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Building Bridges to Nowhere: Notes From an Insider

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Returning to play her part in changing Kenya after years abroad, MIRIAM ABRAHAM encountered cynicism and greed from her age mates among the professional elite. Yet it paled in comparison to her experience in an independent public body. Back in her adopted home, she reflects on the March 9 handshake, a deal sealed for the survival of a treacherous elite.  

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It was January 2017, and instead of enduring another bitter winter in my adopted home, I was having nyama choma with friends in Nairobi. It was refreshing watching the children playing nearby, as adults indulged in our national hobby- politics. Although the setting made me miss my children terribly, I was full of optimism. I was back in my motherland to play my part in making my country better. The call to national duty after over 15 years abroad justified the family, financial and professional sacrifices I had decided to make.

A friend tapped me on my arm. I had temporarily forgotten that this was not just a nyama choma event but a crash course from my friends on “how to survive in Kenya”. I listened attentively as my friends gave me tips. One reminded me that this was my opportunity to pay any outstanding mortgages and debts and invest in choice property in Nairobi. Another reminded me that every time I raise my hand to vote during board meetings, there should be an amount equivalent to my five fingers, in millions, deposited to my account. Yet another told me of how I needed to ensure that I surrounded myself with “my people” to protect me. Not to be outdone, another reminded me that since I could never understand how to “make deals” as a “foreigner”, I needed to introduce him to the person in charge of procurement and the rest would be taken care of.

It was not clear to me how much of this was serious talk and how much of it was said in jest – the sarcasm that those of my generation have resorted to in an attempt to escape the helplessness they face as the country careens into a pit. The advice nevertheless captured what I ended up experiencing throughout my time in Kenya. It is assumed that the only reason one takes up a public service position is to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies. And it is indeed not a far-fetched conclusion, in most cases.

I listened attentively as my friends gave me tips. One reminded me that this was my opportunity to pay any outstanding mortgages and debts, invest in choice property in Nairobi. Another…that every time I raise my hand to vote during board meetings, there should be an amount equivalent to my five fingers, in millions…Yet another told me of how I needed to ensure that I surrounded myself with “my people” to protect me… Not to be outdone, another reminded me that since I could never understand how to “make deals” as a “foreigner”, I needed to introduce him to the person in charge of procurement and the rest would be taken care of.

My conclusion at the end of my brief Kenya sojourn is that we, the professional elite, celebrate mediocrity, shun integrity and worship corruptly acquired wealth. The end justifies the means, even if this includes taking the lives of children, men and women. We easily forgive those that rob from public coffers and forget those that sacrifice their lives in the fight for justice and good governance.

Ours is a transactional country. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenyans quickly satirised the 9 March 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a handcheque. Because how else could one explain the political convergence of views between those who disenfranchised millions of Kenyans by organizing violent protests against the sham October 2017 election and those that benefited from a circus of a presidential election?  As a friend of mine reminded me in January, “it will be just a matter of time before the political elite sit around the table and share the loot”. I do not know whether there is any financial loot that has been shared. But certainly, we can all see the associated trappings of power being openly enjoyed by those who just two months ago were victims of State harassment.

Recent developments make it difficult to argue against those who have always held that politicians cultivate their ethnic bases to increase their political bargaining chips in preparation for the next ‘handcheque’. Even when the larger strategic interests of political parties and alliances are at stake, if there is an opportunity to make money, the financial imperative invariably wins the day. It reminds me of July last year when the lawyers of two opposing coalitions walked hand in hand to negotiate a procurement deal, which in the larger scheme of things would have negatively affected the chances of one of the coalitions “winning” the presidential election. But it appears that any opportunity to make money could not be left unattended.

Ours is a transactional country. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenyans quickly satirised the 9 March 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a handcheque. Because how else could one explain the political convergence of views between those who disenfranchised millions of Kenyans by organizing violent protests against the sham October 2017 election and those that benefited from a circus of a presidential election?

This partly explains why almost all the constitutional bodies, the media and even the legislature in the country are under State capture. At the moment, the Judiciary is the last bastion of hope. Now that President Kenyatta and his Deputy President have ‘apologized’ to Kenyans for unnamed trespasses, we should expect these institutions to remain under the spell of the looters. They have free rein. The press has caved in, civil society is severely constrained, bloggers and activists are constantly harassed by the State and the majority of Kenyans remain silent, puzzled as they watch those on whom they had pinned their hopes to “save” the country make numerous “handshaking” tours.

We who easily forgive have “moved on” and are leaving it to a tiny political elite to implement its Putin-esque plan. Let me refresh your mind on this.: in what the Russians call ‘castling’, President Vladimir Putin, restricted from serving a third consecutive term as president in 2008, had Dmitry Medvedev run for President while he took over the Prime Ministerial position. Putin was still the de facto President. In 2012, he formally returned as President and then “overwhelmingly won” his “second” term in this year’s election, assuring him of power until 2024.

This appears to be the model the political establishment is using, if we are to take seriously what we are hearing from informal regime mouthpieces such as Tiaty Member of Parliament, William Kassait Kamket and COTU strongman, Francis Atwoli. Hon. Kamket has proposed the creation of a ceremonial presidency and a premier position, while Atwoli believes that President Uhuru Kenyatta is too young to retire and must continue in power. This is the Ka-Putin plan, articulated in Kenyan-ese. In their thinking, the Luo will be happy to finally achieve their long sought-after presidential dream while the Kikuyu will maintain their own “young man” in power. It gives the plotters plausible deniability for not “paying back the debt” to the Deputy President and thus protect the Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley. In their wisdom, there are only three ethnic groups in Kenya. Once their interests are taken care of, all other socio-economic and grievances of marginalisation are a non-issue.

In what the Russians call ‘castling’, President Vladimir Putin, restricted from serving a third consecutive term as president in 2008, had Dmitry Medvedev run for President while he took over the Prime Ministerial position. Putin was still the de facto PresidentIn 2012, he formally returned as President and then “overwhelmingly won” his “second” term in this year’s election, assuring him of power until 2024.

Constitutional changes to prolong terms of office or satisfy elite demands are the flavour du jour. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese have done it recently. Rwanda and Uganda have done it and the Burundians are set to give a soft landing to President Kenyatta’s agemate, Pierre Nkurunziza, when they change the Constitution on 17 May. It appears that our elite are itching to join the bandwagon.  And as always happens with our national politics, there will be a bogeyman who has to be deterred by any means – the justification for the planned constitutional amendments. Kenyans will be reminded of the violence in the Rift Valley in 1992, 1997 and 2007 and be warned of Armageddon if the Constitution is not amended to deter the Deputy President from ascending to the presidency.  Operation Stop Ruto is gaining steam and Kenyans will soon be convinced that this is the only way to save Kenya.

A friend I have known for many years recently wrote to me: “The goose is cooked. No way of stopping that train. I am just scared of that guy.” I did not respond to the message. I could not. Not because I did not share my fear for the guy he was talking about – our Deputy President.  I have been a victim of his threats and I know that they are not empty.

I watched how he remotely controlled and manipulated a constitutional body for which I worked. I still wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares of the ordeals I was subjected to, carried out with express instructions from him.

I did not respond to the message because it hit me that even those that I thought to be “progressive” have bought into the bogeyman notion, a red herring to turn public attention to the urgency of removing an individual, like we did with the Moi must go slogans, without questioning the underlying system that has allowed such leaders to thrive. I did not respond because as I was reading his message, the building bridges to nowhere initiative was being launched. And once again, the political elite were gaming the system, as they always do.

Let me be clear, I am not against reconciliation. It is long overdue. But building lasting bridges needs to be anchored in more than declarations and photographs of handshakes. The central motivation cannot be an attempt by a government to buy legitimacy after what was largely a sham October 2017 presidential election. It cannot be about an opposition party attempting to join the “meat eating” team instead of “salivating from the outside”, to use President Kenyatta’s own words. It cannot be about an icon in the fight for democracy seeking relevance as he ponders his next step. Nor can it be just about stopping the Deputy President from inheriting the big seat.

Reconciliation, building bridges, requires difficult conversations and hard work. It requires us to ask tough questions about our national ethos. It requires the kind of concerted effort that we witnessed in the1990s during the struggle for the Second Liberation, so called. The Young Turks who led that struggle are clearly now failing to practice what they previously espoused. When given the opportunity to govern after the controversial elections in 2007, they joined the looters, as narrated by John Githongo in his recent article, The State of the Nation: Corruption: A brief history- 1997 to 2018.

 Back to the January 2017 nyama choma outing: I defied the advice on how to survive in Kenya. I chose not to join the looters. There are many Kenyans like myself. That is why, like Prof. Makau Mutua, I will still hold onto the naïve, childish optimism for a better Kenya. I still believe that there is a constituency of millennials ready to wrest the baton from the “Young Turks”. I still believe that millennials have a chance to fix the current crisis of leadership and develop an alternative leadership to the current elites that continue to divide the country rather than unite it.

The “Young Turks” have failed to deliver the vision they had in their heyday. They will resist change by any means necessary.  They will conjure up the spectre of “Ruto bogeyman” to justify constitutional amendments precisely to entrench themselves in power or ‘return from the ‘cold’, as they are wont to put it.  But the millennials have more going for them to deliver the change. History is on their side. The future of Kenya is in their hands, not in those busy building bridges to nowhere.

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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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