown, the bench cut them short when their time was up, and barring a few occasions where I thought that counsel genuinely needed more time to develop their argument, I felt that the quality of advocacy was raised by the fact that counsel had to put their point across in limited time. The questions from the bench were sharp, focused, and at times, almost frightening in how accurately they identified weak spots in the argument. And then, away from all this, I was struck by the freedom with which people were commenting and arguing with each other in the YouTube comments section, and openly poking fun at the lawyers, the President, and even the court. As far as I could tell, none of this had any perceivable impact on “justice”. Perhaps judges in other jurisdictions may take a leaf out of this YouTube book, and treat irreverence and critique with a smile.

Finally, as an outsider, I was struck by the civility with which the arguments were conducted. By all accounts, this is amongst the most – if not the most – important constitutional case under Kenya’s new Constitution, and the High Court’s judgment was a massive setback for both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Hon. Raila Odinga. However – barring a few good-natured jabs back and forth, I did not see personal invective. Imagine watching the State’s lawyers argue over two days, and not once insinuate that the other side is a hotbed of anti-nationals, publicity-seekers, “lobbyists”, and a threat to sovereignty and national security?

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Long Reads

The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women

We should make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons.

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The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women
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I will remember Moi as the president who burned material culture, and humiliated little girls and elderly women. He carried the dreaded club considered a weapon among many cultural groups, and had a red rose bud of Love, Peace and Unity, pinned to his lapel. That’s the image of him I have. He who did not age in the photograph that was everywhere — in schools, bars, government offices, shops, you name it. The fatherly look in those light brown eyes — patronizing, caring, saintly.

But the image of his sculpted hand wielding his favourite weapon over Mt. Kenya showed otherwise. I looked at his sculpted hand bursting out of Mt. Kenya like a volcano as I drove by Uhuru Park and tried to think about the meaning behind it. The mountain is a sacred shrine to many. Elders still face Mt. Kenya for blessings as the freedom fighters did at dawn. Mt. Kenya is Kenya’s national symbol that has appeared on stamps, bank notes and wall paintings in rural eateries. Armed resistance against the colonial power was centred around the mountain and was protected by it for many years. What was the reason behind the design that obviously showed one man’s power over a mountain that is the country’s highest point and a symbol of Kenya? Was it a show of conquest over the uthamaki? I could not find an explanation in any text or from any person. We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling monuments and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

I hold other images. My first encounter with President Moi humiliating the pastoralists was in late 1970s. I was in the field in the vicinity of Kapedo (Turkana County) among the Turkana when his motorcade appeared on the hot desert road like a dust storm. There was a lot of excitement to see the spectacle and welcome the new president who was from one of Kenya’s smaller tribes. Moi was one of them unlike the previous president, an avaricious agriculturalist, whose kinsfolk were encroaching on their land and mineral resources albeit in cahoots with the local politicians. But the local politicians were brothers and sons and that did not matter. Only the agriculturists were the madoadoa demon settlers.

President Moi held a huge baraza at Kapedo where the steaming hot waters of the river fall over a rock. Truly a sight to behold. After some welcoming speeches, it was time for the much-awaited presidential address. I was aghast to see what followed. The president called a shy teenage Turkana girl to the stage where he was seated in his usual austere manner, clutching his club. The people must have at once understood that the club was a weapon. The president elicited fear rather than peace, love and unity in the audience. In most Kenyan cultural groups, a club is a symbol of violence to knock an enemy on the skull. The symbol of authority and respect is a flywhisk or a peace staff that is also often used as a walking stick by community elders. There was an obvious contradiction between the new president’s words and the symbol that he lifted over his head as if to strike.

We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling statues and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was. She was dressed exquisitely for she was meeting the president. Then, the president called another girl. She was wearing a neat school uniform; you would think she came from an English public school. She was also Turkana. Pointing to the girl in the beautiful calfskin clothes with his club, the president put on a noticeable frown on his fatherly face that was gleaming in the strong Kapedo sunshine. The Father of the Nation, Baba wa Taifa as we called him, said he did not want to see “this” meaning the Turkana dress. His following words were spiked with references to backwardness and the civilization that his presidency was bringing to them.  He said it was time for the Turkana to join the maendeleo path like other Kenyans.

From 1963 onwards, the word maendeleo had evolved to mean not just development in Kenya but also becoming “civilized”; it connoted becoming westernized and perhaps Christianized as well. Then he pointed to the other girl who was in a neat school uniform, a white shirt and blue skirt. The president’s face brightened into a smile; this is what he wanted to see. That was the path to maendeleo, leaving primitiveness behind. These may not have been his exact words but that’s what they meant. I write from the images, emotions and memories from over forty years ago that have lived on in my mind.

My heart sank. I wondered what the teenage girl must have felt being humiliated in public by the president of her country. What her parents must have felt. What the Turkana elders, the custodians of their culture, must have thought. What the community was thinking as they listened to the president in utter silence. The Turkana people, like everyone else, take pride in their dress and their culture. Now they were being insulted on their own territory by the new president of Kenya. Their culture is what has sustained them in the harsh semi-desert scrubland and given them a sense of identity and community.

I had been working on Turkana material culture, especially on their animal skin clothing which interested me because of the unique cut and the stitched lines that patterned their long skirts which were suited to the semi-desert scrubland. How they quilted different colours of cowhide to create amazing patterned clothes. It is an ingeniously designed garment weighted with flattened hoofs so that it does not flare out in the desert wind or get ripped at the bottom. The skirt is worn long because of the Turkanas’ respect for the female body and local cultural etiquette. It is carefully cut down the side of the leg for the air to circulate in the hot desert climate and to accommodate movement while running after animals when herding or walking long distances to fetch water and firewood. I wanted to include the Turkana dress in the material culture curriculum for schools that I was writing at the time and as an example of Kenya’s indigenous dress that is suited to the environment and vernacular design in the book that I was working on. The president was ignorant of Kenya’s culture.

Back in Nairobi, I was shocked to see the picture of the president and the two girls on the front page of the newspaper. I don’t remember which one, probably the Daily Nation. It was as if in Nyayo’s onward march to maendeleo, the humiliation of a proud culture was being celebrated. I tried to talk about this incident in the staffroom at the University of Nairobi where I worked, but I met blank, if not surprised, looks. “The Asian is talking about primitive tribes again”, I read on their faces. I worked, put up exhibitions and often talked about the material culture of Kenya as a heritage to be cherished like the mother tongue; both were looked down upon as obstacles to development by a segment of the intellectual class. An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards. In the tone of his comment was an allusion to the racist Asian stereotype that I had become used to on campus. Then as now, the president had his followers within the intellectual community.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was.

My second encounter with President Moi was in Orwa in the Pokot region. I came to the area soon after the president had been there on his “civilizing the natives” mission that reminded me of the infamous colonial Pacification Expeditions. I was stunned to see a pile of ashes and burned items of material culture at the Orwa airfield, a makeshift strip of cleared bush for small aircraft. The elders told me while spitting bitterness how Jeshi la Nyayo had forcefully stripped them of their valued skin garments and beads. I gathered Jeshi la Nyayo were the dreaded General Service Unit. I had seen them at work at the University of Nairobi and had fled from their batons. The Pokot material culture was thrown in a heap on the airstrip and made into a bonfire. My heart wept for I was collecting the precious material culture of the Pokot at the time, especially what they wore; how they celebrated their identity with their clothing and beads; their embodiment of utu, their humanity and, most important, how they made reconciliation through their art, how important material culture was in their lives. I was collecting material culture for preservation for posterity and here I find my president burning the nation’s cultural archive, the resources for the school curriculum on indigenous art and knowledge that would one day be taught if ever the authorities decolonized their minds sufficiently to look in the mirror and see who they are.

Among the items stripped from the bodies of the Pokot was the leketyo. The leketyo is a sacred symbol of peace for the community. In fact, the metaphor used for peace is leketyo, and for some like the Marakwet, Keiyo and Pokot, the word for greeting is “Leketyo!” — very much like Shalom and Salaam. What is leketyo? A leketyo is a leather belt decorated with lines of coloured beads and cowry shells. Expectant mothers wear it around the waist to avoid miscarrying the foetus. Women walk long distances for water and firewood; they herd goats and build houses. Their strenuous work in the harsh climate easily leads to miscarriages. The leketyo has become a sacred and a respected object for it saves life. I have seen how fighting, that is physical fighting, using weapons, comes to an abrupt halt when a mother removes her leketyo and throws it down between the belligerent warriors.

The leketyo may be laid down by any mother passing by and all the warriors will respect it for in communal societies, one mother represents everyone’s mother in her son’s age group and she calls them “my sons”. As any Kalenjin would know, the leketyo is revered in the community for it represents protection of the womb. Like the mutilina of the Akamba and the enkitati of the Maasai, it is a symbol of motherhood, love and nourishment that prevents violence and maintains peace in the community. It is also a symbol of the feminine God-given gift of procreation, and of family and community well-being. In other words, women’s waist belts are symbols of peace used as metaphors in speech and song.

When I heard the songs of Pokot mothers, concealed from the ears of the local special branch, bemoaning the loss of their leketyo, I felt their pain. The humiliated mothers sang about the beauty of their lost leketyo while cursing the president in the same verse. Yes, during the oppressive regimes of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, they had developed clandestine oral literature expressing outrage at those who stole their land and visited brutality and humiliation on them.

There was a parallel between the clandestine oral literature of rural Kenya and the underground papers like Pambana that I read in the city. The difference was that the pastoralists’ secret literature was oral, in poetry and songs, using idioms, metaphors and double meanings that those who did not know the culture and did not understand the language — like most of the local administration, the police and the GSU — could not understand. They were masked like the Mau revolutionary songs that sounded like hymns to the outsider. The underground literature in the city did not mask the message; it openly condemned the despotic presidents and called for change. Unfortunately, the two did not connect.

The Pokot also erected secret memorials invisible to the outside eye in memory of those who were killed by Nyayo. One such memorial that I visited near the Kenya-Uganda border in the West Pokot region was made of gigantic white marble-like slabs. One would need to persuade the local oral artist to hear the full narrative of the cultural oppression, the humiliation and the brutality of the punitive military expeditions of the Nyayo era. These are the monuments erected by the people that we need to celebrate and care for. They speak of a people’s resilience in the face of oppression.

An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards.

It baffled me why the president humiliated the Pokot women and Turkana girls who were closer to his cultural roots than, say, Wangari Maathai whom he also insulted and humiliated. The professor and environmentalist was protecting our trees, our natural heritage that the president was decimating for profit.

But then, in 1992, what happened at Uhuru Park was shocking. In my novel Home Between Crossings, I put together what I saw, read and heard to write about the assault on the mothers of the detainees. Putting it in print a way of releasing the emotions locked in my memory and telling the story so that it is not forgotten. Though based on real events, the writing came from my creativity and imagination.

The next day women gather in groups to talk about the incident at Uhuru Park. There is horror in their eyes. Anxiety in the air. We had all seen the Daily Nation photographs of the riot police hounding old women. Some had watched the news on the TV.  I tell them I was there and what I saw. They come closer me. Even those I don’t usually talk to come to listen to me. They listen in silence and shock. But what horrified them was how President Moi treated the mothers protesting in the park.

“Does he not have a mother?” asked one.

“Would he have treated his mother like that?” asked another.

“What if he were detained without trial, would his mother not have come to Uhuru Park to ask for his release?” asked the third…

Later in the evening, I look at the photographs on the front page of the Daily Nation. “MOTHERS OF DETAINED PRISONERS WITHOUT TRIAL FLEE.” Yesterday comes back in my eyes. I see them. They flee before the brutal charge of the riot squad and the paramilitary. Helmeted, armed and shielded in metal, the machine-like army of young men assail the old mothers in cotton dresses and head scarfs. Putting the newspaper pictures together with what I saw yesterday was like bringing two pieces of a torn photograph together. First, the women herded together like trapped animals, hugging each other in one tight embrace. A combined hug in unison out of fear. Of comfort. Of courage. Of unity. Of solidarity of mothers. I felt I was in that circle of human embrace. Some whimper for mercy, others sing hymns. Aged mothers thought the President would listen to them, for he had a mother too. Then one of them stepped forward before the contingent of young armed men and she began tearing clothes off her body.  In Africa, it is a taboo to see a woman, who is the age of your mother, so distressed that she unclothes herself surrendering her dignity to a young man the age of her son who, by custom, is her son, too. It’s a gesture of wounded motherhood that many do not understand. A gesture showing there is no more utu or humanity left in society. Of showing self-inflicted humiliation that says it’s not worth being your mother. It’s the humiliation of sacredhood of the womb, meaning the giver of life. Shame and sin would fill the eyes of the onlookers. In Africa, I repeat, to see your mother’s nudity is shame and a curse. Everyone knows that it pains the land when the mother forfeits her honour to her sons’ gaze. More mothers come forward, ripping clothes off their shrivelled frames, spitting curses and disgust, tearing away headscarves, casting away mother-love for rage and forfeiting the dignity bequeathed to them by nature when they gave birth. They were surrendering in defiance to the rape by their sons. They sing hymns in unison daring the armed men to come, touch them and dishonour their mothers until they feel satisfied. What more had they to lose when they have lost all, meaning their self-respect? Some policemen cover their eyes, others turn back and yet there are some who advance without shame. They would say they had orders. Or they are not of the same tribe so the curse would not harm them or that they are Christians now. That these are not their mothers. They don’t believe in superstitions and primitive customs. Never before, not even under the English, not even during the girls’ circumcision unrest at Mt Kenya, were the mothers of Africa reduced to such humiliation as under the black government of Nyayo.

Chapter: Humiliation of disowning motherhood in Home Between Crossings (2014)

I write about my encounters with Nyayoism in the hope that we can retain the memories of how one in whom the nation had placed its trust, shamed its girls and mothers. It is as though this has become an accepted part of the Kenyan culture as is graphically described by April Zhu writing in The Elephant about the defiance of Mama Victor and the Mathare Social Justice Centre co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira.

Misogyny is like a cancer that flows from the highest office in the land to the lower cadres of state institutions. Insulting women has become a global phenomenon as explained by Joane Nagel in Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and sexuality in the making of nations. Daniel arap Moi had just come to power and he had to show he was a man. All the incidents I speak about were reported in the media albeit from angles different from how I viewed them as an ethnographer. The accounts and photographs can be found in newspapers archives.

What I came to know during my work on the cultural aspects of Peace and Conflict Resolution was that humiliation played a significant role in conflicts. Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers in the community. And chuki breeds revenge. Cultural humiliation has more often than not been the undertone of political campaigning. It becomes a widespread epidemic during elections, making somebody unlike me, making them the Other of the nation and hence not quite worthy of the highest office in the land. Sometimes it turns into jeering and nasty behaviour; I once watched a shirtless young man running through the streets of Nairobi holding up his pants because his belt had been pulled out, looking helpless and terrified as  a jubilant mob shouted, “Circumcise him!” This was in late 2002 when campaigning between the circumcised and uncircumcised contenders was at its peak. It was a direct result of cultural humiliation instigated from the top to diminish the Other as not worthy to rule.

Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers within the community.

More often than not, epidemics of cultural hate and humiliation are started by politicians and even by the president as I have seen during my forty years working in the field in Kenya. We know how cultural chuki was spread through the radio in Rwanda to galvanize the population to commit a genocide. I have sometimes wondered in frustration whether Moi’s humiliation of Wangarĩ Maathai and the market women of Nairobi was patriarchy embedded in nationalism or whether it was a personality trait that sought pleasure in humiliating whomever while singing “mindfulness” in public broadcasts.

To understand humiliation, it is best to think in an African language. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

In Swahili, for example, humiliation has several shades. We say tia aibu meaning put shame. Or tia uchungu, put pain and vunja heshima meaning break self-respect, and also break the heart, vunja moyo. Humiliation is to make the other feel she/he is not human, si binadamu. Then the humiliated is filled with chuki (hatred) and looks for revenge to reclaim his/her or the community’s honour, kisasi cha aibu ya staha. This can lead to killings.

Humiliation is one face of governance by repression. In societies where identities are collective, one killing or one rape is considered humiliation of the entire community. Consequently, it calls the people to rise and avenge the spilled blood of a kinsman or the dishonour of a mother, wife or daughter of a fellow kinsman. Humiliation is communal, and like trauma, it is generational in that the responsibility of the unavenged wrong falls to the youth. Hence, ethnic conflicts become cyclic. Whenever the suppressed rage of humiliation comes to the fore, the outcome is horrendous. Evelin Lindner, who is among the foremost thinkers and writers on humiliation and violence, says:

Rage turned outward can express itself in violence, even in mass violence when leaders are available to forge narratives of group humiliation.

We know that power and wealth breed arrogance. This is neither new nor particular to Africa’s presidents and politicians. But how can we create awareness of what we do to each other and thus stop or at least lessen this especially with the looming elections?

One way could be to make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers, our mothers, were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons. It will be a day to reflect on what shame our leaders have placed upon us, and the consequences that the ordinary person has had to bear, as we so often see during elections. Keeping and refreshing our memories would remind us to be watchful of politicians who divide Kenya along gender and cultural lines. Students will ask, “Why are we remembering this day?” The media will report and commentaries will expand on the history of humiliation from the colonial days to the present-day dictatorships led by brutal capitalism, nationalism and cronyism. One bright Kenyan may choose to write her PhD on the History of Humiliation in Kenya from Colonialism to the Present.

When we choose to be silent, we are erasing the lessons of history from our memory. We become complicit in the propagation of the propaganda of the state and politicians. As a result, violence is passed on from one generation to the next among cultural groups and becomes systemic in governmental and institutional hierarchies.

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