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Crony Capitalism and State Capture 3: Uhuru Kenyatta’s Manufacturing Agenda

8 min read.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s manufacturing agenda argues DAVID NDII is a protectionism policy regime that puts tariff and other barriers on imports that compete with domestically produced goods. But as he illustrates, a protected competitive industry is a contradiction.

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Crony Capitalism and State Capture 3: Uhuru Kenyatta’s Manufacturing Agenda
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Ever since it was pronounced as one of his “Big Four” legacy initiatives, Uhuru Kenyatta’s manufacturing agenda has been blurry but an extensive television interview given two weeks ago was very revealing; in a nutshell, it is protectionism. “We want to ensure that we protect our industries, work with our industries to ensure that they are competitive but we also encourage them not to take advantage and extort Kenyans by overpricing their products.”

Protectionism is a policy regime that puts tariff and other barriers on imports that compete with domestically produced goods. A simple definition of competitiveness is a company, industry or country that is able to produce goods and services that are comparable in price and quality with those traded internationally. Competitiveness is benchmarked against internationally traded goods and services. But the purpose of protecting domestic industries is to shield them from competition. Once they are shielded from competition, they do not need to be competitive.

Ever since it was pronounced as one of his “Big Four” legacy initiatives, Uhuru Kenyatta’s manufacturing agenda has been blurry but an extensive television interview given two weeks ago was very revealing; in a nutshell, it is protectionism.

We have a problem. A protected competitive industry is a contradiction in terms. Tea and sugar, two industries that have featured in this column on a number of occasions, provide a perfect case study.

As an export-oriented industry, the tea industry has to be globally competitive to survive. There is little the Kenyan government could do to help the industry if it was not able to produce quality tea at a price that its international customers are willing to pay. Consequently, there is no need to protect the local market from imported tea. Even though imported tea brands are available in supermarkets, they do not cause owners of domestic brands sleepless nights.

Sugar is a different kettle of fish altogether. It is the country’s most protected industry. Kenyan sugar costs $800 per tonne ex-factory, against a global price of $280. The only way Kenya’s sugar industry can stay in business is by being heavily protected. For the last twenty years or so, the country has sought and secured safeguards from the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) so that the country can restructure the industry, to no avail.

Why is Kenya’s tea globally competitive and sugar the complete opposite? Competitiveness is closely related to, and in fact, derives from productivity. Kenya has the highest tea farm productivity in the world, at about 4,507 kilograms of green leaf per acre, closely followed by Sri Lanka at 4,440. Unsurprisingly, Kenya and Sri Lanka are the leading tea exporters, each accounting for between 20 and 23 per cent of the world market. By contrast, of the COMESA trading partners, Kenya has the lowest sugar cane yields (see chart).

The only way Kenya’s sugar industry can stay in business is by being heavily protected. For the last twenty years or so, the country has sought and secured safeguards from the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) so that the country can restructure the industry, to no avail.

But the sugar cane yields are only part of the low productivity story. Kenya’s sugar cane also has less sugar content, and the state-owned factories are less efficient, i.e. they achieve lower extraction rates than those of the trading partners—low cane yields, poor quality cane, inefficient factories. To keep this industry alive, it is protected by a 100 per cent import tariff, or $460 per tonne, whichever is higher. At the price of $280 a tonne, the applicable tariff is $460, which is an import duty of 164 per cent.

Why are the sugar cane yields so low? We have the wrong model of sugar industry. Sugar cane is a capital intensive crop, that is suited to large-scale integrated farm and factory operations. Kwale International Sugar, which revived the failed Ramisi Sugar, reports obtaining 60 tonnes a hectare using a “state of the art subsurface irrigation system”. Smallholder farmers do not have the capital or knowhow to do this, and it probably would not make sense to invest in such systems on a small scale. Moreover, once the cane is planted, it requires very little labour until harvest time.

Tea, on the other hand, is a labour-intensive crop. It needs to be picked and tended meticulously by hand throughout the year. Smallholder tea farmers work in their fields every day. The economic law of comparative advantage predicts that a country’s competitiveness will reflect its factor endowments, that is, capital-rich countries will be competitive in capital intensive goods, and labour-rich countries in labour-intensive goods. Because we have relatively more labour than capital, the global competitiveness of our tea vis-à-vis the uncompetitiveness of our sugar reflects our comparative advantage.

Why are the sugar cane yields so low? We have the wrong model of sugar industry. Sugar cane is a capital intensive crop, that is suited to large-scale integrated farm and factory operations. Kwale International Sugar, which revived the failed Ramisi Sugar, reports obtaining 60 tonnes a hectare using a “state of the art subsurface irrigation system”.

It is instructive to compare sugar with coffee. Since the early 90s, Kenya has failed to reform the coffee industry to keep up with changes in the global market. Production and exports have plummeted from a peak 140,000 tonnes in the late 80s to just over 40,000 tonnes today. There is nothing that the Government can do to protect the coffee industry. It simply has to shape up or ship out. But the most important thing is that the resources that were producing coffee—land, capital and labour—have been redeployed to other products including macadamia nuts, avocado, dairy, bananas, real estate and so on.

The same would have happened in western Kenya if the sugar industry was not so heavily protected. The long-suffering smallholder sugar cane farmers would have long since switched to other products of which they would be competitive producers such as cereals, livestock, horticulture, oil crops and so on. Instead, protectionism misallocates 440,000 acres of some of Kenya’s best rain-fed agricultural land—a very scarce resource—to a crop that generates a mere $400 per acre, compared with tea, which generates $2,200 an acre.

Protectionists often bolster their case by observing, correctly, that the East Asian Tigers also protected their infant industries during the early stages. The best documented, and arguably also the most insightful case, is that of South Korea. South Korea’s industrialisation took place in two phases spanning two decades, 1955-65 and 1965-75. During the first phase, it pursued both import substitution and export promotion simultaneously, but with a heavy bias towards import substitution. By the early 60s it had run into the chronic balance of payments crises that have plagued all countries pursuing import substitution industrialisation through protectionism— including Ethiopia currently. The government realised that import substitution had hit a dead end, and changed course, as Larry Westphal and Kwan Suk Kim, of the World Bank and Korea Development Institute respectively, explain in their 1977 study, Industrial Policy and Development in Korea:

Policymakers came firmly to accept that rapid economic development depended upon an export-oriented industrialisation strategy. This view was predicated on the understanding that Korea’s natural resource base was very poor and on the realisation that further opportunities for import substitution were only to be found in intermediate and durable goods, where the limited domestic market could not justify establishing plants large enough to realize technological economies of scale.

The Koreans then embarked on trade liberalisation, devaluation and other policy reforms that the rest of the developing world was to adopt two decades later, and that we now call structural adjustment. These reforms were implemented between 1961 and 1964. Export-led manufacturing took off. By 1975, manufactured goods contributed a third of the GDP, and 75 per cent of exports.

As noted, Korea’s industrial policy pursued both import substitution and export promotion simultaneously from the outset. The policy regime, referred to as the “export-import link,” pegged incentives directly to export earnings. Like most other countries at the time, Korea had a controlled fixed exchange rate that maintained an overvalued currency, as well as a rigid import control regime. Exporting firms were allowed to retain a portion of their foreign exchange earnings, which they could sell at a premium, or to import restricted consumer goods for sale in the domestic market. Another element was generous ‘wastage allowances” on imported raw materials. To illustrate, if garment exporters were allowed 15 per cent wastage on fabrics imported to make clothes for export, and the actual wastage was 5 per cent, this was the same as allowing them to sell 10 per cent of their products in the domestic market.

The effect of these incentives was to substantially offset the protection of the domestic market and to keep domestic-oriented producers on their toes. Other incentives included subsidised credit and discounted tariffs on utilities and railway transport, also pegged to export performance. As export manufacturing grew, the case for protecting the domestic market diminished, since Korean goods could compete both abroad and at home. The protection regime was progressively rolled back such that by the late 70s, South Korea was, by and large, an open economy.

Embarking on a protectionist industrial policy today raises a number of vexing issues. I will highlight three.

First, what is it in aid of? The stated objective is to increase the manufacturing share of GDP. I have heard a figure of 15 per cent of GDP by 2022 mentioned. The manufacturing share of GDP has actually been trending downwards lately—7.7 per cent in 2018, down from 10 per cent five years ago. How much can protecting domestic industry contribute? In 2018 we imported Sh.218 billion worth of finished consumer goods—excluding motor vehicles—accounting for 12 per cent of total imports, and 9 per cent of the value of domestic manufactured goods. If all these goods were to be manufactured locally, it would increase the manufacturing share of GDP from 7.7 to 8.5 per cent. But of course, whatever protectionist policies are envisaged will not constitute anywhere near total substitution and will at best have a negligible impact.

Tea, on the other hand, is a labour intensive crop. It needs to be picked and tended meticulously by hand throughout the year. Smallholder tea farmers work in their fields every day. The economic law of comparative advantage predicts that a country’s competitiveness will reflect its factor endowments, that is, capital-rich countries will be competitive in capital intensive goods, and labour-rich countries in labour intensive goods.

The most critical imperative that any industrial policy ought to address is jobs. We need millions of jobs. Kenya’s industry is capital intensive and not job-creating. A World Bank study from a decade ago showed that Kenya’s manufacturing sector was 50 per cent more capital intensive than China’s, and almost five times as capital intensive as India’s (see chart below). Although the data is old, the structure of the industry has not changed that much. This is of itself a legacy of an import substitution industrial policy which promoted the capital intensive goods that the country imported, as opposed to an export-oriented policy which would promote the industries that could utilise developing countries’ abundant labour.

Second, Kenya is a member of the East African Community (EAC), COMESA, and the new African Free Trade Area (AFTA) trading blocs, which agreements we have signed and ratified. Under the EAC in particular, Kenya is bound by a common external tariff (CET). Kenyan manufacturers are the biggest beneficiaries of these trading blocs. In 2018 Kenya exported goods worth Sh.90 billion ($1.9 billion) to EAC and COMESA, accounting for 30 per cent of total exports. We made imports of Sh.123 billion ($1.23 billion), thus running a surplus of Sh.67 billion ($670 million). Virtually all of Kenya’s exports to the region are manufactured goods. The country can ill afford to begin a trade war with the regional partners, who would only be too delighted to find reasons to lock Kenyan goods out of their markets. How is the government going to protect local industries without jeopardising regional integration?

Third, the case for protectionist import substitution regimes was predicated on the infant industry argument—protecting nascent industries until they were strong enough to compete. The problem arose because, like our sugar industry, and Pan Paper for that matter, there was no incentive to grow up, and the state lacked the political will to roll back the protection until economic crises compelled them. The industries that are now to be protected are not babies. What is the case for protecting grown-up industries, some of which are already dominant oligopolies in their sector? Until when will they be protected, and what new policy instruments are there to ensure that this protection regime will not go the route of the old one? Protecting mature incumbents translates to not just protection from competing imports, but also giving them more muscle to fight potential entrants into their markets. Essentially, it amounts to entrenching cartels, and Kenyatta’s statement—which makes reference to taking advantage, extortion and overpricing—demonstrates that Kenyatta is actually alive to this fact. Why is he contradicting himself? State capture.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
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The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.

Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.

The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.

Victims side-lined 

Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:

[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.

The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law.  Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.

Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.

Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.

Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.

A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.

Bad start

The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.

Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.

Pleas unheeded 

For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.

What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.

One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.

False equivalence

All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.

It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.

Victims’ demand

Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.

Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.

Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.

In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land

Kenyans choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army (also known as Mau Mau) did not fight for a monument. They fought for land.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land
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Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land. Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.

In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”

And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these aging freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.

Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.

But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?

Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.

Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.

Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.

It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.

And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.

It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.

Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.

And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.

And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau from Mathare, tells it all.

In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.

A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense  (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .

And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument.

They fought for land.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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I Am Samuel

The government should support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard, and everyone’s point of view to be listened to.

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I Am Samuel
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“I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

We first got introduced to independent documentary filmmaking in 2013, at a gathering of Kenyan filmmakers in a small office of the nascent DocuBox film fund. Pete Murimi, director of I am Samuel, and I, producer, had no idea that it was possible to tell stories independent of a broadcaster or funder. As a service producer, I was used to receiving agency or broadcaster briefs and working according to spec. Pete, as a filmmaker at the UN, was familiar with that style of telling stories.

This intimate gathering of filmmakers (which included directors of The Letter, Kenya’s submission to the Oscars in 2020, and the director of New Moon, winner of Oscar-qualifying 2018 DIFF Best Documentary award) did not know that it was about to embark on an arduous multiple-year journey to tell their stories, and self-release at global festivals. But we all somehow made it through the strength of community and the determination to have complete agency over the stories we felt were important to tell. Pete and I were committed to telling stories of outsiders, people who did not accept the way things were, just because.

Voltaire’s quote above is our fallback when asked about freedom of expression, the freedom we committed to when we decided we wanted to tell these stories. We are a diverse country, with complicated, layered realities. Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

Shot over five years, I Am Samuel tells the story of a queer man navigating the tension between his life in Nairobi and his rural childhood home. He and his partner Alex want to build a life together, but his father and mother want him to get married, have kids, and live the exact kind of life they have.

Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

This was not an easy documentary to make. Samuel had to give up a lot of his privacy, and trust Pete and I, who were first-time independent filmmakers, balancing making this film with our day jobs. But Samuel allowed us into his life, without restriction. And that was a privilege that we could not afford to take lightly. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In fiction films, the director is God; in documentary, God is the director.” We believe this to be true; life as it happens, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is what makes character-driven verité styles so difficult to do, but ultimately so rewarding.

I am Samuel was released at Hot Docs 2020, an international film festival that showcases stories from across the globe. It then toured the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals the world over and showed in South America, the Netherlands, and the UK. But our eventual goal was always to bring it back home. Because we felt this was a Kenyan story, we knew it would connect with audiences back home; mostly because Samuel’s lived reality as a queer, religious, traditional man is not unique. We applied for classification in Kenya to be able to screen it locally, and waited weeks for a response. We were asked to attend a meeting at the KFCB offices on Thursday 23rd September, but we were unable to make it in person. We then heard about the press conference, the ban, and the press release later that Thursday.

We are yet to receive a letter in writing or a certificate that shows our Kenyan rating.

We were deeply disturbed by the discriminatory language used in explaining the ban: they described it as “blasphemous” and “unacceptable, and an affront to our culture and identity.” The restricted classification of the film contained a number of inaccuracies. It referenced a “marriage” that never happened and said we were “promoting a homosexual lifestyle”. The board noted a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life. This attempt is evident through the repeated confessions of the gay couple that what they feel for each other is normal and should be embraced as a way of life, as well as the characters’ body language, including scenes of kissing of two male lovers.”

We were simply filming people’s lived experiences.

By banning the film, KFCB is silencing a real Kenyan community and trampling on our rights as filmmakers to tell Samuel’s story. Every story is important. And we are all equal in the eyes of the law and before God, in line with the religion the film board is invoking in this ruling. The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

The Kenya Film Classification Board is trying to censor a part of Kenya that has always existed, is a lived reality for millions and will always be a part of us. Several high-profile Kenyans are queer, including government politicians and public figures, but the intolerant atmosphere created by discriminatory statements like those of the KFCB make it impossible for them to live openly – and allow other Kenyans to continue to discriminate, wrongfully so, against LGBTQ+ Kenyans. As I Am Samuel shows, prejudice forces LGBTQ+ Kenyans to live in the shadows, fearful of being beaten up, fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Stigma puts pressure on their families, who fear that if their neighbours find out they have a gay child, they will be ostracised.

The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

In their press statement, the KFCB appealed for content that “promotes Kenya’s moral values and national aspirations”. What are these values? The KFCB is assuming that the values of all Kenyans are the same – conservative and Christian. But Kenya is a diverse country and it is the responsibility of our government to represent and serve everybody. Our differences should be acknowledged as a strength, and shown through our filmmaking. Kenya is Africa’s third biggest film producer, after Nigeria and Ghana, making 500 films a year. African filmmakers are attracting international acclaim. Softie won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year. The United Nations recently said that the African film and audio-visual industry generates US$5 billion a year and has the potential to create 20 million jobs. I Am Samuel is the third LGBTQ+ film to be banned by the KFCB, following Stories of Our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). Among other movies that have been banned by KFCB are The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).

Our film is a true record of Samuel’s lived experience Samuel. Gay African men, gay African people, should be recognised and have their rights respected. This includes the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. Samuel himself is a strong Christian, and Kenya has several LGBTQ+-friendly churches that provide a place for queer Kenyans to worship together. Banning of films is a blow to Kenyan filmmakers as our audience is inherently local, and we need to have a wide distribution to reach audiences, to go regional, to go global, for so many reasons: telling our own narratives, correcting the misguided ones, creating jobs, and widening our own imaginations, exponentially, of what is possible for us as Kenyans. The Lupita Nyong’os and Edi Gathegis of this world should not only exist in a rare and unexplored vacuum.

It is time for the government to accept and support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard – because the banning also leaves us with questions about whether everyone’s point of view truly is listened to. The documentary has been released across Africa on the AfriDocs website, and we hope that African audiences will still get a chance to watch a film that is not accepted in its home country. . . yet.

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