A worried friend called me about a situation he has observed in his neighbourhood somewhere in Kileleshwa. The part-time house-helps who work in the neighbourhood are now jobless. Their clients are at home and can do their own domestic chores, and also limit contact with outsiders in keeping with social distancing. The desperate ladies are now congregating at the roadside perhaps hoping to catch the eye of a passing client to lend a helping hand.
At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, some influential voices in the West, Bill Gates and the UN Secretary General Guterres notably, expressed concerns for Africa and called on the world to prepare to stave of the unimaginable tragedy should the pandemic spread to these shores. Bill Gates talked of 10 million deaths. It may be early days yet, but it has so far not panned out that way, touch wood.
The 2019 Global Health Security Index lists the United States and the United Kingdom as the countries most prepared to handle a pandemic in the world. As I write, the two Anglo-Saxon transatlantic allies account for 35 per cent of confirmed cases, and 40 per cent of fatalities. The UK and Ireland are as similar as any two countries, yet the UK has 11,000 deaths, Ireland 340. Post-COVID-19, the UK and the US will probably end up at the bottom of the heap. The index, now destined for disrepute, is compiled by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), all of them US/UK institutions—imperial hubris and navel gazing.
I fear that many well-to-do Kenyans—those I occasionally chide as #UpperDeckPeopleKE— have a similar blindspot, namely, projecting the crisis onto those less privileged than themselves, wanting to believe that as long as they are properly social-distancing and working remotely, they are insulated from the crisis, and the charitably predisposed can do what they are able to do to extend a helping hand to the less priveleged who (like Africa) are the most exposed. Indeed, when I proposed a Lifeline Fund to cushion businesses and jobs in my open letter to the president three weeks ago, one of the most common reactions was, how would it help mama mboga (the vegetable woman, i.e. vendor)? It was lost to these people that mama mboga would continue to be in business, and might in fact benefit from the switch from eating out to eating at home. Not a single person who engaged me on this issue came across as worried for themselves.
In this column, I will endeavour to put some numbers to the COVID-19 economic shock. I will start with the structure of expenditure in the economy, which we also refer to in economics as aggregate demand. It consists of private consumption, private investment, government consumption, government investment and exports. Everything produced in or imported into Kenya ends up in one of these aggregates. Private consumption is two-thirds of final demand, private investment and exports combined account for just under a quarter, and government spending for just over 10 per cent (see chart below).
What is COVID-19’s impact on each of these?
Private consumption: Food accounts for a third of private consumption, so that will survive, although not the restaurant business. In the US, restaurants account for 60 per cent of the jobs lost so far. Over and above food, most people are only spending money on essential household items. The leisure economy—tourism and sports notably—is out for the count. Best-case scenario: a 60 per cent contraction.
Private investment: Of the five components, investment is the most sensitive to uncertainty. Some businesses will complete projects that are underway, if they are able, but new capital projects will be put on hold. Best-case scenario 75 per cent contraction.
Exports: Horticulture is Kenya’s second-largest export industry after tea, earning $1.2 billion (Sh120 billion), accounting for 20 per cent of exports of goods. The industry has been severely disrupted. The East African Community and COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) countries, which account for a third of exports, are as disrupted as we are. Just as we are not consuming or investing much, they also will not be buying much. Every other export industry is disrupted to some extent. We also need to factor in diaspora remittances, which are not directly captured in the national income accounts. Diaspora remittances are estimated at US$2 billion a year, which translates to 2.5-3.0 per cent of private consumption. Best-case scenario: 50 per cent contraction.
Government consumption: This aggregate consists primarily of recurrent operations and maintenance (O&M) expenditure, i.e. the goods and services that the government uses to provide services. In principle, the COVID-19 shock may not affect it too much because the government can move money from low to high-priority spending, for example from travel to health. Best-case scenario: no disruption.
Government investment: The government could in principle continue with its development projects, although they will be slowed down by the physical disruption, and the logistical challenges created by the partial lockdown of Nairobi. Best-case scenario 25 per cent disruption.
These disruptions add up to 35 per cent expenditure contraction, which I estimate to translate to Sh390 billion a month. The next question is, for how long? Again, the best-case scenario for the pandemic appears to be another two to three months before the global curve flattens sufficiently for countries to risk letting their guard down a little. But the best-case scenario for a vaccine to become available is six months to a year.
A four-month disruption scenario, i.e. to July, works out to a contraction of Sh1.56 trillion. But, of course, the economy will not bounce back immediately, so if we factor in a 50 per cent recovery to December, it goes up to Sh2.3 trillion, which is in the order of 20 per cent of nominal GDP (i.e. before inflation adjustment). Roughly, a one percentage point in nominal GDP translates to 0.4 per cent real (i.e. inflation adjusted) growth, the figure that is normally reported as the annual economic growth rate of between 4 and 6 per cent in recent years. A 20 per cent nominal GDP contraction thus translates to an eight percentage points drop in real GDP growth, which takes us into negative three per cent territory. We have no precedent of an economic shock of this magnitude to compare with.
This is the situation unfolding the world over. Sixteen million people, 10 per cent of the US workforce, have lost their jobs in less than a month. The Penn Wharton Budget Model, a Wharton Business School fiscal policy analysis project, estimates that even with the mammoth $2.2 trillion stimulus, the economy will still shrink by 30 per cent in the second quarter. If borne out, it will be the largest quarterly contraction since World War II. With no end in sight, the language has changed from recession to depression.
Last week the Canadian government recalled parliament and passed a C$73 billion emergency wage subsidy bill, to augment the $103 billion emergency relief package passed a few weeks ago. The first relief package was equivalent to 4.4 per cent of GDP. This increase takes it up to 7.5 per cent. Such was the sense of urgency that the bill was processed by both houses on a Saturday afternoon, and signed into law at 9.30 p.m. that same night.
I am still hopeful that we will dodge the pandemic bullet, or that if it does hit, it will not be cataclysmic. But the economic consequences are inescapable. As this column has observed, the epidemiological and economic dynamics of the pandemic have decoupled. The economy is being ravaged by our self-preservation instinct. The economy thrives on venturesome behaviour—the willingness to trade risk for reward. But seldom is this trade-off a life and death issue—although to be sure some people, gangsters for example, do take life and death risks to make a buck. For the overwhelming majority, making a living is not life threatening. The coronavirus is making it so. We do not know how long it will be before venturing into nightclubs, huge weddings, spectator sports and international travel becomes routine again.
I am still hopeful that we will dodge the pandemic bullet, or that if it does hit, it will not be cataclysmic
A contraction of this scale will shed a lot of jobs. Cities and towns, Nairobi in particular, will be the most badly hit. In another month, a quarter of the Nairobi metropolitan area population—about 1.5 million people—may not have a penny to their name. Even a daily survival budget of Sh50 works out to Sh75 million a day. It is doubtful that private charity can sustain this for a week, and we are talking months.
In a prolonged crisis, formal establishment workers are more exposed to job losses and financial insecurity than those in the micro and small enterprise informal sector, and the higher up the managerial ladder, the more the exposure. Why so? In the micro and small enterprise economy (MSMEs), jua kali as we call it, many enterprises engage own-account workers, for instance, hairdressers, mechanics and carpenters who work for themselves and pay a portion to the business owners. When business is down, people work fewer hours and earn less, but no-one is laid off since they are not on a payroll in the first place. We would characterise jua kali as a flexible wage economy, while the corporate sector as a rigid wage economy.
In economics, wage rigidity/flexibility is a very big deal. If wages were as flexible as the prices of goods, earnings would rise in boom time and decline during downturns. The problem with a contract wage economy is that workers get pay rises when the economy is doing well, but are wont to take pay cuts during downturns (we say that wages are “sticky downwards”) so the only way businesses can reduce costs when business is low is to lay off some workers. The jua kali economy is better cushioned because they share the work available and get a lower income instead of some earning a lot and others nothing. Moreover, given these flexible arrangements and volatile incomes, many of these workers are diversified, that is, they seldom depend on one income stream. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the “job insecure” jua kali workers are more economically secure.
In another month, a quarter of the Nairobi metropolitan area population— about 1.5 million people—may not have a penny to their name
There is also the supply side. The market economy is an integrated and complex autonomous system whose workings we take for granted. The entire edifice is built on, and operated by only two impulses: self-interest and price signals—the impulses that Adam Smith famously named the invisible hand. The invisible hand is the trader who aggregates livestock, takes it to market, returning home with groceries and other supplies for his customers deep in Maasailand. The markets are now closed. It is the much-maligned middleman in that sukuma wiki-laden jalopy that appears out of nowhere in foggy Kinungi. It is tough enough turning a profit in normal times, let alone when one is being shaken down and beaten by police at every turn.
To paraphrase Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the farmer or the trader that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. Once they can’t turn a profit, the dinner will simply not appear, without notice. Only then will we know that social-distanced online work cannot actually feed us, food delivery apps notwithstanding. A critical piece of equipment for medical supplies has broken down, but the maintenance company has shut shop, the fundis have dispersed upcountry, and spare parts are stuck in Dubai. It will take a week at least to get the operation up. Day by day, the coronavirus ravages the economy just as it is ravaging people.
Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan calls the COVID-19 shock “a completely different economics”. “We’re into something else entirely, and the sooner Canada’s decision-makers and news-shapers recognize the contours of this new landscape the sooner we will be able to make sense of the world on the other side”.
The jua kali economy is better cushioned because they share the work available and get a lower income instead of some earning a lot
The sooner decision makers recognize the contours of this new landscape . . . She couldn’t have put it better. Earlier this week the Africa Union appointed some eminent person to mobilise resources. As I write, Africa has lost 790 people, 0.7 per cent of the fatalities. Europe and North America have lost over 100,000, and the toll is still rising. It is not just their economies that are devastated, societies are traumatised. We are going to beg from shell-shocked people who are hanging in by the skin of their teeth; just how helpless, insensitive and entitled can we be?
The most dismal prognosis of “the other side” that I have come across has been put forward by financial economics professor John H. Cochrane, who characterises the coronavirus as a negative permanent technology shock. Technology shocks in economics are transformational innovations—such as steamships, the internal combustion engine, aviation, the microchip—which have propelled modernity since the industrial revolution. Technology shocks have long impulses, for example, from the telegraph to the internet, and from the Wright Brothers to ubiquitous international aviation—and a jet-borne pandemic. A permanent negative technology shock, therefore, is a euphemism for a long-term productivity slowdown, a great leap backwards if you like.
My own sense is that the coronavirus will accelerate a “post-industrial world” that will indeed have elements of going back to basics. How might this “other side” look like?
As the economy convulses, many of the lower income urban workers—who are at any rate temporary migrants—will go back home, as they do during economic downturns and political upheavals. Many will not come back. Over time, self-reliance and resilience will replace preoccupation with getting ahead in the rat race. Development “silver bullets” such as rapid industrialisation, megastructures and growth über alles will lose their allure. Health and nature will matter more. People will be content with life on the slow lane. In this back-to-the-future world, it is the farmers, the fundis and the social workers—teachers, healers, artists—who will be in their element, and the managerial layers of paper pushers—bureaucrats and brokers—who will struggle to find footing and purpose.
Only then will we know that social-distanced online work cannot actually feed us, food delivery apps notwithstanding
The state-society relationship will also be up for critical examination. So far, the national government’s heavy-handed law-and-order approach to a health crisis—its colonial DNA—has ensured that it has not wasted a single opportunity that it has been afforded by the coronavirus to aggravate and further alienate citizens. The only people-centred state responses we’ve seen are from the county governments that the Jubilee administration has been doing its best to undermine and turn the people against. The national political class, parliament notably, has jumped ship and abandoned the people— vanished. But the Jubilee bigwigs have found time for skulduggery over their moribund political party, while Raila Odinga found it wise to give reassurance that the coronavirus is a minor storm and the reggae tsunami will be resuming in no time at all. A more tawdry and inopportune display of mindless obsession with power is hard to contemplate.
With every passing day, the prescience of Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s assertion that the coronavirus will test and mercilessly expose the shortcomings of every country’s health system, governance standards and social capital, is affirmed.
Which entrails of our dysfunctional governance, our venal political class, and the patronage oligarchy writ large—the hollow men—the coronavirus will bare is sure to become clear in the coming days. As to the nature of the beast that will come out on the other side, only time will tell.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands
The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to Oscar Sudi’s comments, and the open defiance of Sudi’s supporters, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The furore over Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi’s recent comments regarding the first family has left many Kenyan women baffled, not least because Kenyan men are not known to be great defenders of women or their body parts. It has been alleged – and the media has erroneously reported – that, in alluding to her breasts, Mr Sudi insulted Mama Ngina, the former first lady and mother of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
When I first heard about this on social media, I thought it was yet another typically crude example of Kenyan misogyny. There are countless examples of Kenyan men, particularly politicians, insulting and deriding women. Female politicians and activists are a favourite target. Women who dare to defy patriarchal norms do not find a comfortable home here. In fact, they have to fight tooth and nail to be recognised.
The late President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, once referred to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai as a woman who had “dudus in her head” when she was protesting the building of a tall office block in Uhuru Park. Recently, Mutahi Ngunyi, a State House operative, referred to Martha Karua, a former Minister of Justice and a presidential candidate in the 2013 election, as “a grandmother with average intelligence and a bloated ego” after she gave a TV interview that challenged the president and Raila Odinga to come clean on the motives behind their rapprochement. (Note: Ngunyi’s use of the word “grandmother” was to suggest that Karua had reached her sell-by date and that she should focus on family matters, not politics. In this case, the insulting of grandmothers was not viewed as hate speech by the authorities.)
Those of us who have cared to listen to the speech that caused so much uproar in the country will agree that Sudi did not insult Mama Ngina’s breasts. He merely stated that Uhuru Kenyatta should not believe that the breasts that he suckled are better than the breasts that Sudi suckled.
What Sudi was simply trying to say (and which got lost in the state’s accusations of “hate speech” and “incitement”) was that all Kenyans are equal and that Uhuru and his family should not believe that they are more important than the rest of Kenyans or that the country belongs to them.
In any other period in our political history, these comments might even be considered heroic – an act of rebellion against hegemonic forces. I would go further to say that Sudi has the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our constitution, so he can say what he wants as long as his utterances are not inflammatory or based on lies. After all, did the young Jomo not say similar things against the British in London’s famous Hyde Park? Is this not what the Mau Mau were saying to the British colonialists when they took up arms against them? Is this not what was conveyed to President Moi during the “Second Liberation” protests? Did Raila Odinga (who was once the leader of the opposition) not challenge election results several times because he wanted Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta to know that Kenya does not belong to just one tribe or to one political party? Fighting for your rights is guaranteed by the 2010 constitution.
But then you have to remember that it was during Jomo Kenyatta’s time that insulting the first family became a criminal offence. Jomo’s Machiavellian Attorney General Charles Njonjo deemed that even imagining the death of the president was punishable. Are we returning to those days of the imperial presidency?
Before I return to the issue of breasts and their significance in the Kenyan imagination, let us recall how we got to this place.
You may remember that prior to the 2013 elections, Uhuru Kenyatta made a Faustian pact (some call it a marriage of convenience) with William Ruto – his fellow indictee at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The deal – amplified by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, which manipulated a highly gullible electorate – was that the election should be viewed as “a referendum against the ICC”. Part of the pact was that if the duo won the presidency, Uhuru would rule the country for ten years and then hand over to Ruto for the next ten years. In other words, Jubilee – their coalition party – would rule Kenya for the next two decades.
But maybe promising to honour a deal was not part of that deal. That Faustian pact has been broken. Ruto has now been relegated to the sidelines following another Faustian pact called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has brought Raila into the Uhuru fold, and which has resulted in an orchestrated assault against Ruto. Some might say that it is Kikuyu privilege and hegemony reasserting itself by coopting dissent. Others says it is a way of healing past wounds and uniting a country fractured by political divisions and disillusionment. Only time will tell which scenario will unfold.
Unfortunately, this pact might lead to more, not less violence. The government’s unreasonably aggressive response to Sudi’s comments, complete with police raids on Sudi’s home, and the open defiance of Sudi’s Kalenjin supporters, who threaten to go to war to defend their leader, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The “handshake” between Uhuru and Raila, instead of easing tensions, has created different forms of polarisation. Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters feel betrayed. Opposition and civil society activists who would have come to Sudi’s defence are now taking sides; those who might have defended his right to free speech are now silent because speaking up might be construed as siding with Ruto. These fractures are most evident on social media.
Let us be very clear on one fact, which somehow gets conveniently brushed under the carpet. The 2013 election was premised on fear. Fear that if the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu do not unite, there will be a constant threat of violence and mass displacement of Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Fear that historical injustices will resurface as a rallying cry during elections – a scenario that neither the Kikuyu nor the Kalenjin elite want because both have blood on their hands.
Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, some believe that the alliance between the two politicians was based more on primal instincts that had to do with self-preservation vis-à-vis the ICC, and the general fear in the country that the 2013 election would be as bloody, if not more, than the 2007one, as the issues that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin in 2007/8, and vice versa, had still not been resolved.
“Though tribe was the watchword in this  election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal,” wrote James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. “Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.”
At that time, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo said that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of most of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multiparty elections in 1992 – had still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. “Those who doubt his [Ruto’s] grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now,” he wrote in African Arguments on 22 May 2013.
Breasts in the Kenyan imagination
The Faustian pact between Uhuru and Ruto, and now between Uhuru and Raila, has lessons for Kenyans. In the classic German legend from which this pact gets its name, Faust is a highly successful but dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. By selling his soul to the devil, Faust is condemned to “The Eternal Empty”. However, female spirits of the earth intervene on his behalf and forgive him for his foolish mistake. Faust suffers some tragedies because of his folly, but in the end he is granted redemption and his soul ascends to heaven in the presence of God and the Virgin Mother. (One moral of the story: female energy is more powerful than the devil.)
We might be tempted to believe that the attacks on Sudi and his ilk are invoking female power. The fact that so many Kenyans (including elderly Kikuyu women who have threatened to strip in front of Sudi) have come out in defence of Mama Ngina’s breasts might suggest that we have reached a Faustian moment. Or perhaps we have evolved into country that actually cares about women and their dignity.
But let us not fool ourselves. For one thing, Mama Ngina, arguably the richest woman in Kenya, is hardly “Wanjiku”. I do not recall her ever defending the rights of poor Kenyan women, or women in general. Two, we are not invoking female energy here to seek redemption. If Kenyan politicians, including Sudi, really cared about women, the two-thirds gender rule would have been enforced in parliament by now.
What we are doing is weaponising the former first lady’s breasts. And sexualizing them, which is very un-African. As Sylvia Tamale writes in African Sexualities, African women’s sexualities were the antithesis of European mores of sex and beauty. Traditional African women had no problems displaying their breasts because breasts in African culture were not objects of sexual desire or titillation; they had one primary purpose – feeding an infant. So talking about breasts was no different from talking about a nose or a leg. If Sudi had “insulted” Mama Ngina’s ear, would we be so upset? The African breast became the object of forbidden fantasy and fetishisation during colonialism when Christian missionaries began their “civilizing mission” in Africa.
In fact, in certain African societies, nakedness was associated with defiance. The Kenyan mothers of political prisoners who “cursed” the Moi government in the early 1990s by stripping at Uhuru Park – because seeing your mother naked is considered a curse in certain Kenyan communities – were not displaying their sexuality; they were displaying their anger. They were defying Moi. Kenyans with a political conscience saw them as heroines. In fact, these mothers will forever remain as symbols of defiance in the annals of Kenyan history.
Maybe now is the Faustian moment when positive female energy can be invoked, not to redeem those who have made selfish pacts, but to take Kenyans down a more enlightened path.
A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency
How might one rate a president who has undermined the Constitution, distorted the economy, and failed to address corruption in state institutions?
Article 129 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states: “Executive authority is derived from the people of Kenya and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution…in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their wellbeing and benefit.”
The Executive (the President) must protect the constitution, safeguard our national sovereignty, promote the unity of the nation (including recognising the diversity of the people and communities), and protect human rights. The Executive is bound by national values and principles of governance. Its duties include maintaining good governance, state finance, integrity, transparency, accountability and foreign affairs.
As the CEO of the government, she also has special responsibility for matters assigned to other ministers: a strong economy, peace between communities, foreign affairs and international relations, national security, and international relations. She must also demonstrate respect for the people, and bring honour to the nation, dignity to the office, and promote public confidence in the integrity of the office. Most importantly, she has the responsibility to serve the people, rather than the power to rule them.
The status of the Prime Minister is different. Normally she is the head of the party with the most members in the main legislature. She appoints government ministers from members of the House. At Kenya’s independence, the CEO was designated the Prime Minister (PM). Jomo Kenyatta was PM for a year and then he changed the system to a presidential one, with himself as president – a system that has remained, despite strong support for a parliamentary system at Bomas.
The PM’s support stems partly from the sense that a PM, coming from and accountable to Parliament, is usually far less of a dominant figure, and her power is less centralised in one person, which was one of the objectives of the search for a new constitutional order. Another reversal from a parliamentary to a presidential system – again motivated by individual self-interest – occurred in the closing stages of the Committee of Experts process.
A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.
But a President is not – in theory – some unguided missile. Checks and balances are supposedly more developed in such a system.
So how has our President performed?
The President and the Judiciary
The Judiciary is the third major arm of the State. Our President has little power to make or remove judges. A number of key decisions are made by the Justice Service Commission, an independent body to which the President appoints two lay members. However, the President’s choice has been from those who can take orders from him, not those who can represent the people as the Constitution requires. In defiance of court orders, he has blocked the appointment of many candidates. He has also criticised judges in office, especially in recent years, and often when his own position is challenged (as in elections).
The President and the economy
African governments play a significant role in the nation’s economy. Over the decades, the state has helped to establish a modern economy, increasingly based on the private sector. Governments have established institutions of various kinds to regulate economies at regional and international levels. The Kenyan government has probably retained more of a direct engagement with the economy than many. The state has also affected the economy in financial, monetary and other areas.
A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.
Uhuru Kenyatta is not known for his business skills, nor did he distinguish himself when he was Minister of Finance. Yet he took it upon himself to negotiate deals (largely in secret, as the Chinese prefer) with the Chinese government for skills, equipment, and money. The very costly standard gauge railway (SGR) deal with China is shrouded in secrecy. A court has decided that by-passing the law on public procurement on the excuse of a “government-to-government contract” was illegal. There has been corruption in the purchase of land for the line and stations, little control over the construction of the line, and very little attention given to the position of Mombasa as a county and the country’s major harbour.
The environment and industry
There have been concerns about the environmental impact of many big Chinese infrastructure projects, including high-speed trains and big dams. China is financing a coal-fired power project that is strongly resisted by the local community. Evidence suggests it is not needed in view of Kenya’s renewable energy sources. The SGR has also had a negative impact on Kenya’s wildlife as it passes through the Nairobi National Park despite vigorous opposition from civil society, including litigation. The decisions on the railway’s route were made by the Kenyan government. Local firms have suffered as a result of the government’s preference for Chinese firms for construction and other projects.
The State as entrepreneur
There are around 260 state-owned enterprises (commercial, like the Kenya Ports Authority; infrastructural, like the Rural Electrification Authority; regulatory, like the National Environment Management Authority; social, like the Kenyatta National Hospital, and teaching- and research-based, like universities). The general view of parastatals in Kenya is negative, including because of politicisation of the parastatals and poor corporate governance. Their boards and chief executives are appointed by the politically powerful, including the President himself. Thus, many operational decisions are made by the partisan and the non-expert. The role of the state corporations’ advisory committees is just advisory, with little impact on policy or practice. The structure of financing and financial management is weak – many state corporations are allocated funds through line ministries. They are chronically underfunded.
When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities. The Constitution requires executive authority to be exercised in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their well-being and benefit. It is heartening to now see that many citizens and organisations have raised their objections to presidential appointments on grounds of violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Self-interest lies at the heart of what ought to be public service for the nation.
A genuinely open and competitive process would far more likely produce competent appointees who are respected by the public. But even if the appointees are the best available, the whole process is wrong – it depends far too much on patronage.
Promoting or fighting corruption?
One of the most critical challenges facing the Executive is, unfortunately, corruption. It started with Jomo, followed by Moi and Kibaki, and now has increased beyond imagination. The economy is largely based on partnerships between businesspeople and politicians or public servants.
Various attempts are made through the Constitution to eliminate corruption. Article 73 sets the high standard demanded of public officers, including bringing honour to the nation and dignity to the office. State officers are expected to promote “public confidence in the integrity of the office” and to make decisions that are “not influenced bv nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices”. Their task is to serve the people, rather than to rule them. But the grip of the Executive on appointments is a major obstacle to dealing with corruption – indeed it is corrupt.
Rarely are business-related acts conducted without significant bribes (to the extent that more foreign businesses, including multinationals, have left Kenya than come in recently). Corruption within state institutions (taxes, customs, contracts, procurements, land appropriations, schools and universities, etc.) has never been so intensive.
When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities.
The police (which is often praised by Uhuru even when it commits brutal acts against innocent citizens), whose mandate is to serve the people, is perhaps the most corrupt institution we have. Of late the President has shown an apparent concern to fight corruption. But dealing more firmly with people within his administration who are suspected of corruption should have been a policy from the beginning. The Executive cannot maintain that “others” are corrupt.
Corruption may no doubt make some Kenyans rich. But it also makes an infinitely larger number of other Kenyans poor. On a broader basis, the President has shown little sympathy for the poor, whose numbers have increased, not decreased, not least because of the current coronavirus pandemic, which led to massive job losses and produced “corona millionaires” through dodgy procurement practices and corruption.
The President and the Constitution
Uhuru has little regard for the Constitution, though he pays lip service to it. If the law does not suit him, he ignores it. Indeed, it seems that the Executive takes the view that if it wants to do something, it will do it regardless of its constitutionality. And it will only decide, if a court objects, whether it will observe the court’s rulings. Think of the takeover of Nairobi County, the creation of the post of Cabinet Administrative Secretary, the importation of the military into the cabinet, the effort to muscle in on the appointment of the Chief Justice, and the tendency to order supposedly independent officers (like the Director of Public Prosecutions) to do things that it wants done.
With such a scorecard, it is hard to make a convincing case for Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.
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