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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?

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Despite having a reputation of being the freest in Africa, the mainstream media in Kenya remains hostage to state and corporate interests that determine what can and what cannot be published.

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Manufacturing Non-Dissent: Is the Media in Kenya Really Free?
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Shortly after Daniel arap Moi’s death, when most newspaper columnists and editors in Kenya were extolling the virtues of the former president, and praising him for his “kindness” and “humility”, Father Gabriel Dolan, a columnist with the Sunday Standard, submitted an opinion article that talked of why so many Kenyans who had suffered under Moi’s regime could not forgive him. In his column, the Irish Catholic priest/human rights activist wrote:

Too often we say let bygones be bygones or forgive and forget. Those cheap clichés fail to appreciate how some have suffered . . . The first step in any national healing and reconciliation process is public acknowledgement of what happened. That has not taken place in Kenya. The TJRC [Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission] was an effort at uncovering the nation’s ugly past and putting it on record. But its report has been denied, ignored and demeaned by successive regimes . . . How can you forgive when your perpetrators deny their culpability?

The Sunday Standard, predictably, did not publish the article. In protest, Father Dolan submitted his resignation letter, in which he stated: “Mindful of the subject dealt with in the rejected submission, it is sad that not only did the Moi regime silence critics and free-thinking during his reign but even in death his family-owned media house will gag any columnist who questions its sordid treatment of dissenters, opponents and human rights activists. This is a sad requiem for freedom of the press in Kenya”.

Father Dolan and I were among eight columnists who resigned en masse from the Nation two years ago in protest against what we perceived as undue editorial interference and censorship. (The six other columnists were Maina Kiai, Kwamchetsi Makokha, George Kegoro, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Muthoni Wanyeki.) In our statement, we noted that several editors and writers, and the cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (aka Gado), had been dismissed by the newspaper for being critical of the Jubilee administration. Our exit, noted Kwamchesti Makokha, “belies the crisis in Kenyan media”.

Senior managers at the Nation Media Group (NMG) underplayed the significance of our joint resignation. In a front-page editorial published in the Nation a couple of days later, it insisted that it was non-partisan and “committed to telling the truth”.

Maina Kiai, George Kegoro and Gabriel Dolan were subsequently offered columns at the Sunday Standard. (I began writing an op-ed column for The Elephant, as did Wanyeki, Makokha, Cheeseman and Lynch.) When Kiai, Kegoro, and Dolan moved to the Nation’s biggest rival, I did wonder how they would fare there, given that Moi owned the newspaper in partnership with his former private secretary Joshua Kulei. (Despite claims of editorial independence, the Standard had rarely taken a stand that directly challenged Moi’s leadership, though at certain times in the country’s evolution as a multiparty state, the paper did take daring positions that might have offended its owners.)

Moi’s hold on the Standard became clear to me sometime at the end of 1992, almost exactly a year after the president had called for the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution that ushered in multipartyism. At that time, my weekly column at the Sunday Standard’s pull-out magazine section was abruptly discontinued. The column was titled “Straight from the Heart” and had gained a reputation for its frankness and focus on social (soft) issues. I was 29-years-old at the time, arguably one of the youngest columnists in the country, and an Asian woman to boot. I began writing the column at precisely the time when the Kenyan media was opening up and asking hard questions (thanks to multipartyism). Previously gagged columnists and cartoonists were lapping up their new-found freedom and doing what was previously unthinkable – caricaturing Moi and challenging his regime.

Perhaps it was my youthful naiveté that led to me to the office of Ali Hafidh, the then the editor-in-chief of the Standard newspaper. After waiting for a few minutes outside his office at the Standard’s main offices in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, I was ushered in. I had never met Hafidh before (the pull-out magazine I co-edited was managed by a subsidiary of the Standard and was located in the posh Lonrho building in the central business district, so my interaction with my colleagues in Industrial Area was limited). I expected to meet a rude, loud, and arrogant man (because that had been my experience with editors with big egos in Kenya’s media houses). Hafidh, who had worked as chief sub-editor with the Nation newspaper before taking up the position of editor-in-chief at the Standard, appeared to be a quiet, self-effacing and soft-spoken man. I politely asked him why he had decided to discontinue my column. His response? “Some people didn’t like it”.

Now, in those days if an editor told you that “some people” didn’t like your column or story, you knew exactly who those people were. I walked away from his office without further questions.

At that time the Standard was associated with Mark Too—also known as President Moi’s “Mr Fix-It”—who sat on the board of Roland “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonrho Group, which owned the newspaper. (Lonrho PLC sold the newspaper to Moi in 1995.) It was obvious that someone in Moi’s government was not happy with what I had written. The last column I wrote before my dismissal had talked about why privatising Kenya Airways was not such a wise decision. Did Moi or his cronies feel threatened that such an opinion might derail talks on the sale of the national carrier? If so, I found it quite amusing, if not unbelievable, that a columnist of my rather small stature could offend a head of state. After all, in the world of mega-columnists like Philip Ochieng, Wahome Mutahi (aka Whispers), Kwendo Opanga and Tom Mshindi, I was a midget.

After that experience, I veered away from mainstream journalism and found a career in the United Nations, where I watched Kenya’s pro-democracy movement from a safe distance. Those were the days of Saba Saba rallies, and opposition politicians hiding out in Western embassies. Although the repeal of Section 2A of the constitution had opened up the media space in Kenya, leading to a proliferation of opinion writers and publications, some media houses were less free than others. And Moi’s invisible hand could be felt everywhere.

I only reclaimed my space in mainstream Kenyan journalism many years later, in 2006, when I was offered a weekly op-ed column in the Daily Nation.

How free is free?

Kenya is often lauded by the international community as having one of the freest media on the continent. This is true—but only partially so, as I will explain later. While journalists in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan were (and are) routinely gagged, jailed or even killed, after 1992 it became increasingly rare to hear about journalists being arrested or tortured.

But then, as Noam Chomsky explains in his brilliant treatise Manufacturing Consent, there is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves. Commercial interests and the interests of media owners often determine the content of newspapers. Editors happily give in to these interests because newspapers are for-profit organisations that depend on revenue to survive.

The reason why Kenya’s mainstream traditional media can never be truly independent is that they are part and parcel of what we might refer to as The Establishment. As Denis Galava points out in a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Kenyan Politics (published in February this year and edited by Nic Cheeseman, Karuti Kanyinga and Gabrielle Lynch), “despite a level of independence and the relatively high quality of investigative journalism that has helped to uncover scandals and bring attention to certain injustices . . . the media in Kenya is part of both ideological state apparatuses and other hegemonic structures that help to ‘manufacture consent’”.

There is no need to forcibly censor journalists or news organisations that willingly volunteer to censor themselves

The Nation Media Group, for instance, has always deferred to the government in power because its biggest shareholder, H.H. The Aga Khan, has various commercial interests in Kenya. Even though it has at various times championed opposition politics, it has always been careful not to topple or irreversibly damage the relationship the Group enjoys with the state.

There is also what could be perceived as an unhealthy relationship between the NMG’s Board of Directors and corporate interests that are not particularly keen on independent journalism. As Herman Wasserman and Jacinta Mwende Maweu point out in their paper, “The freedom to be silent? Market pressures on journalistic normative ideals at the Nation Media Group” (Review of African Political Economy, 2014), quite often the NMG’s Board of Directors (most of whom represent or sit on the boards of other companies) make decisions purely on the basis of profit. They wrote:

It is evident that the top executives of the NMG are not trained journalists, but strategic corporate executives to oversee the business orientation of the Group . . . 16 members of the Board of Directors are handpicked by the main shareholder, the Aga Khan, and they are supposed to act as his ‘eyes and ears’ to ensure business prosperity of the group and subsidiary companies . . . This business orientation of the Group is slowly but surely narrowing the gap between journalists and advertisers, bankers, financiers and industrial business people. . .

Wasserman and Maweu note that quite often the Board of Directors exerts pressure on the NMG’s top management, who in turn exert pressure on individual journalists to promote the owners’ interests.

However, “state capture” of the media still plays a dominant role in how commercial media houses in Kenya operate. In both Moi’s and Jomo Kenyatta’s time, it was quite normal for newspaper editors to receive calls from State House urging them not to publish or to underplay a certain story. For instance, when J.M. Kariuki was assassinated in 1975, the Nation newspaper, under the editorship of George Githii, (in) famously reported that the Nyandurua MP was in Zambia.

In another instance in 1989, when Gray Phombeah (full disclosure: Gray is my husband), the Special Projects Editor at the KANU-owned Kenya Times, unearthed an Italian mafia link in Malindi that had close ties to State House, he, along with Joseph Odindo, the acting editor-in-chief, were fired. (The editor-in-chief, Philip Ochieng, was out of the country at the time. Ochieng had “poached” both Gray and Odindo, among other journalists, from the Nation newspaper.) They only got their jobs back after they wrote a personal apology to Moi. (Odindo has since held various senior editorial management positions at the Nation and the Standard. Gray joined the BBC Africa Service in London, and then returned to the BBC’s Nairobi Office, which he eventually headed until his departure in 2008.)

But that was then, in the cloak-and-dagger Moi days, when all journalists were under intense scrutiny, and when no newspaper, let along the ruling party’s, could get away with being critical of the government. Newspapers had moles in every newsroom, and the dreaded Special Branch did not hesitate to pick up journalists for real or imagined negative reporting. But for this practice to continue in another form, this time with the complicity of editors, shows we have not really embraced the concept of independent journalism.

For instance, it is widely believed that under Tom Mshindi’s editorial leadership, the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta enjoyed special privileges at the NMG. The departure or dismissal of several columnists, writers, and editors at the Nation occurred during his tenure—which leads many to believe that he took instructions about who to retain and who to fire from State House.

As Galava notes in his chapter:

Most recently, Tom Mshindi, who was the Nation’s editor-in-chief between 2014 and 2018, was accused by editors and some columnists of engendering self-censorship, uncritical acquiescence to President Kenyatta’s capricious demands, and gatekeeping for the state. During his tenure, Mshindi fired journalists deemed to be too critical of the government, including this author. Also pushed aside was David Ndii, a public intellectual and an ardent critic of the Jubilee government, who wrote a popular fortnightly column in the Saturday Nation. Another low moment for Kenyan journalism was the unprecedented mass resignation of eight independent columnists . . . in March 2018 on the basis of claimed lack of editorial independence. The timing of the columnists’ resignations was critical because it coincided with the hardest clampdown in Kenya’s media history and the most desperate measures of self-preservation that media actors had embraced to survive and profit in the prevailing circumstances.

(Ironically, not long after we resigned from the NMG, Tom Mshindi was offered a retirement package, which included a weekly column in the Sunday Nation.)

It is odd that a newspaper that led a campaign against “brown envelope journalism”—the practice prevalent among many Kenyan journalists of writing stories that are favourable to whoever pays the price—could succumb to government pressure. In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice among politicians, and even among private sector companies. However, as professional standards in newspapers improved, and especially with the advent of commercial TV stations in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, bribery was increasingly not tolerated. (Some journalists even lost their jobs for having taken a bribe.) Top journalists in the country began commanding higher salaries because editors and editorial boards understood the importance of retaining good journalists, news anchors and reporters who could pull in the audiences required to keep profits soaring.

If you can’t buy them, strangle them financially

Under Jubilee, however, the fate of media houses has become increasingly precarious. With the introduction of MyGov, a government pull-out that advertises government jobs and tenders and is essentially a government mouthpiece, revenues in media houses have been plummeting as they no longer benefit from government advertising—a major source of their income. Media houses are cutting back on staff as a result, and some even face imminent closure in the face of declining readership (thanks in part to poor management decisions, such as those made by Mshindi on behalf of the government, which reduced the level of trust that audiences/readers have in the mainstream media—media that not too long ago were rated as among the “most trusted” institutions in the country.) Disgruntled or frustrated journalists are finding livelihoods elsewhere, in PR or in the NGO or private sector.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when journalists were among the lowest-paid professionals in the country, the bribing of reporters became common practice

The quality of journalism has also declined. The previous practice of “buying” journalists and editors or denying media houses advertising in order to “punish” them has resurfaced. Investigative stories implicating senior officials close to the powers that be are being suppressed. Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses where hosts think their main job is to entertain, not to inform or debate. Censorship is also in full swing. Clear evidence of this was the government-orchestrated blackout of three TV channels in January 2018 to prevent them from airing the “swearing-in” of Raila Odinga as the “People’s President” at a rally in Uhuru Park. We are now back in the bad old Moi days.

The only difference between the Moi days and today is that we have far more journalists willingly toeing the government line than we did in the 1990s. Even die-hard anti-Uhuru columnists, like Makau Mutua, have softened their position. The sanitising of Moi during his funeral, the insanely tedious focus on the rivalry between deputy president William Ruto and Uhuru’s new ally, Raila Odinga, and the celebrity-focused mind-numbing stories that pass off as news obscure the life-and-death issues that ordinary Kenyans have to grapple with on a daily basis.

There is also insufficient interrogation of government edicts, including the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI); those opposing BBI are often portrayed as unpatriotic spoilers. Kenyan stories that make international headlines are also ignored or underplayed. For instance, I believe I am the only Kenyan journalist who questioned the role the now-disgraced Cambridge Analytica played in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections.

Talk shows that should ideally be asking the hard questions and making leaders accountable have turned into circuses

Interestingly, social media, or more specifically Kenyans on Twitter (dubbed KOT), have stepped in to fill the vacuum. It should be noted that it was only when a Kenya Airways employee posted a video on social media of a plane from China landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport—despite the government’s stated ban on such flights due to the high number of coronavirus cases in China, where the infection originated—that the Kenyan mainstream media began taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. And when the Kenya Airways employee was suspended by the airline, it was KOT that defended him, not the media houses. (Kenya Airways, in a press statement, claimed he had breached security at the airport and that they had suspended him so they could carry out investigations. A court later ordered that he be reinstated.)

Similarly, the locust invasion that is devouring parts of this country was first highlighted on social media. The government’s response to this livelihood-threatening disaster has since been poor at best, if not contemptuous.

How the mainstream traditional media tackles such issues in a post-opposition Kenya where the citizenry has been homogenised and neutered by the famous handshake between Raila and Uhuru will be interesting to watch as we approach a tumultuous and unpredictable election in 2022. What will also be interesting to see is what alternative sources of news and information Kenyans will rely on as they head to the polls.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward

There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a buffoon. What happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way?

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What Is Trump’s Only Redemption? That He’s an Utter Coward
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Consider something for a second: how severe could things have gotten, both in America and globally, if Trump weren’t an utter coward?

I can already hear the murmurs of dissent: “How can he be a coward? Trump just tried to overthrow the US government on live television!” Yes, that is entirely true — and yet he didn’t. The entire tenure of his administration seems to have been a series of near misses; flirting with dangerous ideas and flitting back under the umbrella of normalcy just before the precipice. Every disaster that he helped to foist on the world could have been exponentially worse — if only he had been as committed to being the strongman he always boasted to be.

He isn’t. He’s a little daddy’s boy, a frightened man-child who doesn’t have the courage to follow through on the bull he himself spouts in front of adoring supporters. He’s an entitled, rich, spoilt moron and always has been. For all the bluster, when the chips are down, he’s quick to back off. Remember that boastful kid in primary school who was probably dropped off in his family’s C-Class Mercedes and looked down on everyone within insulting distance? He’d puff himself up and spit on others, until one day someone slapped the hell out of him. Upon getting struck, and family power no longer mattering, it became apparent that he didn’t even know how to throw a punch. That’s Trump in a nutshell. But Trump was also the gleeful little sociopath who led the charge in starting a fire only to have it pointed out there could be consequences without Daddy around. Learning of possible repercussions, he was the type to throw others quickly under the bus and backtrack from his own fomented chaos.

To be clear, in the last year especially, Trump absolutely could have gone horrifyingly further than he did. Could you imagine if Trump, the wannabe little dictator that he is, had the convictions (terrible though they are) of a Museveni or an Uhuru? It was within his power to do so, but he kept pulling back. Take for instance the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States in the summer of 2020. Yes, there was horrible police violence, clashes amongst protesters, chaos and destitution. In the midst of all of those charred buildings and the all-pervasive sense of loss in Minneapolis (the city where George Floyd was executed by police), I had a feeling I could not quite shake off as masked marchers swarmed in the streets around me: couldn’t this have been so much worse? To be clear, there absolutely could have been martial law declared but all those Trumpian threats of militarising entire cities never fully materialised beyond a handful of arrests by unidentified officers of questionable loyalties.

Sure, all these things are a horror and an affront to “Western society”. We get it. But all things are relative in politics so imagine if Uhuru had been in Trump’s shoes. Kagame calling the shots. Museveni. What would have happened? Experience tells me that those ugly bruises and lost eyes from rubber bullets would have needed body bags; the amount of live ammunition used would have been innumerable, and the scale of the tragedy would have been of unheard of proportions. Ask a Kenyan university student how their protests tend to wind up; talk to a random Kampala youth about how things shook out a couple weeks after the presidential election. If you can manage to find one, talk to an opposition leader in Rwanda. If there are any brave enough to filter back into Burundi, ask anyone involved in the coup attempt against Nkurunziza a few years back. The point here isn’t to give undue credit to tyrants, but merely to point out that things can always be drastically worse.

What happened in November of 2020 in Kampala? Protests at the arrest of Bobi Wine were met with such utter brutality it was incredible that anyone would dare stick their head out. Officially 54 people were killed but there are claims that the real death toll is in fact far higher. Take the days after the Kenyan re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta back in 2017, when there seemed to be a sort of suspension of what was to come next as the election drama unfolded and the cops came down hard on Kawangware and Kibera. That’s what being a totalitarian looks like. It is cops firing on crowds, social media shutdowns and mass power cuts. Looking back years from now, the reality will prevail that Trump could easily have gone there but didn’t.

That is the essence of Trump, absolutely having the power to be a world-class dictator, but lacking the organisational skills, intelligence, or conviction to jump in all the way. He always dips his toe in at the deep end, but never dives. The waters of reality are always a bit too cold for him, the soup just a bit too hot for his liking. His legacy will be one of having half-assed it in all aspects of his administration, from fascism to COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. I don’t think that it is any real stretch to look at him and state plainly that he’s just too cowardly to really accomplish anything that he aspires to. While Sevo cranks out press-ups on state television, Trump has spent his time cranking out tweets in between bites of “quarter-pounder” cheeseburgers from the comfort of his own bed.

Of course, the Western media will not countenance such comparisons, let alone acknowledge how much worse the situation could have easily become at the US Capitol last January 6th. For the American media, this is (rightly) a major blow to US democracy, but (wrongly) the single worst thing that could have happened. For instance, what if just two more of the thousands of protesters had discharged the firearms they were carrying inside that crowded Capitol Building? What if the pipe bombs planted near the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee buildings had exploded? What if the mob had wedged its way into the chambers of the Senate and the House quickly enough to get their hands on members of congress? And what if Trump himself had not backed off and sent out a tepid message to his supporters at the 11th hour?

Think about this: in coup d’état terms, the Trump mob had pulled it off. They had taken the single most important government building in the US and had done so quite easily. Their flags were draped from balconies and their cronies were climbing the ramparts to continue streaming through the doors. They took the seat of government and, for a brief period during the process of transitioning power, successfully interrupted the proceedings and forced all the democratically elected members of congress to scurry into the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels below the Capitol Building to save their very lives. That is a coup. A successful one at that. For one committed to following through on his calls to overthrow the government, this would be a crowning achievement.

Picture this: if three years ago Raila Odinga had called on his supporters to storm State House, and they had successfully done so while Uhuru’s re-election  was being certified, forcing members of parliament to flee in their government-issue Prados, what would that be called? I know what the Western media would have said about it, that it is another sad story of a developing country in Africa that just could not get over the hump of real democracy. There probably would have been some backroom deals with international powers, and an intervention from all those British troops that hold the base up on Mount Kenya may not have been entirely out of the question. Perhaps Raila is the most eloquent example as he does have a bit of a track record of stirring up his supporters after controversial elections then backing down “for the sake of the country” after chaos has already erupted.

The coup was complete but Trump pulled out of it quicker than from his marriage to a wife turning 40. Why? Could it be that it is only when his advisors managed to get his ear during cable news commercial breaks that he realised that he might drown in the madness? I for one certainly think so. When he realised that there would be consequences for his little civil war charade, Trump felt what he always feels — fear. Trump didn’t realise there could be ramifications for what he was doing until someone (not named Mike Pence) put the fear deep into him. He backed off, and American democracy continues shakily on into an uncertain future

Now there actually might be consequences — legal ones at that. Banks are cutting ties and media partnerships are being snuffed out in rapid succession. Some Republicans are now actively jumping ship, others have deflected blame or finally acknowledged that there is a central symptom to the American political condition. It is too little, too late of course, and the task of getting Americans locked in a tribal political death embrace to try not to strangle each other is now firmly in the hands of centrist Democrats who may not actually follow through on the massive economic recovery needed for the citizens of the US to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic disaster. Is the US still the preeminent superpower as the Trump administration takes the exit? Yes, unfortunately it is. Imperialism is still alive and well, and frankly could have weighed way more heavily on the global community over the last four years.

A lingering question remains, one that hangs like a suspended piano over the heads of the Democratic establishment: what or who will come along next? It is obvious that the cat has been let out of the dark ethers of conservatism for a while now; just how much has that cohort been emboldened? It is a question that I have asked before, but now as flags were draped on the smoldering fences that were brought down around the US Capitol, the core of the issue remains; what happens if the next Trump is just mad and brave enough to really commit and go all the way? There is an element to Trump that is almost tragic if he were not such a showman; he evoked something amongst a huge swath of the public consciousness, only for it to prove illusory for Trump never understood what he had within his grasp in the first place.

Whoever comes next might just push the boundaries further out, might commit to striking Iran, take concentration camps for immigrants to a greater extreme, declare martial law and put armed troops in the streets with a standing “shoot to kill” order. Someone who might take measures to outlaw efforts to combat global warming and do all of this without batting an eyelid or seeing any reason to back down. The part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic wasn’t what was visible, but the larger mass just below the surface and out of sight. To put it bluntly, next time the United States might not be pulled back from the brink by cowardice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was not the case in 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uganda: Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are the boss’ options.

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

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