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Memo to #UpperDeckPeopleKE: Coronavirus Economic Shock Is Coming and It Has Your Names on It

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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. The jua kali economy is better cushioned and, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, the “job insecure” jua kali workers are more economically secure.

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Memo to #UpperDeckPeopleKE: Coronavirus Economic Shock Is Coming and It Has Your Names on It
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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.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy

Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy
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On 28 June 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations called on the UN to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent. This call came one year after the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. The UN panel of three experts in law enforcement and human rights will investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and make recommendations for change. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

The government of Kenya is strongly placed to support the nomination of its native son, an internationally respected jurist. Kenya is currently a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of “A3 plus 1”, the partnership between the three African members of the Security Council and the Caribbean member of the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Last week on 7 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta co-chaired the African Union, Caribbean Community summit. This meeting between the AU and the Caribbean states agreed to establish the Africa, Brazil, CARICOM, and Diaspora Commission. This Commission will mature into a politico/economic bloc embracing over 2 billion people of African descent. Kenya, with its experience of reparative justice from the era of the Land and Freedom Army, has joined with the Caribbean to advance the international campaign to end the dehumanization of Africans. African descendants around the world have lauded the 2021 Human Rights Council Report for calling on the international community to “dismantle structures and systems designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems.”

Background to the nomination of Hon Willy Mutunga

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to worldwide condemnation of police killings and systemic racism in the United States. The African Members of the UN Human Rights Council pushed hard to garner international support to investigate systemic racism in policing in the United States. In the wake of the global outcry, there were a number of high-level investigations into police killings of innocent Blacks. Three distinguished organizations, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild convened a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to investigate police violence and structural racism in the United States. Virtual public hearings were held in February and March 2021, with testimonies from the families of the victims of some of the most notorious police killings in recent times.

In its report, a panel of leading human rights lawyers from 11 countries found the US in frequent violation of international laws, of committing crimes against humanity by allowing law enforcement officers to kill and torture African Americans with impunity and of “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts”.

Among its principal findings, the Commission found the US guilty of violating its international human rights treaty obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk; tolerating an “alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers” against Black people; and operating a “culture of impunity” in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just “a few bad apples”.

After the Commission’s report was published, the convening organizations’ Steering Committee mobilized international public opinion to publicize its findings. Former CJ Willy Mutunga was one of the jurists in Africa who worked hard to publicize the report’s findings and recommendations.

It was in large part on the basis of these findings that the Human Rights Council issued its own report at the end of June. The United Nations decided to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent, adding international weight to demands in the United States for accountability for police killings of African Americans, and reparations for victims. The panel of three experts will have a three-year mandate to investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing. Many organizations have submitted names for suggested panel members. Legal experts from Global Africa and international jurists have recommended Willy Mutunga to be one of the three panellists. Thus far, the following organizations have endorsed the candidacy of Willy Mutunga:

  1. The African Bar Association, with membership in 37 African Countries.
  2. The United States Human Rights network (USHRN), a National network of U.S. organizations working to strengthen the Human Rights movement in the US.
  3. International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Decent in the United States.
  4. Society of Black Lawyers of the United Kingdom
  5. Bandung Conference, a Diaspora Human Rights network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

There are now calls for the government of Kenya to step forward to be more proactive to lobby the Human Rights Council and to write letters to its President, H.E. Nazhat Shameen Khan (hrcpresidency@un.org), endorsing the candidature of Dr Mutunga. His CV is included for those who want to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kenya to lead the endorsement of Willy Mutunga.

The Steering Committee of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States is coordinating the campaign for Dr Willy Mutunga to be appointed by the UNHRC as a member of the International Expert Mechanism to monitor compliance of the UNHRC findings and recommendations.

The Government of Kenya and Human Rights groups are kindly asked to send copies of their endorsements to the Coordinator, International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States, lennoxhinds@aol.com.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
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The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

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

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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be

To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues.

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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be
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Theatre scholar Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ writes that in 1991, at the height of the clamour for multi-partyism, the government denied a license for the staging of Drumbeats of Kirinyaga, a play by Oby Obyerodhiambo.

The reason given was that the play portrayed an ethnically diverse and politically cohesive Kenya, which contradicted the president’s argument at the time that Kenya was too ethnically divided for multi-partyism.

While President Moi was claiming to care for Kenyans who are too tribal, his government was ironically also suppressing any public display of Kenyans transcending their tribal identities. The government needed to encourage tribalism among Kenyans in order to give itself something to cure.

​We were shocked by the confirmation by a young man, Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica played a major role in polarizing Kenyans during the 2017 elections. Some were insulted that foreigners would deliberately diffuse messages that would polarize us ethnically. Others, however, argued that Kenyans are tribalist, with or without Cambridge Analytica. I think the reality is more complicated than that.

Cambridge Analytica’s role in polarising Kenyans is part of the larger efforts of global and local elites to keep convincing Kenyans that we vote on nothing else but tribe. The elites manipulate culture in order to coerce us to believe that tribalism comes naturally to us Africans. And yet, the reality is something closer to what the government censor did in 1991.

The role of politicians in keeping ethnic temperatures high has been repeatedly stated. But there are two other pillars that keep Kenyans convinced that they are naturally and inevitably tribalist: the use of culture and research by envoys, journalists, researchers, and now, by Cambridge Analytica.

For instance, while Kenyans called for electoral justice, the US ambassador kept framing Kenya’s problem as “long-standing issues” that should be addressed through reconciliation between NASA and Jubilee. The ambassador was savvy enough to know that using the word “tribal” would evoke memories of colonial anthropology. But even “long-standing” is just as insidious, because it appeals to the colonial narrative of Africans as stuck in the past.

Similarly, articles in the local and international media often used tribal data to predict a Jubilee win. The research they quoted almost always used tribe as the major factor in elections, yet there are other factors that influence the way Kenyans vote, such as income, gender, urban migration, economic inequality or voter frustration with politicians.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research. Yet the variables exist. For instance, our media rarely mention economic inequality as a factor influencing election outcomes, and yet one article in Jacobin found a strong correlation between economic inequality and votes for Raila Odinga.

In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein queried the sampling methods of predictions of election results, pointing out that some researchers worked backwards from a known result to a sample, rather than the other way round. Some researchers went to Luo regions and predictably projected a high Raila vote, and to Kikuyu populations and predicted a high Uhuru vote, but did not go, for example, to Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Kisii Nyanza, Garissa and other regions where Jubilee claimed to have won a majority.

Other times, electoral predictions remain unquestioned because claims are made from people with perceived academic clout. For instance, Mutahi Ngunyi gave prestige to the concept of “tyranny of numbers”. Most media did not question the validity of his concept, even when a poorly circulated video done by AfriCOG showed that the premises of Ngunyi’s argument were rather weak.

If Kenyans were naturally tribalistic, the politicians, intellectuals and envoys would not need to keep reminding us of it. And there is a political interest in insisting on our tribalism: it prevents us from asking questions about social justice or worse, from organizing ourselves along other lines such us age, profession, economic status and gender.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research.

The nightmare of the foreign and local elite is of Kenyans organizing as the poor, youth, women or workers, because then, the numbers would surely have an impact. And politicians would not get automatic godfather status like they do as tribes. They would have to pass through institutions like associations and unions, where success is not guaranteed. For instance, politicians’ efforts to divide the doctors along tribal lines backfired and instead produced a hash tag #IAmaTribelessDoctor.

It does not matter how many Kenyans Cambridge Analytica influenced. Even one Kenyan is one Kenyan too many. What matters is that it appealed to Kenyans’ worst fears, essentially hoping to whip up hysteria, just so that the president could win the vote. Our dignity was cheaper than Muigai’s desire to win. Six million dollars cheaper.

But the worst part of the tribal propaganda is that it is based on convincing Kenyans to believe so little of themselves. To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues. For as Daisy Amdany put it, “We are so much better than what the elites make us out to be.  It’s time to believe it, receive it, be it and live it!”

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