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How Not to Run a Country: Further Reflections on Moi’s Presidency

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Moi’s misrule neutered parliament, turned the courts into his puppets, and the bureaucracy into his handmaid but if his life leaves behind a lesson, it is in the codification of the Kenyan constitution so that the country need never again be subject to the whims of one person.

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How Not to Run a Country: Further Reflections on Moi’s Presidency
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Once the flood of sanctimonious tributes ebbs after Daniel arap Moi’s burial, his true legacy will remain in the 205-page manual on how not to rule a country. Chapter and verse of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, responds to what Moi put the country through in the 24 years he was president: it disperses power, secures human rights, shares resources, protects the environment and guarantees independent institutions. And it says unequivocally, “Never again”.

Moi’s misrule neutered parliament, turned the courts into his puppets, and the bureaucracy into his handmaid. With just a little tinkering – ironically by the man who had been his vice president and minister for finance as well as by Moi’s erstwhile lieutenants – the system he used did put Kenya on the mend, thus confirming the hypothesis that the dictator had been the problem all along.

The sense of relief at Moi’s departure from office was captured in the cartoon by Godfrey Mwampembwa, aka Gado, depicting a public notice with the former president’s caricature announcing that he was no longer authorised to transact any business on behalf of the people of Kenya. But the place of honour for first caricaturing Moi in 1990 belongs to Paul Kelemba, aka Maddo.

Moi’s narcissism drove him to flatter himself into believing that there would come a time when Kenyans would pine for his return to power. Clearly, that did not come to pass in the 18 years he was in retirement – despite the upheavals of two electoral crises that bordered on civil war and secession.

Aware of his limitations in filling founding president Jomo Kenyatta’s shoes, Moi elected instead to follow in his footsteps – the irony of following a dead man’s footsteps backwards was completely lost on him. Greatly buoyed up by the sycophancy of choristers, Moi began to demand flattery as a right; returning from a foreign trip early in his presidency, Moi demanded that everyone sing his tune “like parrots” – just as he had done while serving as Jomo Kenyatta’s vice president for 15 years.

Yet, Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency was not so much a product of his loyalty to founding President Jomo Kenyatta as it was a years-long cloak and dagger scheme choreographed by the Machiavellian Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, to manipulate the Kenyatta succession in the event of his death.

Moi’s narcissism drove him to flatter himself into believing that there would come a time when Kenyans would pine for his return to power

As it happened, the numerous attempts to stop Moi from holding office in an acting capacity for 90 days were rendered moot. Duncan Ndegwa, former Central Bank of Kenya governor, writes in his autobiography that in September 1978 there was a disagreement between Njonjo and the Secretary to the Cabinet concerning Moi’s swearing in — in the presence of the Chief Justice and Moi. In the end, Moi was sworn in as President — and not in an acting capacity as provided for in the Constitution. Within two weeks of Kenyatta’s death, the entire Cabinet pledged loyalty to Moi and endorsed his candidature. He would take oath publicly as President on 14 October 1978, nearly a full month before the 90 days transition period lapsed. Moi, with Njonjo’s help, had just executed the first coup against the Constitution. Njonjo continued to employ Edgar Hoover-style tactics to build files on public figures, which information he would use to blackmail them into silence.

Moi’s presidency started as a collegial affair between himself, State Security minister Godfrey Gitahi Kariuki and Njonjo, with the trio riding together in the presidential limousine – but some say the new boss insisted on this arrangement to avoid assassination.

Njonjo’s error of judgment – hoisting into the presidency someone he considered unfit for the office in an attempt to use him to accede to power – would come back to bury the former AG’s political ambitions. Seduced by Moi into resigning from his position as AG to join Parliament in order to assist him, Njonjo betrayed his hunger for political power and was scalped for it. Within a year, he would be ready for the big fall resulting from the 1982 failed coup d’etat, and be publicly humiliated through a judicial commission of inquiry. Although the commission found Njonjo guilty, Moi pardoned him instantly, so that he could retire to minding businesses in which the president continued to hold shares, and attending the annual dog show. Some speculate that Moi and Njonjo had a gentleman’s pact in which the former would serve as president for five years before handing over to the latter.

Analyses of the pathology of Moi’s dictatorship often identify the failed coup d’état of 1 August 1982 as the turning point in his personality. The evidence points to the contrary.

Although in 1978 Moi had freed political prisoners detained under his watch as Home Affairs minister and ostensibly on Kenyatta’s authority, he returned to the default settings when university students held demonstrations to demand that one-time vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga be allowed to contest the 1979 elections from which he had been barred. The following year, Moi banned the Academic Staff Union, barred external speakers from the university, and seized the passports of eight lecturers (Micere Mugo, Oki Ooko Ombaka, Michael Chege, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Okoth Ogendo, Atieno Odhiambo, Peter Anyang-Nyong’o and Shadrack Gutto).

Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency was a years-long cloak and dagger scheme choreographed by the Machiavellian Attorney General, Charles Njonjo

The open-air theatre at Kamirithu in Limuru was banned, together with the play Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo were staging, Ngaahika Ndeenda. Ngugi and Micere fled into exile.

Later, Moi publicly excoriated linguist Al Amin Mazrui, educational psychologist Edward Oyugi, sociologist George Katama Mkangi, lawyer Willy Mutunga and historians Mukaru Ng’ang’a and Maina wa Kinyatti for teaching “bad ideas”. They were all either arrested, jailed or detained without trial, or forced into exile. It would mark the beginning of the formal decline of the university as a centre of learning and ideas.

The roll of those arrested, convicted and jailed on trumped up charges, or detained without trial, included writers, journalists and thinkers like Wahome Mutahi, Njuguna Mutonya, Paul Amina and Otieno MakOnyango.

In 1980, the army interned the local population in a school field resulting in the death of 3,000 people in what came to be known as the Garissa Massacre. A repeat performance at the Wajir Airstrip resulted in the Wagalla Massacre with 5,000 casualties.

By the end of June 1982, Parliament had removed the security of tenure for judges and the Attorney General, leading to the resignation of two Commonwealth judges — and the country legally became a one-party state. It was believed that at least three coups d’état had been planned for August 1982. By then, Moi already fit the textbook definition of a dictator.

Published memoirs by five people at the centre of government – deputy spy chief Bart Joseph Kibathi, politician Njenga Karume and heads of civil service Jeremiah Kiereini, Simeon Nyachae and Duncan Ndegwa – suggest that Moi knew about the planned August 1, 1982 coup attempt but allowed it to go ahead in order to strengthen his hand in changing leadership in the armed services. Subsequently, Moi disbanded the air force and changed the leadership of the army and the police, stocking them with his co-ethnics. It is ironical that some of the co-ethnics whom he appointed to critical institutions had the most progressive effect on them: General Daudi Tonje, whose regulations continue to guide military service; Brigadier Wilson Boinnet, who rebranded the National Security Intelligence Service; and Micah Cheserem, who led reform at the Central Bank of Kenya in the aftermath of the export compensation scandal.

Moi, with Njonjo’s help, had just executed the first coup against the Constitution

Moi was easily threatened by ideas, and was loath to engage what he termed as “foreign ideologies”. He was mortally afraid of political challenge and competition. Since the 1960 pre-independence election in which he defeated his brother-in-law Eric Bomet in Baringo with 5,225 votes to Bomet’s 503, Moi had dodged every opportunity to obtain a popular mandate, contenting himself with being “elected” unopposed until he was forced to confront his opponents in the 1992 and 1997 elections. In both instances, he slipped through to the presidency with only a third of the vote, even after committing a host of election irregularities.

Notwithstanding Moi’s aversion to new ideas and intellectuals generally, he surrounded himself with pliable intellectuals and left a large imprint on Kenya’s education sector. He appropriated the choral music genre, infiltrated universities through the establishment of district students’ associations, introduced a quota system in admissions to secondary schools and banned the umbrella students’ body, thus entrenching tribalism.

His bold education investment through the Kabarak schools and university, and the change in the education system to respond to the country’s needs as well as expanding higher learning by opening up universities, have all had mixed results. For example, the free milk programme that encouraged school attendance and retention was also used to brainwash children into reciting a loyalty pledge, and collapsed the Kenya Co-operative Creameries.

His undertaking of huge infrastructure projects to expand air transport, increase electricity generation, and his commitment to environmental conservation through tree planting and building gabions is counterbalanced by massive corruption, the proliferation of white elephants, and land grabbing in the country’s water towers.

In 1980, the army interned the local population in a school field resulting in the death of 3,000 people in what came to be known as the Garissa Massacre

A man who never enjoyed a popular mandate outside his Baringo birthplace where his original name – Kapkorios – was lost, Moi seemed easily threatened and reacted by capturing, personalising and predating on the instruments of state – the courts, the police service, the academy, the military, the bureaucracy, the political party.

Significantly, Moi appropriated the treasury and converted it to his personal use to buy and maintain political loyalties or to punish those he perceived as dissenters. Underneath the façade of churchgoer piety, public generosity and the common touch, lurked a cold and vindictive megalomaniac fueled by an insatiable hunger for power.

The assassinations of Foreign minister Robert Ouko, Catholic priest Fr Anthony Kaiser and student leader Solomon Muruli are often laid at Moi’s doorstep, and few others. Yet, many watchers of Jomo Kenyatta’s last years acknowledge his frailty and unavailability, but stop short of assigning blame for the muscular actions that took place in that time, such as the assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Joseph Mboya and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki. These deaths were conveniently laid at Kenyatta’s feet when it was Moi who was Home Affairs Minister and the greatest beneficiary of the victims’ absence from the political arena.

Four years before Mboya’s death, when Kenyatta suffered a mild stroke, and there was great concern about his succession, Moi and Njonjo schemed to create a constitutional amendment to raise the age of presidential eligibility to 40 years, up from 35. Mboya was 37.

Published memoirs by five people at the centre of government suggest that Moi knew about the August 1 1982 coup attempt

Mboya’s assassination in 1969 was believed to have been orchestrated by a “big man”, whom everyone assumed was Kenyatta. No one has explored whether anybody else might have been the “big man”. Moi’s car was stoned when he attempted to pay his respects to Mboya’s widow two days later. Two days after that incident, Moi issued an incongruous statement blaming the death on the Chinese working in concert with “a local party”, meaning the Kenya People’s Union.

In the case of popular legislator Josiah Mwangi Kariuki’s death, Moi issued a statement in Parliament claiming that the politician was in Zambia when in fact his post-mortem examination had already been concluded. Kenyatta took much heat for the killing of Pinto, Mboya and JM Kariuki, but the greatest beneficiary of Kenya losing three leading political giants is not too difficult to imagine.

Under Moi, security services normalised the use of torture and other human rights abuses. The highrise Nyayo House in Nairobi was constructed in 1979 with custom-made torture chambers in the basement, which would be put to chilling use during the years of Moi’s untrammelled power. Numerous families were torn apart by the effects of detention without trial, enforced disappearances and torture.

Handpicked by colonial authorities in 1950 for civics training to become a moderate leader, Moi initially declined to represent Rift Valley in the Legislative Council but later accepted after Moses Mudavadi and Enock Kiprotich Ngulat turned down nominations for the job. In the first electoral contest to represent Rift Valley in the Legislative Council, Moi won 4,000 votes against John ole Tameno (750) and Justus ole Tipis (1,500).

Moi appropriated the treasury and converted it to his personal use to buy and maintain political loyalties

Moi had started out as founder of the regionalist party, the Kenya African Democratic Union, which placed emphasis on human rights. His defection to the centralist Kenya African National Union when Kadu dissolved exposed his commitment as only skin-deep. The defection earned him the plush position of Home Affairs minister, previously held by Vice President Oginga Odinga, from where he harassed his predecessor into resignation.

Some have claimed that Moi sold out on claims for community lands in the Rift Valley in exchange for power. Settlement in the Rift Valley would reemerge as a sticking point, leading to the ethnic and political clashes that marked the darkest periods in Moi’s reign, and the Moi who had warned non-Kalenjin against buying land in Rift Valley would oppose devolution, saying it was a recipe for breaking up the country. His political scions continued the animus through micro-aggressions against the new order.

Moi defenders shy away from interrogating his nationalism but never question his patriotism in the plunder and pilferage of public resources that led to the near-collapse of the economy. Curiously, audit firm Kroll Associates, commissioned by Moi’s successor Mwai Kibaki to investigate corruption in Kenya, found that Moi and his acolytes had stashed Sh140 billion outside the country. A significant amount of money and assets was reportedly surrendered to the government when Moi left power in December 2002.

Since the 1960 pre-independence election in which he defeated his brother-in-law Eric Bomet in Baringo, Moi had dodged every opportunity to obtain a popular mandate

In the 40 years of mediocrity that Moi gave Kenya in service as a member of the Legislative Council, vice president and president, he erected monuments to prop up his fragile ego and gave his name to numerous institutions, but none was large enough to fill the void his rule had created in the nation’s psyche.

Moi considered himself a peacemaker, and intervened in conflicts from Angola and Mozambique to Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. His greatest achievement in the field of diplomacy remains the revival of the East African Community, and the creation of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification, but even here, he had less than stellar results in countries where his personal loyalties clashed with his role as mediator. Moi’s friendship with Juvenal Habiryamana is believed to have influenced his suggestion of a two-state solution for the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi.

His paternalism in Uganda soured relations with Yoweri Museveni when the latter deposed General Tito Okello despite a signed peace agreement and his sheltering of Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre complicated peacemaking in the neighbouring nation.

South Sudan, which was to be the jewel in Moi’s crown of peacemaking efforts, has come apart at the seams. Moi adopted a problematic posture with regard to apartheid South Africa. He received Frederick de Klerk and broke sanctions to allow South African Airways flights to Nairobi, prompting African National Congress’s Nelson Mandela to fly in and seek him out at his Kabarak home.

Under Moi, security services normalised the use of torture and other human rights abuses

Moi’s reentry into Kenyan politics to endorse Kibaki in the 2007 election despite legal bars to his participation from retirement resulted in political rapture that precluded him as peacemaker and mediator when Kenya went bust.

His departure from power opened a floodgate of legal suits for torture and other human rights abuses, land seizures and dispossession, but there has been no formal accounting for economic crimes after the judicial commission of inquiry into the Goldenberg export compensation scandal. It is speculated that when Moi visited Kibaki in a London hospital following the latter’s accident on the campaign trail in 2002, a pact was struck to not prosecute Moi if he allowed free elections that year.

Credit is due to Moi, though, for his ability to adapt to change. Here was a Cold War politician who found his footing in the new world order confronting terrorism and plural politics. The self-styled professor of politics found himself out of his depth in the global arena, and was at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the end of his rule. It is a tragedy that in spite of his deeply felt anti-imperialist sentiment, he mortgaged the country and left it at the mercy of the IMF and the World Bank on his way out.

Even the worst dictators have a human side to them – they love music, play with grandchildren, eat roast maize by the roadside — but it is hardly enough to humanise the evil that they commit.

Moi separated from his wife, Lena, in 1975 and lived as a bachelor until his death, but had reportedly reconciled with her before she died. His biographer, Andrew Morton writes that, with the exception of Gideon, he was disappointed in his children and it is remarkable that he did not attend the burial of his eldest son, ace rally driver Jonathan Toroitich.

South Sudan, which was to be the jewel in Moi’s crown of peacemaking efforts, has come apart at the seams

Books on Moi reveal little of the man, but Wanjiru Waithaka’s fictional account, Duel in the Savanna, portrays a man not too dissimilar to Moi in the character of Zack Dwanje. It is so far the only known speculation on Moi’s personal life. He is survived by his children, Doris, Jennifer, Raymond, Philip, John Mark, Gideon and June.

Kanu, the party Moi took over, is in a shambles, with 13 legislators out of 349 in the national leadership. The country is on a trajectory opposite to where he had been taking it. The harambee, his channel for generosity, has become a conduit for corruption.

A man of numerous contradictions, Moi thrived in randomness – hiring and firing people over the radio, making policy pronouncements by the roadside, and creating the appearance of popular participation in an administration he ran on a very tight leash. If his life leaves behind a lesson, it is in the codification of the Kenyan constitution so that the country need never again be subject to the whims of one person.

Kwamchetsi Makokha
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Kwamchetsi Makokha is a journalist with over two decades on the frontline of the struggle for human dignity. Co-editor (with Arthur Luvai) of the East African poetry anthology, 'Echoes across the Valley', he escapes into literature, the performing arts and agriculture. He is currently Programme Advisor at Journalists For Justice.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.

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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

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What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders

The insensitivity displayed by the Kenyan government during the COVID-19 lockdown has confirmed that the country’s leaders are oblivious to the challenges facing ordinary citizens. This don’t-care attitude could, however, give rise to demands for a more progressive and caring leadership.

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What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders
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If Kenyans had any doubt that the government is oblivious to their worries and concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed their worst fears: the Kenyan government is not only ignorant about how the majority of the country’s citizens live, but it also simply doesn’t care. The level of insensitivity displayed by the president and his cabinet has stunned even those who would normally sing the government’s praises.

A few examples:

1. Bludgeoning citizens during a curfew

When the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a partial lockdown at the end of March, images of police officers brutally beating up people waiting for ferries and other forms of public transport filled social media. There have been at least three reported deaths as a result of the violence inflicted on ordinary citizens by the police. No public apology by the police has been forthcoming, nor has there been any statement on who died and in what circumstances. The cruelty with which the curfew was enforced shocked even the international media, prompting the president to urge the police to use restraint. Yet, the beatings continue to this day. One recent video on social media showed police officers dragging a person from his house for not wearing a face mask – in his own house!

The new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, has adopted a similar “disciplinarian” approach to the pandemic, which has instilled more fear than confidence in the government. Instead of reassuring Kenyans, he has resorted to scolding them, even admonishing those who dare to eat “only one sausage” with their beer at restaurants (Restaurants have been asked to only serve alcoholic drinks to patrons who order food as well.)

2. No safety net for the poor and vulnerable

Meanwhile, President Uhuru Kenyatta, begging bowl in hand, has been imploring donors/lenders to give money to Kenya to allow the country to effectively handle the coronavirus crisis. (It must be noted that the president belongs to among the wealthiest families in the country, running a large monopolistic and highly profitable milk processing enterprise. Yet, there has been no talk of reducing milk prices during this current crisis, nor has the president or his family donated money or milk to charities helping the jobless and the vulnerable.)

Promises of cash transfers and food to those who are suffering extreme hardship as a result of the curfew and lockdown don’t seem to have materialised. A cynical citizenry is already wondering if the funds raised will go towards the intended beneficiaries or will simply line some politically-connected pockets. Anecdotal evidence and other reports indicate that the Sh2,000 (about $20) monthly stipend that was promised to the most vulnerable people has still not been disbursed to them despite assurances by various government officials that cash transfers started in April. A quick, highly unscientific survey I conducted on people living in Kawangware, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, showed that none of the people, who have either been laid off or have had to close down their small businesses, have seen a cent of the stipend.

As Mercy Mwenda, a columnist with the Daily Nation lamented, “Given the current government’s treatment of poor Kenyans, one would be mistaken to assume that one of the key strategies of fighting poverty by this government is by creating more poor . . . It is now that we realise that our interaction with the government, as poor people, starts and ends with elections. In between, only the tragedies affecting the rich and brought by the rich will be focused on”.

3. Flowers for UK medics but no rewards for Kenyan doctors and nurses

Cowed by the state, and with no support system to see them through the crisis, Kenyans had to endure another slap in the face when it was announced that the Kenyan government had sent flowers grown in Kenya to National Health Service (NHS) workers in the United Kingdom in appreciation of their efforts in treating COVID-19 patients. This public relations stunt (probably a misguided attempt by Kenya’s once thriving flower-exporting industry to ensure future exports) backfired. Disgusted Kenyans – who have witnessed a deterioration in their public healthcare system, where doctors and nurses barely have the tools to treat any patient, let alone one suffering from COVID-19, were aghast that the president saw it fit to reward healthcare workers abroad when doctors and nurses in local hospitals have been complaining of lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor wages.

Uhuru responded to his social media critics by admitting that sending flowers to people in a rich country was not just a kind gesture by a poor country; it was a marketing strategy. He told Kenyans that the 300 bouquets of flowers were sent to the UK “to show the world our product” and to protect the country’s flower industry. Kenyans on social media were told to “think before you talk nonsense”.

4. Making people homeless in the middle of a lockdown

There were more shocking events to follow. About three weeks into the lockdown and curfew, some 5,000 people were forcibly evicted from a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi and left homeless. Images of houses being demolished and women and children pleading for mercy did not move the government or the security personnel sent to the scene to halt the eviction.

The eviction happened during a time when no one could leave Nairobi due to containment measures, which meant that the evicted people could not even seek refuge in their rural homes. The 7 p.m. curfew also made it difficult for the evictees to find alternative accommodation at short notice. No one in government wondered how these people would enforce “social distancing” in their homeless state or where they would sleep during a night curfew.

The details about why this eviction was ordered at this time are scanty, but there is speculation that the order was made to pave way for a large development scheme nearby. Even if this is the case, why were the residents not given enough notice? More importantly, why was the eviction exercise (overseen by the police) ordered during a lockdown and curfew?

The international media and social media picked up the story and aired it for the world to see, but there was no apology or explanation from the state, nor any stated plans for resettling, housing or compensating those whose houses were torn down. John Githongo, the publisher of The Elephant, commented on Twitter: “That the demolition of houses of over 5,000 residents of Kariobangi North Ward can take place in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic lockdown demonstrates an official callousness and disregard for the lives and basic dignity of Kenyans that is staggering”.

Jubilee’s poor scorecard

What these tragic events have demonstrated is not just the government’s callousness in the midst of an extremely difficult period, but also its cluelessness, accompanied by extreme greed and an anti-intellectual posture, which has raised levels of mediocrity and incompetence in government not witnessed under Daniel arap Moi’s highly repressive regime. (Even the former president knew that you need intelligent people in government.)

State capture of media organisations has also made a disturbing comeback, with stories of editors taking instructions from State House, and with corporate interests aligning with state interests. (Uhuru’s contempt for the media – and for reading in general – was evident after he assumed the presidency when he stated that newspapers were only good for “wrapping meat”.)

When the coalition Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto first took over in 2013, I thought it merely incompetent. But as the years passed, and as one corruption scandal after another threatened to taint the government’s legacy, it dawned on me that something more sinister was afoot. The corruption scandals were of such huge magnitude that Kenyans stopped counting the zeros in the amounts that were looted. Shady “tenderpreneurs” were blamed, but many Kenyans wondered how such large amounts could pass through important ministries without ministers or permanent secretaries noticing.

Belated attempts to curtail corruption in government have led to the sacking of a Treasury Cabinet Secretary, but this anti-corruption campaign appears to be targeting one side of the coalition government, which has raised questions about its impartiality.

It has also became apparent that the people running the show haven’t a clue about the challenges facing ordinary Kenyans. Election promises – such as the laptop for every Standard One pupil made by Uhuru during his 2013 election campaign – failed to consider that large numbers of Kenyan students go to schools that have no running water or electricity. Some schools, especially in remote areas, don’t even have roofs. One school board member told me of a case where tablets (and not the promised laptops) were delivered but they lie unused because they are not sufficient in number and, in any case, the teachers have not received training.

During the current crisis, government honchos encouraged school children to embrace e-learning at home, not realising that a personal computer is a luxury even for many university students, let alone primary school students.

Despite attempts to paint Uhuru’s “legacy” as one that has delivered tangible benefits to Kenyans, citizens now know that promises made by him and his deputy (like the stadiums that were to be built in various towns across the country) have not materialised. On the contrary, Kenyans have suffered a steep decline in their standard of living, thanks to high rates of inflation and a declining shilling.

And as if Kenyans are not already suffering financially on account of the current lockdown and curfew, the Treasury Secetary, Ukur Yatani, recently proposed a raft of additional taxes, which will make life for poor and middle class Kenyans and those who have lost their jobs or businesses even harder. He wants to impose 14 per cent VAT on liquefied petroleum gas (which was previously exempt from tax); he wants to tax pensions paid to people over the age of 65; he even wants to impose a 14 per cent tax on machinery and equipment used in plastic recycling plants (a real disincentive to those who recycle waste and care for the environment).

These and other new taxes are no doubt a response to the ballooning debt now standing at Sh6.29 trillion (about $60 billion or around 60 per cent of the country’s GDP) that the Jubilee government has inflicted on the country, and which it appears unable to repay. Early this month, Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, downgraded Kenya’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative” owing to the country’s huge repayments on external debt, heavy local debt obligations with less tax income (thanks to a mismanaged economy that saw several small and medium enterprises fold up due to high energy and other costs, including high taxation) and dollar loans that could see repayments rise if the shilling declines sharply. Given that Kenyans are also suffering – and will continue to suffer – from the effects of the COVID-19-related lockdown for several months, if not years, it is deeply insensitive to increase their suffering through punitive taxation.

The Jubilee government’s extortionate methods of taxation remind me of the notorious “hut tax” imposed by the British colonial administration which, having forcibly alienated the indigenous peoples from their land, then proceeded to impose a tax on them as a means of coercing them into paid employment on white settler farms, a form of extortion that eventually led to the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion.

An unholy alliance

Part of the problem is that the ruling elite in Kenya, particularly Uhuru Kenyatta, have never experienced real poverty. Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, came from a humble peasant background, but within a decade of his rule after independence, he had become one of the wealthiest people in the country, with landholdings all across the country, some acquired through coercion.

Deputy President William Ruto has never hidden the fact that he comes from a poor family and even sold chickens by the roadside to earn a living when he was a young man. But it is not lost on Kenyans that the vast fortune he has today is the result of crooked deals he made when he was close to Moi, who groomed him to be a campaigner for his KANU party when it appeared that he might be losing his grip on power. Ruto has since been named in various land-related scandals, allegations he continues to deny.

The unholy alliance between these former International Criminal Court (ICC) indictees opened the floodgates of impunity. When Uhuru and Ruto joined hands to form the Jubilee Party in the run-up to the 2013 election – which they dubbed “a referendum against the ICC” – they were essentially telling Kenyans that any crime – even one against humanity – can be overlooked as long as the people vote overwhelmingly for those accused of that crime. Their election campaign encouraged a wave of known criminals to vie for political office, contrary to Chapter Six of the 2010 Constitution that demands that leaders in government be people of integrity.

However, now, seven years after that marriage of convenience, Uhuru seems to have switched sides. A clear example of the dishonesty that has pervaded his administration is the sidelining of allies of the deputy president, who in 2013 was paraded as the president’s best friend, ally and fellow indictee wrongfully charged by an international court. Both men often appeared in public holding hands and dressed in similar attire (another publicity stunt no doubt concocted by the various PR companies that the president hired to whitewash and shore up his image).

Now that Uhuru has joined hands with his former foe and leader of the now defunct opposition, Raila Odinga, he thinks nothing of dumping his deputy. Ruto is not known to be a man of integrity or honesty either, but when a man he helped to win an election dumps him like an old wet sock, it says a lot about the man doing the dumping. And given that Uhuru is capable of throwing people who helped him win an election under the bus, what guarantee is there he won’t do the same to Raila?

A bumpy ride and possible rebirth

Kenyans are in for a bumpy ride in the months leading up to the 2022 election, what with an ailing economy, thanks to mismanagement and now COVID-19, and a highly charged political environment where friends and foes have become highly interchangeable. In other countries, the mismanagement of the economy and the callous treatment of citizens would normally lead to a change of guard during elections. But this being Kenya – where loyalty to one’s tribe trumps qualifications – all we can expect is more of the same. Or perhaps COVID-19 may have finally helped to unmask our leaders to show their true colours, which could alter the way Kenyans view leadership.

Going forward, I envision a “lost development decade” for Kenya, much like the one that African countries experienced in the 1990s during the implementation of the World Bank-IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that led to withdrawal of essential services by the state and huge job cuts in the public sector, increasing the levels of hardship across the continent. The repayment of unsustainable and reckless loans will no doubt leave Kenya economically much weaker, and halt progress in key sectors. COVID-19 has only served to hasten the country’s inevitable economic decline.

However, we must also remember that the 1990s also gave birth to pro-democracy movements in Kenya and in many other African countries. As then, an angry, disillusioned and impoverished citizenry may now finally say, “Enough is enough!” This could give rise to a progressive alternative leadership that actually cares about the country and its citizens, and which has the vision and capacity to unleash Kenya’s unlimited potential.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries

COVID-19 spreads from Europe to Africa, inverting colonial imaginaries of African disease and challenging inherited hierarchies.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries
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Five days after the first COVID-19 case in Kenya—a young, middle-class returnee to Nairobi—was announced, the word “corona” was beginning to go around in western Kenyan villages. We had come here to look for the sedimented remains of past epidemics and anti-epidemic interventions. We were looking for latent residuals of colonial sleeping sickness and malaria, AIDS and cancer, when this future pandemic caught up with us. At this point, people still shook hands and touched (a week later, many didn’t), and young people played with the word “corona” like it was a novel token. Sylvanus, proud father of seven and devout member of the Legio Maria Church, seemed thrilled by exclaiming the name of the new affliction, followed by somewhat surprising bursts of laughter. He rather enjoyed challenging our seriousness about the matter. He did not fear it, “No, because this is a disease for whites.”

We took a stroll along the shore of Lake Victoria facing the Ugandan border, passing a fishing settlement. It was some years since we had been there and the children ran after us in friendly excitement. Their high-pitched calls rang out like the familiar: “Mzunguuu (white person), how are youuu?” But there was an unexpected variation: “Coronaviruuus, how are youuu?” As we continued walking, the childrens’ choir shifted to a cheekier whisper behind our backs: “Corona! Corona!” which went quiet each time we turned around—probably the point of the game. Returning to the main road, the looks of fishermen and market women felt more intense than usual, though not (yet) hostile. As we climbed in the car, Sylvanus whispered “Corona … ” and shared a bright, disarming laughter with those around us. Driving back towards town, many eyes seemed to follow us. Young men shouted “Corona” as we navigated speedbumps. One added “bye-bye.” A mother waiting for a bus waved us away dismissively. “As if we were Chinese,” our colleague Jehu remarked indignantly.

“Mzungu” had for the moment morphed into “Corona.” White man had become a virus. As we got back to Kisumu city, the address began to carry a latent sense of threat (though the market women during the evening’s shopping were cheerful as ever). This scene was not unfamiliar. Twenty-five years earlier, when Wenzel and his colleagues from the Kenyan Ministry of Health collected blood and stool samples from schoolchildren in the area, they had been called kachinja, “blood-stealers” and once were attacked.

Since colonial occupation, similar scares have occurred all over Africa (as depicted by the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu). As we were writing this blog, social media posts emerged about COVID-19 vaccine research, one picturing French doctor Didier Raoult, allegedly warning “Africans not to take Bill Gates’s vaccine that contains poison”; another claiming that Obama promised “not to allow white people to kill Africans with their toxic vaccines.” Nothing new here—except that now, the calls for resistance, as well as the menace itself, originate from afar, and are given credibility by the faces of “international” figures appearing on one’s smartphone.

There is a rich literature on African stories about (post-)colonial Europeans and their African government-helpers, especially doctors and scientists, deploying alien tools (electricity, cars, syringes, condoms, tape-recorders, etc.) for nefarious aims. Much of this writing concedes some truth to the “rumors” arguing against their colonial dismissal as mere “misunderstandings.”

Such stories, the argument goes, reference experiences of oppression and exploitation (be it specific local situations, layered colonial histories, or the global political economy) and translate racist violence into locally meaningful, some call them “cultural” idioms. The scholarly value of these interpretations of rumor notwithstanding, there was something else at stake as the young men waved us the corona bye-bye. One quarter century ago, we could displace their accusations by means of interpretation. These were not really about the tiny blood samples Wenzel collected for his doctoral thesis as a medical anthropologist seeking to contribute to peoples’ health, but expressed an awareness of historical and global exploitation. And his respectful and critical recognition of these covert meanings served to position himself as different from the colonial agents at whom the rumors were really targeted.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the white man is actually the threat they make him out to be. He, or she, is more likely than others to carry the virus. Instead of washing his hands after visiting someone’s household, he should do so before greeting anyone. The COVID-19 epidemic has an inverted directionality. It runs against both a century-old colonial narrative of Africa as a diseased continent and millennial pandemic predictions of bushmeat-eating African villagers unleashing viral threats to the world.

Now, Europe is the pandemic epicenter, even though within Europe, the disease still follows well-worn tracks of racial and social inequality. Europeans, and the Kenyans close to them, bring it to Kenya, not Chinese builders and businesspeople as initially claimed (and who were the first to offer their help). The Kenyan president therefore prohibits European planes from landing and quarantines their crews. And urban, middle-class Kenyans carry the virus upcountry to forest and bush. On Kenyan TV, villagers urge their educated urban relations to stay in the city, as they threaten the lives of their elders if they come home to visit (or to shelter from draconian anti-epidemic measures).

Whites feature here as a threat in a direct, embodied way—not as mere symbols of historical violence or effigies of the global economic order. Their touch and breath can be lethal. And yet, the epidemic also reveals the same whites as terminally weak, challenging centuries-old assertions of enlightened mastery over humans and non-humans alike. Nigerian film producer Moses Inwang’s much-shared list of lessons from corona opens with “China won the 3rd world war without firing a missile,” followed by “Europeans are not as educated as they appear” (a similar point was made in The Lancet), and “rich people are less immune than the poor.” In other recent “African” epidemics—HIV and Ebola—the figure of the benevolent and potent white person still prevailed. Help flowed from north to south to stem an affliction perceived as originating in Africa. Now, this image is replaced by a combination of danger and impotence mutually enforcing each other, which evokes neither gratitude nor inferiority. One of the most recent anti-vaccination trial memes features a painting of an African woman wielding a knife below the face-mask of a white, male doctor, underscoring that “we’re different from our ancestors.”

Nairobi MP John Kiarie captures the paradox of residual power and infirmity in a tweet from March 28, which warns of harrowing COVID-19 death-tolls and calls for radical action. Before his climax, “Ignore and die!” he says:

Where does this leave the European anthropologists, who departed from Kenya on one of these last planes that arrived empty at night? Our traditional interpretation of local fears as (significant) rumors no longer offers redemption—we are what they address us as. Our knowledge about what happens is not superior, nor more effective than that of those who call us “Corona.” More importantly, our detached and benevolent claim to ethnographic participant observation, always from a position of privilege and relative security, is put into question at precisely the moment when true participation finally becomes inevitable.

Now it is us who “are participated” (as the old aid-worker joke went) by the pervasive virus that is in every touch—maybe in our body, maybe in that of the other. It challenges differentiation, threatening pathogenic communion. And the escape route that we had been able to count on for six decades of post-colonial anthropology is finally being withdrawn—the return flight home, in the worst case the medical evacuation at “unlimited expense.”

It was the Kenyan president’s ban on flights to Europe that gathered us all in the eerie silence of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as we boarded the flight just before the midnight curfew deadline. We got away ok, on the last plane, and did not turn into pumpkins. But, we left with a sense of an ending brought about by coronavirus. As if some irreparable damage has been done to the position of the old white man of any age or gender, and it is not yet evident what new anthropological persona will emerge from it. It is “bye-bye Corona” indeed, and maybe it was time. And yet, we know that COVID-19 has not yet fully arrived in Kenya, along with the inevitable suffering that the epidemic and the anti-epidemic measures is likely to bring about.

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

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