Now that the dust has somewhat settled after the Kibra parliamentary seat by-election, let us reflect on its broader implications.
There are some outcomes that stand out as positive. The vigilance of the political parties at polling stations was impressive, despite the violent tactics employed. This was a major improvement on 2017 when most political parties did not have agents present at the polling stations. As confirmed by the High Court, the election results announced at the polling station are final, and the electoral regulations of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) require that these results, signed by the agents, must be posted at polling stations.
Technically, if a candidate has agents at each polling station, he or she should be able to have a sense of their performance even before the IEBC Returning Officer. This is because the Returning Officer has to await the physical delivery of results by the Presiding Officers before embarking on the tallying. It was probably data from his agents which led the Jubilee candidate, McDonald Mariga, to make his call conceding defeat to Bernard (Imran) Okoth long before the official results were announced. For Mariga to concede defeat and accept the results early is indeed commendable and should be the norm. But this is only possible when candidates perceive the electoral process to be fair.
It also requires that stakeholders have reliable information, which appears to have been the case in Kibra. This cannot be said of the 2017 General Election, where the IEBC gave candidates reason to doubt the results it was releasing. In Kibra, the IEBC did not use its electronic results transmission system (although it did use the biometric voter identification system). Does this confirm that technology is not a panacea for the lack of transparency and confidence in electoral results? Indeed, Kibra opens the door for us to engage with the ideas put forward by former IEBC Commissioner Roselyn Akombe in her end of assignment report on the use of technology in elections.
Yet, despite some of these positive outcomes, I would argue that the negative aspects of the process far outweigh the positive ones, for four main reasons.
First, the process confirmed that the IEBC has not learned any lessons from its recent dismal failures. It continues to flaunt clearly laid out electoral laws and acts with impunity in the knowledge that the state—which it has been totally captured by—will protect it.
Take, for instance, the issue of the voters register. The Elections Act requires that the Commission avail a register of voters to ensure transparency, verifiability and accountability. Yet, once again, the Commission failed to make the register available to stakeholders and nor did it make one available online. It only complied with the law once the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) sought relief from the courts.
You will recall that during the 2017 elections, every aspect of the electoral process, from registration of voters to procurement of electoral materials, was subject to litigation. Why is it so difficult for the Commission to comply with electoral laws and with its own procedures? In its own review of the 2017 General Election, the Commission identified over 500 legal cases against it, including Presidential, County and National Assembly petitions. It is important that an independent audit of the 2017 electoral process is undertaken if we are to hold on to the hope of electoral justice. Otherwise, we risk having the same issues repeated in the next electoral cycle.
The IEBC has not learned any lessons from its recent dismal failures. It continues to flaunt clearly laid out electoral laws and acts with impunity in the knowledge that the state—which it has been totally captured by—will protect it.
Second, the Kibra by-election confirmed that the country is just as polarised as it was before the 2018 “handshake”. The rabid political rhetoric, the ethnic mobilisation, the violence and allegations of bribery, were not any different from those witnessed during the 2017 election.
What the “handshake” did was shift the political alliances. We still have two political coalitions, just as we did in 2017. Only that the “dynasties” camp in the Kibra campaign was led by Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, with the President’s acquiescence, and the “hustlers” team by the Deputy President. Kibra laid bare the fractures within the ruling Jubilee Party and confirmed the collapse of NASA. Rather than bridging the political differences in the country, the “handshake” has deepened them. This does not augur well for the country, particularly in these difficult economic times.
Third, state capture—which many observers including Wachira Maina and David Ndii have written about—is very much alive. For many months now, close aides of Rt. Hon. Odinga have been boisterous about how the “system” has, since the handshake, switched its “loyalty” from the Deputy President to their Baba. They point out that with the “system” or the “deep state” solidly behind Baba, he is the “President-in-waiting” and the de facto co-Principal to the President.
One could argue that the “men in the shadows”, as John Githongo calls them in his article One Week in March: Was the Handshake Triggered by the IMF?, are keen to show that the handshake is working. With the Deputy President’s power withdrawn, he did not stand a chance of imposing his candidate in Kibra, as he is alleged to have done for most of the key positions in the 2017 election. His recent pronouncements are of a bitter man, spoilt by the ease with which he previously wielded power and now finding himself bereft. It is the anger of a man who has been betrayed by the same President whom he helped bring to power.
Second, the Kibra by-election confirmed that the country is just as polarised as it was before the 2018 “handshake”. The rabid political rhetoric, the ethnic mobilisation, the violence and allegations of bribery, were not any different from those witnessed during the 2017 election.
I can imagine his frustration as he watched the security system tacitly approve the violence meted out against his candidate and his confidantes. A man who is alleged to have used the government machinery to terrorise dissenting voices, now watching from the periphery as they worked for his arch-rival. A man who is reported to have made cold, menacing telephone calls, leading senior officials to resign from their positions rather than wait for his threats to materialise, was now seeing these tactics used against his cronies.
In light of this, Rt. Hon. Odinga’s supporters may be tempted to celebrate their ability to benefit from state capture today. However, they should be wary of how the tables may be turned should Baba fall out with Kenyatta. They surely must know the volatility of alliances in this country. There are still many factors that could come into play in the coming months. In cheering on state capture for short-term gain, we have sunk to our lowest level and history will judge us harshly for our acquiescence.
Fourth, Kibra confirmed that women continue to face insurmountable challenges when seeking political office. The two main political coalitions did not consider any female candidate in their “nominations”. Despite the odds, there were three formidable women in the race: Editar Ochieng (Ukweli Party); Hamida Musa (United Green Movement) and Fridah Kerubo (Independent).
Unlike most of the other 21 candidates, these three women live in Kibra and have been involved in community organising. Yet their voices were drowned out as Kibra became the arena for a national supremacy challenge between two men who do not even reside there. Men who visit the constituency for its political symbolism and have done nothing during their time in power to make even minimalist changes to improve the lives of Kibra’s inhabitants.
The sexist undertones of the campaigning were repulsive; the labeling of an entire constituency as one man’s “bedroom”, with another man retorting that he was within sight of invading it, should have been strongly condemned yet even the various organisations and groups purporting to defend women’s rights were eerily silent. They dared not hold either Rt. Hon. Odinga or the Deputy President accountable for their insensitive sexist innuendoes, which continue to undermine the participation of women in politics. The mainstream unfortunately joined the bandwagon, using the same “bedroom” analogy without interrogating how this undermines their own mantras on the use of gender-sensitive language. Sadly, Kibra is a reminder that if we do not change the environment around our electoral process, the gender parity provisions in our constitution will remain a mirage.
Beneath the gender-insensitive use of the “bedroom” analogy in Kibra, is the underlying message of patronage. It trivialises the lives of the residents as dispensable political pawns. It promotes the erroneous perception that one man can own the thousands of residents of Kibra. This is the same outrageous mindset which led Johnstone Kamau to appropriate a country’s name and present himself as it’s light (thus Kenyatta), as he describes this re-naming in his book Facing Mount Kenya. No wonder his descendants see the country as their personal property to plunder.
Sadly, Kibra is a reminder that if we do not change the environment around our electoral process, the gender parity provisions in our constitution will remain a mirage.
Kibra reminds us that we have failed to address the root causes behind the current political polarisation. We have failed to make the changes necessary to end the ongoing state capture of independent institutions such as the IEBC. We pay lip service to the participation of women in politics and marginalise large swathes of our population. We have failed to address the economic policies that have led to our people living in difficult conditions, including in places such as Kibra. We have squandered the future of the youth and left many of them unemployed and disillusioned. It is time that we made serious attempts at addressing these issues. Otherwise, as we have seen in recent months from Algeria to Zimbabwe, the streets will take care of the situation. And the outcome of such popular protests may not be what the political elite might expect.
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Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low
Kenya must raise the bar in service provision now so that we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.
When discussing the state of government services, facilities and infrastructure, some Kenyans on social media propose that there should be a requirement for all public officers to use only government services. This would mean that our cabinet secretaries, our parliamentarians and even the president and deputy president (and their families) be restricted to seeking medical services at public hospitals, and to taking their children to public schools, and so on. The proponents of this policy expect that once high-ranking state officers experience the inconvenience other citizens endure in accessing services from public institutions, they would be more intentional about improving service delivery.
A step further would be for such a policy to also cover the counties. Perhaps if governors, senators, and county assembly members were restricted to only using the health facilities in their respective counties, they would commit more resources to ensuring that these facilities are well equipped, and that the human resource is compensated fairly and in a timely manner.
European nations which are often used as a benchmark for development and governance apply this to a good degree. Public services are efficient, and it is common for even the highest-ranking public servants to use public facilities. When former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, he was treated at St Thomas’ Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) teaching hospital in central London. The NHS is the publicly funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom. This is the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) equivalent, and St Thomas’ Hospital would be the Kenyatta Hospital equivalent.
The parallel I can draw for Kenya is that at least our president completed his PhD studies at a public university. And there are many more cabinet secretaries (CSs), principal secretaries (PSs), ambassadors and parastatal heads who went through public universities and are top performers in their respective dockets. But on the other hand, we also have several governors who sought to attain undergraduate qualification from beyond our borders.
In contrast, we have had a former health minister seek medical services in another country during his tenure at the health ministry (his contributions to improving the ministry and the sector notwithstanding). I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level. And in December 2022, we took it a step further when the National Police Service and the Kenya Prisons Service ended their comprehensive medical coverage with the NHIF, in favour of a private service provider. Confidence in public institutions appears to be at an all-time low, even among other public institutions.
Kenyans are known to have high standards and high expectations. And rightfully so. We are the regional leader (largest economy in the EAC and COMESA in terms of GDP), and we know our potential to become a continental leader by all metrics. However, as we begin a new year under a new administration that just completed its first 100 days in office, I would recommend that we manage our expectations and start at the bare minimum. The bare minimum for me is a request to the recently appointed cabinet secretaries and county executive committee members to ensure human dignity in service delivery. We are years away from that ideal future where the president, cabinet secretaries and all other high-ranking public officers are confident enough in the system to entrust it with their families’ health and with their children’s education. But if we start raising the bar now, we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.
I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level.
The bare minimum for healthcare is for all public health facilities to be well equipped and functioning. Kenyans should not have to travel across counties or to the capital for basic medical services, or prefer private medical insurance cover over NHIF. A bare minimum would be county executives being nominated based on qualification and experience, and county staff being appointed based on the needs of the county in the specific functions they oversee.
In road construction, a bare minimum would be to have all tarmacked roads appropriately marked, well paved (with sidewalks/footpaths where required) and well lit.
Kenyans had to complain on social media about the danger of driving on an unmarked Ngong Road (from Junction Mall to Lenana School) for Kenya National Highways Authority (KenHA) and Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) to act. And the action that resulted from the complaints was specific to that section. While driving to Karen on New Year’s Day, I was disappointed to see that the section of Ngong Road from the interchange after Lenana School to Karen roundabout remains unmarked. Even closer to the centre of the capital, sections of Ngong Road and Kenyatta Avenue around the NSSF building are in a similar state. Another problematic road section is the chaos that is Westlands roundabout including the matatu stages on Waiyaki Way on either side of the roundabout. If we are not meeting the bare minimum in the capital, we likely aren’t fairing any better in the counties.
I have no doubt that the transport CS, and the heads of KenHA and KURA all use these roads at least once a week. The least they could do, the bare minimum, is to ensure we can drive safely on these roads at any hour of the day. If the drivers or friends of these top officials are reading this article, please whisper to them (or share this article with them) and remind them that thousands of motorists and pedestrians are a few phone calls away from a significant positive change in road safety.
As a Tigrayan, I Choose Peace over War, Accountability over Impunity
The outbreak of Ethiopia’s war on Tigray brought back deeply rooted childhood memories of the brutality of civil war in Tigray. But Mehari Taddele Maru is determined to use his horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to pursuing justice to sustain peace.
It has been almost three months now since the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) to end Ethiopia’s Tigray war that has led to over 600,000 deaths. The Biden administration described the agreement as a momentous step, while the European Union extolled the courage of the parties in signing the deal.
The Tigrayan population has endured the worst possible atrocities during the two years of the war in Ethiopia. One would expect the people to be jubilant about this much-touted breakthrough to silence the guns. In Tigray, on the ground, the deal has been met with cautious optimism and hope for a return to normalcy. People like me who have extended family in Tigray, and have seen the war stretch out over more than 700 days, have also breathed a sigh of relief.
Since it began on 4 November 2020, the civil war in Ethiopia has reopened old wounds and created new ones. For over two years, the population in Tigray has come under siege and suffered weaponised starvation. Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia have been discriminated against and have been subjected to arbitrary and unlawful detention. By 2021, the detentions had reached what could be described as an industrial scale, and the discrimination continues to this day; Tigrayans have been living in dread every day of their lives.
I am Tigrayan. I come from a family that have been victims of war. This is the third war that has been fought in Tigray in my lifetime. It is genocidal in nature and in its level of ambition, and by far the most devastating of any that I have witnessed. The United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) reported “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls. In some instances, the attackers expressed an intent to render the victims infertile and used dehumanizing language that suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.” Like the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans, my entire family and I vehemently opposed this war on Tigray since the beginning.
With the experience of the brutality of civil wars deeply rooted in my childhood memories of Tigray, my first response to the war was a call for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and the commencement of a negotiated end to the war. Peace was, and still is, what I, like many Tigrayans, crave.
The harrowing experiences Tigrayans have suffered at the hands of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces for well over two years have brought back painful memories of my childhood. In the 1980s, Tigray was at the centre of a protracted civil war, with the situation worsened by the 1984 Great Ethiopian Famine. My family, like thousands of others, was brutalised by the Ethiopian military regime and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I was barely seven years old when I experienced catastrophic violations of human rights first-hand. My father and my maternal grandparents were attacked both by the government and by rebel groups and became the victims of forced disappearance by the TPLF. They disappeared, and I never saw them again. They are presumed to have been killed by the TPLF.
On several occasions over the past three decades, my family, individually and collectively, have submitted written and oral demands for redress to high-ranking officials of the TPLF and the government of Tigray. These requests have received no response. Instead, the disappearances have been dismissed as an unfortunate mishap that occurred during a revolt.
So, I empathise with those who, like me, have suffered and continue to suffer due to the civil war waged in various parts of the country.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it is happening both on and offline.
As if that were not enough, the state has sponsored a slander campaign in the media, directed at the Tigray elite and other people deemed to be supporting the Tigrayans’ just cause. They have falsely accused me of being a member of the TPLF and of working in the security sector in the previous Ethiopian government. The army of anti-Tigrayan trolls continues with their coordinated character assassination. At one point, hundreds of tweets were posted within a few hours making false allegations that I am an “agent” of the TPLF. The allegations and the formulation of the tweeter character assassinations were the same, only posted from different, newly created Twitter accounts by media networks that are notorious for attacking Tigrayans. It has even been alleged that a think tank was established so that I could head it up and be an advisor to the former government.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it has been happening both on and offline.
There have been previous attempts by some media outlets to incite public outrage against me and encourage attacks on my person. Extremist nationalists such as the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, Ethiopia Satellite Television (ESAT), and its splinter group, Ethio-Media 3600, both based in the US, have churned out fabricated reports to assassinate my character. These media outlets are the same ones that called for Ethiopians to “dry the sea and catch the fish” where the sea refers to the people of Tigray while the fish refers to TPLF and the Tigrayan elite, and later publicly called for the mass detention of Tigrayans in concentration camps. They do not care for the truth. They are hell-bent on attacking Tigrayans from all walks of life. No-one is spared, not even His Holiness Abune Mathias, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
It is important to set the record straight. I have never been, nor am I now, a member of any political party. I have never been a government official. The closest I came to being in government was when I served as director in the office of the president of Addis Ababa University. My career, spanning more than two decades, has been spent working in inter-governmental institutions, universities and think tanks.
In principle, though, it is my right to join any political party, including the TPLF. My decision not to join a party or serve in government is both personal and political. As a member of one of the families that have suffered double victimisation in the previous and current civil wars, I decided that my extended family’s quest for justice should not be misused to seek unjust revenge and unworthy political ends.
Unsurprisingly, Ethiopian politics is a pit of hatred and resentment. Political positions are defined and hardened by endless cycles of vendetta and reprisal. In a political campaign to delegitimise the previous government, all outspoken persons of Tigrayan origin and other critical voices have been the target of orchestrated character assassination, often based on fictitious stories.
Political positions are defined and hardened by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal.
These character assassination campaigns are in essence part of a bigger political picture in Ethiopia and its longstanding deep-rooted problems, part of what Francis Deng calls a “war of visions”; a struggle for the nature and future of the Ethiopian state.
The bigger picture
Ethiopia faces, on the one hand, the scenario of loose multi-national federalism, where power rests in the hands of the constituent units, not with the centre. This scenario demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy, but also confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence from the country. As seen with the Tigrayan forces and with Oromo resistance, this scenario is a tangle of a war of survival, a defence against a predatory state, and a quest for self-determination and self-rule. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged its response to wars of resistance, as seen in the 1961–1991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state and led to the secession of Eritrea.
On the other hand is the scenario of centralisation, the basis of which is to reclaim the quasi-unitarist powers that have been – at least de jure – dismantled over decades. This scenario brings back memories of Ethiopia’s highly contested history of forcible assimilation, ethnic domination and neglect of the periphery. The same unitarist style of governance, albeit retaining some vestiges of decentralisation, is what is now in the making, feeding on the extreme nationalism, quasi-imperial ambitions and military adventurism that have led to wars with far-reaching consequences for human security and state integrity. Proponents of this scenario are determined to secure and monopolise power through whatever means available. When convenient, they employ constitutional norms such as elections with no real competitive platforms; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including waging genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision of the old Ethiopian state that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic. With the help of Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and his troops, these forces of centralisation and of power consolidation are the authors and owners of the current wars in Ethiopia.
Human security vs national sovereignty
The war of November 2020 is narrated as a war for the survival and the security of the population in Tigray on the one hand, and that of sovereignty and state integrity on the other. It morphed into a patriotic resistance that turned civilians into combatants. The sheer number of armies and forces engaged in the war on Tigray attests to the scorched-earth policies of the military operation. They came with massive force to wipe Tigrayans off the map. It was a clear campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination of the Tigrayan people and their identity markers. Several international organisations, including the UN and Human Rights Watch, have established that ethnicity-based war crimes, crimes against humanity and elements of genocide have been committed in Tigray by the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by Amhara forces. Even the US government has confirmed that the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans is ongoing. Thousands of Tigrayan women have been raped. Millions of Tigrayans remain displaced and systematically starved; tens of thousands have been extrajudicially killed through indiscriminate shelling and bombing. The conflict in Tigray has taken an unimaginable human toll since it first erupted in November 2020, and Tigray has been under a brutal siege for more than three years. According to Ghent University, as many as 500,000 Tigrayans have been killed in the war or have died from starvation. From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
The Tigrayan population remains largely in a communication blackout, allowed only a trickle of the essential public services necessary to sustain life. Humanitarian aid had been systematically blocked off and diverted, and still remains little compared to the need. Industries, factories and infrastructure have been destroyed. UNESCO-registered and other heritage sites, such as religious and cultural buildings, have been pillaged and desecrated.
For the Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean forces, sovereignty is an absolute weapon, and a licence to wage genocidal war in the name of territorial integrity. However, under international law, sovereignty has long been construed to be a responsibility to protect. The sovereignty of the Ethiopian state has not only failed to protect civilians all over the country, but it has been used as a weapon to exterminate Tigrayans, particularly as the hostile Eritrean army and the Amhara forces were invited to participate in the war and occupy parts of Tigray.
From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
Resistance wars for survival can only end when the security of the populace is guaranteed. Robust mechanisms to ensure the security of all people facing a perpetual threat from state and non-state actors are vital to prevent a relapse of war and sustain peace.
The civil wars in Tigray and in other parts of the country have created bad blood, not only between current generations, but also for generations to come. Peaceful coexistence should be possible, but only if there are independent investigations to establish the truth, and mechanisms to guarantee justice and that such a genocidal war does not break out again in the future. For the sake of sustainable peace, perpetrators should be held to account, and justice delivered to the victims.
In pursuit of national dialogue
A war of scenarios can be resolved only through a comprehensive and all-inclusive dialogue and negotiations. The first step towards this would be recognition that there can be no military solution to wars such as the one in Tigray or the on-going ones in Oromia and other regions, and that sustaining peace requires justice for the victims. In this spirit, I am one of the many Ethiopians who have repeatedly called for truth, justice, dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia as the only way to a peaceful resolution to never-ending conflicts. Since 2011, I have written and presented several proposals for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Previous governments have been unwilling to heed these calls.
In 2020, without an inclusive national dialogue, the federal government postponed the elections and extended its term of office and those of the regional governments. I vehemently opposed the decision. I also supported Tigray’s decision to conduct its elections within the constitutional timeframe, despite the federal government’s decision. Furthermore, I strongly condemned the use of force by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments against regional states, including Oromia, Somali and Tigray.
Raising my voice against oppression has meant that my family is once again facing peril.
My life has come full cycle, but I remain unbowed. More than anything, my childhood experience has influenced my keen interest in protecting human rights, addressing displacement, and promoting human security measures in general. I refuse to be a prisoner of my family’s loss. I refuse to become accusatory and embittered. I avoid a life of self-pity. Crucially, the experience has fuelled my determination to try to help bring about a political governance that is protective of human rights in Ethiopia, and in Africa as a whole. This commitment was amply reinforced during my early years at Addis Ababa University as a Student Union president and subsequently at the universities of Harvard, Oxford and Giessen, and now leading a programme that trains young African leaders at the European University Institute. I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty. This philosophy is based on the maxim of Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes us all blind.”
I have concluded that those who have lived through catastrophic events have two paths to choose from: the unprincipled, vicious life of a “villain-victim”, or the worthy life of a “hero-victim”. I chose the latter: to use my horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to a peaceful country and a more peaceful continent. I will do what I can to put an end to situations in which children are compelled to grow up parentless in an environment of conflict and violence.
I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty.
Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the same way, no one should be allowed to remain neutral in choosing between war criminals and victims, war and peace, justice and impunity. I side with victims over war criminals, I choose peace over war, justice over impunity.
“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation”, said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. He added, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”
‘Country Queen’ and Kenya’s Endless Battle Against Corporate Greed
Tsilanga is the story of a community that is destroyed by greed and lust for power in a cycle of degradation where individual desires and fears transcend the communal good.
In memory of Olwenya Maina
The Kenyan film Country Queen opens with a disturbing scene that shatters a serene evening in a fictional village called Tsilanga. Men and women are winding down after a long day of toil whilst others are just starting. A herder is driving his livestock back home; children are squeezing what remains of the day into a favourite game, and in what appears to be Tsilanga Market, a few women in makeshift stalls are either making last-minute sales or closing up for the day.
Then the next frame shifts to three young children running into a homestead full of trees, where an old man in glasses, dressed all in white except for a sky blue sleeveless sweater, sits with a book in hand. But it is the frame that follows that puts the plot into proper perspective. One of the children who just entered the homestead alarms the old man, fondly called Mwalimu (Raymond Ofula), when she shows him a dead chicken. Mwalimu rises, shocked and agitated, and falters behind what appears to be his store. Just a few metres away, he spots dozens of his chicken, all dead. Overcome by shock, Mwalimu collapses. He is later discovered by his wife, still alive.
Art imitating life
Country Queen premiered on Netflix on 15 July 2022 to wild excitement and praise from Kenyans. The six-episode drama series largely features notable household names in the Kenyan film industry, with rich experience in acting. However, it is the inclusion of other less familiar actors and actresses that strikes a balance in a film that imitates life with such powerful intensity, cutting deep into the wounds that have plagued Kenya since independence.
In the movie, Akisa (Melissa Kiplagat), an event planner in Nairobi, returns to her home village of Tsilanga after receiving the news that her father, Mwalimu, is seriously ill. Akisa has been away from home for a decade now following a bitter fallout with her parents after they took her baby from her claiming she was still too young to be a mother.
However, in Tsilanga, things have changed at a dramatic pace, and with alarming consequences for the villagers and the general environment. Possessed by insatiable greed and hunger for profits, Vivienne Tsibala (Nini Wacera) and her new husband Max Tsibala (Blessing Lung’aho), owners of Eco Rock, a gold mining company, have been buying land belonging to the villagers to expand their business, even if it means uprooting families. Akisa’s family, which is a direct victim of the mining company, vigorously wards off the company’s overtures against extreme odds, but pays a heavy price when Mwalimu succumbs to health complications due to the pollution caused by the mining firm.
Destruction of Tsilanga village
And in a shocking twist, Max, who is at the centre of the destruction of Tsilanga village and its environment, is also in love with Akisa, who at one point even introduces him to her mother, long after her father has been buried. Interestingly, not everyone surrenders to Eco Rock. There is sustained resistance from ordinary villagers led by Kyalo (Melvin Alusa) who will risk everything, including their freedom, in order to expose the exploitative nature of the mining company, even as other village elders and the local administration mount a pushback to protect the company. In the end, while the movie does not explicitly say so, it is obvious that Eco Rock has succeeded in fragmenting the Tsilanga community. Dozens of villagers sell their parcels of land and pack their meagre belongings to move to the city, much to Kyalo’s frustration.
Corruption, complicity and resistance
At the heart of Country Queen, which is acted in English, Kiswahili, Kamba and a bit of Sheng, is a world turned upside down by corporate greed and lust for power, supported by a cast of enablers – ordinary people, close family members, mainstream journalists and police officers. The revelation in the movie is not surprising. Indeed, it is true that the moral degradation of society is not always a one-way occurrence – where powerful people lord it over passive and innocent ordinary citizens. Instead, in the cycle of degradation, individual desires and fears often transcend the communal good. Joe (Olwenya Maina), a dedicated journalist keen to expose Eco Rock activities, finally accepts a bribe because he and his wife are unable to have a child, and their combined salaries cannot afford them in vitro fertilisation, an expensive medical procedure. Afraid that his wife will leave him, Joe accepts money from Ms Tsibala in exchange for not writing negative stories about her mining company.
However, in the absence of a vibrant mainstream media ready to hold the powerful to account, citizen journalism and activism fill the void. One afternoon, Kyalo, Akisa’s first lover, sneaks into the gold mine area undetected, whips out his smartphone and livestreams Eco Rock’s activities, which include the use of child labour to dig for gold under harsh and deplorable conditions. His video goes viral and enrages the whole nation. Joe, disappointed that he has been scooped, still remains conflicted but sticks to siding with the gold mining company. Like his equally powerful role in Nairobi Half Life (2012), another popular Kenyan movie that depicted the moral tensions that afflict individuals in a corrupt society, Olwenya reminds us that the thin line between good and evil, at times, depends on one’s material circumstances, and not the idealised notion of conscience.
Language as a weapon
The cinematic choice to use the Kamba language in Country Queen also builds into the argument of a citizen-centred role in challenging various power structures. Tsilanga is a typical rural area where people go about their ordinary lives quietly amidst tight communal ties. It is often external forces, as we see with Eco Rock, that threaten to ruin ties and damage the social fabric. When Kyalo mobilises a few villagers from Tsilanga to storm the gold mine, they chant in Kikamba, calling for the mining company to halt its activities and leave the village. The camaraderie among the demonstrators is warm and their resolute determination is evident, not just because they speak a common language against their oppressor, but because, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o reminds us in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Language, there’s a cultural awakening happening in them at the same time.
Afraid that his wife will leave him, Joe accepts money from Ms Tsibala in exchange for not writing negative stories about her mining company.
The wider cultural shift is simultaneously occurring in the minds of a Kenyan audience that is gradually embracing local productions that depict their lived realities, as opposed to what Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku, in her review of Country Queen in Afrocritik, calls the tendency “to prioritise glamour for the sake of attracting foreign audiences”. Like Nairobi Half Life, which became a major hit because a broad base of Kenyans could relate to the events and lives of the characters, Country Queen pushes the boundaries even further, despite some of its contrived plotlines and narrative flaws. In the final analysis, the Kenyan drama series is a welcome contribution to the African popular culture scene as it attempts to carve out its own unique cultural identity, even as it borrows generously from the standard cinematic techniques, making it both local and of the world.
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