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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic

14 min read.

In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic
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Oyunga Pala, Curator-in-Chief, The Elephant

Death knocks at your door and before you can tell him come in, he is in the house with you ~ Grace Ogot in Tekayo

Towards the end of January 2020, we discussed the coronavirus outbreak in China during an editorial meeting at The Elephant. At the time, the issue seemed not within the immediate scope of the important world events we should look into. A month later, we published a piece by Nairobi-based writer April Zhu on the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, and the subsequent wave of sinophobia that was spreading faster than the coronavirus. By the third week of March, Kenya was in the grip of the COVID-19 global health crisis. The coronavirus has now become our lived reality in a manner that none of us could have predicted.

Our core mandate at The Elephant is to explain society to the people and the advent of COVID-19 has brought society into extraordinary times; the pandemic has provoked an existential crisis across the world, reordering all facets of life in real time.

At a time when good journalism is constrained by corporate interests, a deluge of fake news, state propaganda and sensationalism, The Elephant seeks clarity for its audience. In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. Even as we adhered to the health protocols of physical distancing, we leaned into the social solidarity of our intellectual community to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

Normal Service Will Not Be Resumed

John Githongo is the Publisher at The Elephant

Across the planet, extraordinary circumstances have been precipitated by an invisible deadly viral threat whose freedom of movement has not only caused illness and death. The fear it has provoked, and the measures taken to contain it, have brought humanity to a unique point of inflection. The asymmetrical challenge the coronavirus has posed to governments has caused them to literally throw their economies at the pandemic in a desperate attempt to slow it down. Previous major pandemics have served to reorder society and this one will be no different. Even as the economic consequences of the coronavirus begin to be felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.

We have come to the stark realisation that, despite the experiments of the past 40 years, governments cannot shirk the responsibility of providing quality healthcare, security and education for all citizens. In the short-term, across Africa, we will have to free up resources to mitigate the economic blast that’s on its way and which will quickly become political if mismanaged. Debt will have to be renegotiated or set aside and if our elites insist on stealing even this, the next extreme stress test will be brought to bear on the security services called upon to manage the revolt of hungry populations. Ironically, the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity to transform our economy and politics in true service to the people. The greatest crisis will not have been the virus itself but rather, a failure of the imagination in the face of the massive disruption it will have caused.

Advent Season of the Virus

Yvonne A. Owuor is an award-winning writer, editor and theoretician

Elements from a surreal landscape we call earth: Wuhan. Wet Market. Dr. Li Weinliang (RIP), Kenyan students and citizens stranded in moving virus epicentres; an Ambassador who resorts to praying for them—turns out she was right: social isolation + moral support as the most effective solution. Animals strolling into humanity’s silenced cities (at least we now know that in the event of our mass demise, the animals who have been watching us, after all, will take over our cities, and nature, it seems, truly does abhor a vacuum), the halting of work as we know it, a new shared grammar; social distancing, COVID-19, curfew. Verbally adept Italian mayors, Mutahi Kagwe, startling Kenyans by being a state official in an entrenched “mediocraty” that looks and sounds competent and coherent.

The likelihood of a post-virus global economic recession and depression. The roles of States (with the primary pimps of Neoliberal Logic revealing themselves to be oddly inchoate now) and how each performed on the “capacity, management and delivery of public goods” scorecard, in the face of this equalising global existential threat, that has also offered the world a common language. (It has caused (for a while) persistent dumb dichotomies–Us/them; West/Other; Developed/Undeveloped… that sought to assert themselves to fizzle away in the face of chilling reality). The masks that concealed so many cracked facades, even in Kenya, are off and in this humanising moment where the only battle is Life vs Death spin only sounds like garble.

Most significantly, COVID-19 is the defining virus for a new generation. That generation watches in terror at the incompetence of their elders whose instinct it is to apply old tested answers to new untested crises. After this storm, the generation is likely to emerge from the womb of darkness furious and frothing, armed with a collectivised will to uproot the status quo by whatever means. They will use the unique grammar of their generation, wired by a preternatural technological savvy, to programme another imagination of being in the world. They will confuse the Emperor-elders, who they see, through the lenses of the virus, have, in reality been buzzing about stark naked even as they preached robes of many colours. That generation did it (as organised netizens) for Dr. Ai Fen’s article by resorting to assorted censor-algorithm-beating language forms. They succeeded. Something is coming: a virus is its herald. Let the games begin.

Racism, Ecology and Conservation Politics

Dr Mordecai Ogada is a writer, conservationist and co-author of the book The Big Conservation Lie

Our warped conservation sector hasn’t been spared the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, I have advised that tourism should be treated as a by-product of conservation, rather than the basis for it, precisely because of the fickle nature of the tourism business. Kenya’s relentless pursuit of tourism at the expense of more resilient indigenous livelihoods like pastoralism, is a fallacy that is only matched by our obsession with tourists of foreign extraction as some kind of validation of our standing as a country. Now that tourism has crashed for the foreseeable future, the weakness of this model has been brutally exposed, with tourism interests begging for donations and bailouts, while livestock production continues unimpeded.

This trauma may just be the “reset” button required to rouse our conservation sector from the slumber that styles the Kenya wildlife service as a tourism organisation under a Ministry of “Tourism and Wildlife”, led by a minister who was a long-term tourism practitioner. A “woken up” Kenya would hopefully come to the realisation that we should conserve first for ourselves and then receive the visitors who come to partake of what we have conserved to serve our own needs. Our obsession with foreign (preferably white) tourists and conservation thinking is what provides fertile ground for the racial prejudice, corruption and unseemly dependence on charity that still persist in this sector. May there be a bright dawn at the end of this dark night.

Pandemics, Tech and the Future of Work

Njanja Mwangi is the founder and Director of Apex College in Sydney City, Australia

The recent discussion online and elsewhere on how the coronavirus will force Kenyan firms to rethink the way work is done, ignores the fact that expectations of a virtual work revolution accelerated by this pandemic are overblown. The optimistic belief is that we will abruptly move into a future where offices and the nine to five workday will be replaced with virtual work and results-only workplaces.

I think this optimism about a revolution around work is premature. Allow me to explain. A question I have often asked any manager I have met over the years is, “What proportion of the workforce would you say is below average to terrible at their job?” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone give me a number of less than 70 per cent. This means that in any workplace or society, 7 out of 10 people can’t be relied upon to consistently understand and effectively execute work instructions.

A number of tools have been perfected over the years to mitigate this reality including in management, human resources departments, offices and work schedules. Talk to any Baby Boomer who owns a business in Kenya and they will tell you that “waKenya ni lazima wakaliwe” (Kenyans must be sat upon, i.e. micro-managed).

This means that, firstly, once this crisis is over, a lot of workplaces will resume business as usual to allow the tools that make up for workplace incompetence to do their thing. Secondly, there definitely will be people who will transition to working from home but I think it would be foolish to assume that this change will not come with a lot of controls, many of which will make working from home much less appealing than it currently appears.

A Braver, Newer World

Rasna Warah is a writer, editor and author of Unsilenced

The coronavirus has heralded an age of uncertainty around the globe, but one thing is certain: the world will never be the same again. After the coronavirus pandemic has run its course, and even after a vaccine against the disease has been developed, a shaken world will be forced to reevaluate its priorities.

We may be forced to ask ourselves difficult existential questions, such as: should we continue ravaging and plundering the earth in the name of profit and economic growth? Can we sustain a world where a tiny number of people own and control the majority of its resources? What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? One where sharing and cooperation are the norm or one where greed and individualism trump compassion and generosity?

What use are armies when a virus like this one can silently and stealthily decimate unsuspecting populations? How do we prepare for such a disaster in the future? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? What really is the meaning of life? Maybe human beings still have a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe now is the time to reassert our collective humanity.

Terror, Security and COVID-19

Abdullahi Boru is a security expert and writer with a focus on the Horn of Africa

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a trifecta of impacts: health, the economy and public order.  All are inextricably interlinked.

In the Horn of Africa where the national health infrastructure is fragile and there are hardly any formal social safety fallback options, the proposed iterations of lockdowns announced by the governments as a means of containing the spread of the virus could ignite public order crises. And considering that some of the countries in the region are landlocked, public disruption in one country could spread to neighbouring countries.

Such vulnerabilities provide a window of opportunity for transnational non-state actors. With the security agencies preoccupied with the local public order crisis, non-state actors like Al Shabaab, while sensitive to public opinion, are not averse to inflicting maximum damage to the state at its point of weakness.

The dawn attacks at Camp Simba in Manda show that Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to soft and hard national military targets, but also target American bases in the region. Moreover, AMISOM bases will be particularly in the group’s crosshairs now that drawdown of the forces has been announced. Over the last few months, Al Shabaab fighters have been seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and some have been arrested while taking flying classes, an indication of the group’s ambition to remain the pre-eminent Al Qaeda franchise internationally.

Tech and Our Lives Post-Corona

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, writer, policy analyst, advocacy strategist and musician

Digital technologies will be a cornerstone of life after the pandemic. Development, investment, policy and governance plans will carry the term “digital” as a prefix.

Today, we may welcome proposals like digitally tracking infected persons’ movements to flatten the curve. The flipside: they are also the building blocks for a surveillance-ridden future. Our consent lies in our desire to see governments “do whatever it takes” to put an end to the rona.

But it won’t be as simple as switching off the apps and algorithms tracking the virus, and by extension, people. These “solutions” are also feeding the appetite that states and tech providers already have for the datafication of every aspect of our lives; to monitor our every move, every transaction, every activity.

The justification to keep the digital surveillance in place will be that there will be other crises for which the activated technology can be put to use. Going cashless today may mean saying goodbye to autonomy tomorrow. Today’s coronavirus victim could be any one of us that will be deemed to be out of line with the system’s rules in the future.

We urgently need narratives and strategies to counter the overwhelming tide of techno-solutionism sweeping in and positioning itself as the silver bullet. Or else, life after the coronavirus will come to imitate our dystopian fictions.

Institutionalised Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Darius Okolla is a writer, editor and curator of audio-visual content at The Elephant 

Many Kenyans will not know that there exists a corpus of colonial-era writings and policies grounded in scientific racism, many of which have been incorporated into the current laws, mindsets and worldviews that govern our public life. The marketisation of basic services – water, education, healthcare – arbitrary application of the law, endemic corruption, and even the theft of blood from our blood banks are the manifestations of this institutionalised racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront the cluelessness and heavy-handedness of a ruling regime that has perpetuated this historical racism which has engendered feelings of cultural inferiority and encouraged anti-intellectualism, elite ineptitude, collapse of moral courage, predatory public instincts, commercialisation of public life, and corruption, particularly in the healthcare sector.

In imposing a curfew and partial lockdown, the state should have taken into account our communal existence, particularly our conception of space, social relations, interdependencies, and supply chains. How, for example, does this lockdown shape night travel? Marikiti 4 a.m. agro-purchases? Where on the scale of essential services do critical “non-essential” ecosystems like Gikomba fit given their place in the crucial informal economy? Thus far, however, the state’s haphazard policies have only served to precipitate the chaos and pushback that happened in Likoni, the defiance of curfew in Eldoret, and the citizen violence against the police in Malindi.

We need to intellectualise more and securitise less, using a pandemic mitigation advisory panel consisting of epidemiologists, urban planners, public interest lawyers, urban anthropologists, public health teams, virologists, economists, and the clergy to craft county-specific lockdown policies. This pandemic should be a road back to crafting human-centred, data-informed public policy.

Tech, Pandemics and Viruses

Alan Kawamara is a techie and a software developer at The Elephant

With the world quickly realising the benefits of digital-ready workspaces and teleworking, COVID-19 has handed digital transformation evangelists a huge opportunity to spread the tech gospel further and faster. Everywhere in our digital spaces, online workspaces hitherto unknown are mentioned, shared and applied with a new-found zeal as workplaces try to find new ways of keeping the work going.

Going forward, organisations will rethink their working models, embracing Cloud technology and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) solutions to cushion themselves against future disruptions. Therefore, in many ways COVID-19 can be said to be as much a tech virus as it is a biological virus. It has unleashed a disruption similar to the infamous Stuxnet virus, the world’s first digital weapon.

Having gone through the challenges of having to perform in the unpredictable time of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals and organisations will have to embrace cultures of experimentation, being willing to quickly adapt, scale or drop tech solutions depending on new and fast-changing variables.

With greater digitisation, reliance on data and analytics for decision-making will become key, with managers keen on obtaining almost real-time measurement of team and work efficiencies. Governments will make more determined investments in internet infrastructure, allowing for faster and cheaper access to connectivity as an enabler of this new way of working.

Pandemics, Power and Foreign Lands

Shingai Kagunda is an MFA graduate student at Brown University

Isn’t it much harder to write when the speculative possibility of a globalised pandemic becomes reality? The worldwide scourge and its ramifications have now become this bottomless anxiety sitting in our being, making itself comfortable. COVID-19 has ensured that many aspects of national and racial existence now carry with them clear or tacit signs that say “Not welcome here”.

This is an even much more personal loss for those of us who are so far away from home facing so many unknowns. And it was even more strongly felt as I watched the last flight leave New York for Kenya, leaving a sense of “so now?” hanging in the air.

Currently, out here in the US, we have to stay home, and where possible take walks—six feet away from other bodies—and turn to Zoom for classes. This is a whole re-education of our lives. We have to rely on multiple video chats to speak to family and friends at least once a day. Ideally, this is an opportune time to dream up alternative ways of being because the pandemic has interrupted capital, supply chains, human connection, and life as we know it.

We must now begin to imagine what this will mean for the long haul and what our world and lives will be after the pandemic. No doubt, we must prepare for a radical shift of priorities in the after. We will need to set terms that will, and must, gain momentum in healthcare, redistribution of resources; we must choose life over profit. In the end we must sit and reflect and read and write and work and rest and draw and notice the earth breathing.

A New Philosophy of Man

Joe Kobuthi is a philosopher and a curator at The Elephant

For all creation, gazing eagerly as if with outstretched neck, is waiting and longing to see the manifestation of the sons of God. Romans 8:19

The scientific and technological advancements, the military-industrial complex, the sophisticated economic, social and political arrangements of the western hegemonic model now appear futile in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humanity and nature have been groaning with eager expectation for something other than this five-hundred-year European experiment that has revealed itself to be rapacious and genocidal where the world is concerned. The West now lives at such a crazy, reckless speed that it has lost all reason and moral authority as it sinks into the abyss.

Here in the global south, we must no longer benchmark with this edifice as the standard for human advancement. No, we do not want to catch up to anyone. What we want is to move forward in the company of all men. It is now time for the peoples at the periphery to begin a new history for mankind.

After COVID-19, if our desire is human progress, we must create other ways of being. For Mother Nature and for humanity’s sake, we must rebuild from the ruins, think anew and attempt to set afoot a new philosophy of man. 

Coronavirus and a Changing Media Landscape

John Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and team lead of Africa Uncensored

I’m hoping that mine will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I see a media landscape that will be changed by the virus, in many ways for the better. What we are observing in the face of the pandemic is the resurgence of expert opinion from actual experts, a curiosity and hunger for fact by some (not all) journalists and a deeper appreciation for the importance of quality information by the public. So in that respect, the bones of journalism are relatively intact even if they have been weakened over time.

What is much harder to establish is how journalism will survive. COVID-19 has thrust upon almost every country that it has touched economic strain unseen in the 21st century. The value chains that supported journalism that were already imperiled now seem like they almost certainly will break, and more than ever, media houses in Kenya will have to find a way to ensure a future for themselves. This could be done through decentralising the news cycle and moving resources to create a plethora of news products and a more robust ecosystem. Swanky news studios may either have to become more spartan or be used as much as possible to generate new income.

The best coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a window into what could be. The very nature of the pandemic is such that the numbers being tracked change every day, and the lack of clarity about when it will end means that journalists have to think deeply about how to make their stories less and less perishable. Hopefully, this will lead to institutional thinking about the kind of investment that must be made for news to be useful.  Otherwise, even more media space will be captured by those who can pay for it.

Alternative media will flourish in the short term, but to survive, boutique media houses will have to search for partnerships that allow them to collaborate on content and share resources. Finally, what I hope for is that people recognise that good journalism is a public good, and fight for a national broadcaster that reports for the nation, not for the holders of office whom we have confused for the overlords of this precious public commodity.

Post-coronavirus and the need for communal solidarity. 

Betty Guchu is a writer and editor

I am returnee, a former long-term remittance woman (in the sense that I was doing the remitting, gladly). I came back, jaded by the world of international development cooperation, where the cooperation seems to benefit only the highly paid functionaries and the development experts that hang on to their coattails, earning a handsome fee with every contract. The waste of resources, the corruption, the nepotism and the cronyism finally got to me and the racism that one day asserted that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, to justify the exclusion of the views of the so-called beneficiaries, was the final straw. I started casting about for another way to live and to earn a living. More simply and more meaningfully. Before it was too late.

Out in the Kenyan countryside I have found such a life, in a community where we are each other’s social safety net. A hospital bill is shared, not just among friends and family, but within the community. As is the cost of a burial. My neighbour watches out for me and it doesn’t take long to know who the chicken thief is. Tools are borrowed and lent and seeds and seedlings exchanged. Advice is freely given, some of it old wives’ tales until you find out that it is not, having skeptically applied it. New ideas are welcomed and knowledge freely shared. Projects are initiated, funds raised and labour provided, elected officials showing up at the tail end to bask in the reflected glory. As is their wont.

It is not that folk here are nicer or more generous than folk anywhere else; it is that the environment is less alienating, that the inter-generational relationships are still quite strong, that the gap between the better-off and the less so is not a yawning chasm. But also, it is the realisation that “there, but by the grace of God, go I” that spurs the solidarity, the acknowledgement that unless we help each other, we all sink together. May the coronavirus bring all of us everywhere to that happy realisation.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?

The Building Bridges Initiative fails to inspire because it offers simplistic solutions to problems that have more to do with poor leadership than with Kenyans’ inability to be responsible citizens.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?
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I have resisted commenting on the recently launched Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, mainly because in Kenya today if you oppose the BBI, you are labelled as being in Deputy President William Ruto’s camp, and if you support it, you are seen as being on the side of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new ally, former opposition leader, Raila Odinga. And since I do not belong to either of these groups, I was afraid that by commenting on the report, I might inadvertently be labelled pro-Uhuru or pro-Ruto.

Critics of the BBI have mainly focused on whether amending the constitution through the BBI process is, in fact, unconstitutional as it would bypass many of the requirements for amending the 2010 constitution, which are onerous and virtually impossible to fulfill without a national consensus. Some critics, like the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that by giving the president power to appoint a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, the BBI is calling for a return to an imperial presidency.

On the other hand, supporters of the BBI – particularly the “handshake” stakeholders and many commentators in the mainstream media – have lauded the BBI for being the magic pill that will unite the country and spur social and economic development.

Intellectual surrender 

Having now read the abridged version of the BBI report, I can conclusively say that it has failed to address the biggest crisis facing this country – that of poor leadership. The most offensive and egregious section of the report is undoubtedly the opening Validation Statement, which places the responsibility for all that is wrong with this country squarely on the shoulders of Kenyans – not on our leaders, who got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

The report states: “Kenyans decried the fact that Kenya lacked a sense of national ethos and is increasingly a nation of distinct individuals instead of an individually distinct nation. And we have placed too much emphasis on what the nation can do for each of us – our rights – and given almost no attention to what we each must do for our nation: our responsibilities.”

As Wandia Njoya pointed out in a recent article, what the BBI has effectively done is told Kenyans that they are to blame if their rights are violated. And if moral and ethical standards have dropped across the country, it’s not because the country’s politicians have lowered moral and ethical standards and have set a bad precedent, but because Kenyans just don’t know how to behave properly. It’s called blaming the victim.

It suggests that Kenyans are somehow wired to be evil or corrupt, that decades of state-inflicted brutality against citizens – an offshoot of a neocolonial dispensation where citizens are treated as gullible and exploitable subjects – has nothing to do with the culture of impunity we find ourselves in. That the contemptuous way in which we are treated by state institutions – at police stations, in public hospitals, in government offices – is somehow our fault. And that the example of how to behave was not established by the state and its officials that consistently fail to deliver justice to Kenyans and turn a blind eye to violence committed by state and security organs, especially against the poor. Remember, this is a country where a chicken thief can end up spending a year in jail, but a minister who has stolen billions from state coffers can get away scot-free.

Njoya writes:

We are told that discussing history is blaming colonialists and refusing to take responsibility for our own actions. That discussing ethnic privilege and patronage is attacking every single member of that ethnic group. That discussing patriarchy is blaming men. That explaining systemic causes of problems is explaining away or excusing those problems. Every public conversation in Kenya is a war against complex thinking. We have reached the point where Kenyan public conversations are pervaded by this system of intellectual simplification.

Hence the BBI’s proposal to set up a new commission to address “indiscipline in children, breakdown of marriages and general erosion of cultural values in today’s society”. Presumably, this commission will take on the role of parents, school teachers and community leaders “by mainstreaming ethics training and awareness in mentoring and counselling sessions in religious activities and through community outreach programmes”.

What is being implied here is that if only Kenyans were more religious, they might not behave so badly. (I wonder if the drafters of the report know that Kenyans are among the most religious people in the world. Yet we are consistently ranked as among the most corrupt countries on the planet.)

The BBI report recognises that ethnic divisions have polarised the country, but it does not acknowledge that ethnic polarisation is the result of a political leadership that forms opportunistic tribal alliances for its own advantage and is happy to pit one ethnic community against another in order to win elections.

Moreover, its recommendations on how to reduce ethnic animosity appear to be based on the idea that if you force different ethnic communities to live in close proximity to each other, Kenya will miraculously become a society where all ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.

There is also this misguided belief that if the people in authority are from an ethnic group that is distinct from the ethnic group that these people lord over, there will be more accountability (a model borrowed from the Kenya Police and the colonial and post-colonial district and provincial commissioners’ templates). Hence the Ministry of Education should “adopt policy guidelines that discourage local recruitment and staffing of teachers”.

Many sociologists and behavioural scientists might argue that, in fact, if you want more accountability and cohesion in a community, the leadership should come from that same community. So, for instance, if police officers belong to the same ethnic community that they serve and protect, they are more likely to be more accountable to that community because any signs of misconduct on the part of the officer will be perceived as having a direct bearing on the welfare of that community. A bribe-taking officer is more likely to be reprimanded by his community because it is his community that suffers when he takes a bribe. A Kalenjin police officer posted in Malindi, for instance, will not care what the Giriama community he is extorting bribes from or is brutalising think of him because he is not part of them and is not accountable to them or to their community leaders and elders. This accountability is further diminished by the current practice of police officers regularly being transferred to different localities.

Similarly, in schools, particularly those in remote or marginalised areas, it is important that the teachers be from that community because they also play the role of mentors and role models. We are more likely to follow in the footsteps of someone who looks like us and who has a similar history than someone who doesn’t. Which is why Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has opened the doors to leadership for so many girls and women of colour in the United States.

This is not to say that the BBI report glosses over the problems facing marginalised communities. On the contrary, it makes it a point to highlight that “the marginalised, the under-served and the poor” are suffering and are in urgent need of “an immediate helping hand and employment opportunities to help them survive”. What the report fails to recognise is that the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was designed to ensure that such communities are not condemned to perpetual poverty. Devolution was supposed to sort out issues of marginalisation by ensuring that previously marginalised communities and counties are empowered to improve their own welfare. By making them recipients of hand-outs, the BBI has added insult to their injury.

Thankfully, the report does recommend that previous reports by task forces and land-related commissions, including the Ndung’u Land Commission and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), be implemented. My question is: If President Uhuru Kenyatta did not implement the recommendations of the TJRC, which handed its report to him in May 2013 shortly after he assumed the presidency, what guarantees do we have that he and his BBI team will implement the recommendations now? The president has also failed on his promise of a Sh10 billion fund for victims of historical injustices. What has changed? Clearly not the leadership (and here I mean the entire leadership, not just Uhuru’s).

Silences and omissions

Moving on to another marginalisation issue: women’s representation. We all know that Parliament has actively resisted the two-thirds gender rule spelled out in the constitution. So what epiphany has occurred now that suddenly there is an urgent desire to include more women in governance institutions? If Parliament had just obeyed the constitution, there would not be a proposal in the BBI to ensure that no more than two-thirds of members of elective or appointive bodies be of the same gender. It would be a given.

And yet while BBI gives with one hand, it takes with the other. The BBI task force proposes that the position of County Women’s Representative in the National Assembly be scrapped.

What’s worse, the BBI actually appears to welcome the recommendation of “some Kenyans” that Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners be appointed by political parties. Really? If you think that the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections were fraudulent and chaotic, then wait for serious fraud and possible violence in an election where the electoral body’s commissioners represent party interests. (If I had my way, I would disband the IEBC altogether and put together a non-partisan body comprising foreign officials to run elections in this country. Maybe then we would have some hope of a free, fair and corruption-free election.)

The BBI is also silent on the role of the IEBC in vetting candidates, and ensuring that they adhere to Chapter Six of the Constitution on leadership and integrity. Let us not forget that many of the candidates in the last two elections had questionable backgrounds, and some were even facing charges in court. Why did the IEBC not ensure that those running for office had clean records?

On the economy, or what it calls “shared prosperity”, the BBI, emphasises the role of industry and manufacturing in the country’s economic development but is silent on agriculture, which currently employs about half of Kenya’s labour force and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, but which remains one the most neglected and abused sectors in Kenya. It’s a miracle that our hardworking and much neglected farmers are able to feed all of us, given that they receive so little support from the government, which consistently undermines local farmers by importing cheap or substandard food and by providing farmers with few incentives.

Besides, it is highly unlikely that Kenya will become a factory for the region, let alone the world, like China, because it simply does not have the capacity to do so. Why not focus on services, another mainstay of the economy?

The BBI also talks of harnessing regional trade and cooperation and sourcing products locally but, again, we know this is simply lip service. If Uhuru Kenyatta’s government was keen on improving trade within the region, it would not have initiated a bilateral trade agreement with the United States that essentially rubbishes and undermines the country’s previous regional trade agreements with Eastern and Southern African countries and trading blocs.

On the yoke around every Kenyan’s neck – corruption – the BBI’s approach is purely legalistic and administrative. It wants speedy prosecution of cases involving corruption and wastage of public resources and it wants to protect whistleblowers. (Good luck with the latter. In my experience, no whistleblower protection policy has protected whistleblowers, not even in the United Nations.)

BBI also wants to digitise all government services to curb graft. But as the economist David Ndii pointed out at the recent launch of the Africog report, “Highway Robbery: Budgeting for State Capture”, if corruption is built into the very architecture of the Kenyan government, no amount of digitisation will help. Remember how the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) was manipulated to steal millions from the Ministry of Devolution in what is known as the NYS scandal? Computer systems are created and run by people, and these people can become very adept at deleting their digital footprints from these systems. As the former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko, pointed out, when corruption is factored into the budget (i.e. when budgets are prepared with corruption in mind), corruption becomes an essential component of procurement and tendering processes. So let’s think of more creative and innovative ways of handling graft within government.

Which is not to say that the BBI task force has not struggled with this issue. There are various proposals to amend public finance laws to make the government more accountable on how it spends taxpayers’ money. But we know that these laws can be undermined by the very people responsible for implementing them, as the various mega-corruption scandals in various ministries and state institutions have shown.

A Trojan horse? 

Many Kenyans suspect that perhaps the real and only reason for the BBI is that it will allow for the creation of new powerful positions – such as that of prime minister to accommodate both Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – and will set the stage for a return to a parliamentary system of governance instead of the current presidential “winner-takes-all” system. But while the latter might appear to be a worthwhile endeavour, the fact that former opposers of the new constitution and the parliamentary system now appear to be endorsing both suggests that there is something more to this than meets the eye. As Prof. Yash Pal Ghai has repeatedly stated, the constitution endorsed at Bomas was premised on a parliamentary system and was only changed at the last minute to accommodate a presidential system. That is how we ended up where we are now.

It also appears strange that those who benefitted most from the presidential system now want to change the constitution.  As Waikwa Wanyoike, put it:

Worse, those hell-bent on immobilising the constitution have done so by conjuring up and feeding a narrative that it is an idealistic and unrealistic charter. Because they wield power, they have used their vantage points to counter most of the salutary aspects of the constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta’s consistent and contemptuous refusal to follow basic requirements of the constitution in executing the duties of his office, including his endless defiance of court orders, stands out as the most apt example here.

Yet all this is calculated to create cynicism among Kenyans about the potency of the constitution. Hoping that the cynicism will erode whatever goodwill Kenyans have towards the constitution, the elites believe that they can fully manipulate or eliminate the constitution entirely and replace it with laws that easily facilitate and legitimise their personal interests, as did Jomo Kenyatta and Moi.

If indeed we want to go back to a parliamentary system through a referendum, then we should hold the referendum when the current crop of politicians (some of whom, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were opposed to the 2010 constitution in the first place) are not in leadership positions because many Kenyans simply don’t trust them to do what is in Kenyans’ best interest. After all, a fox cannot be relied on to guard a chicken coop.

Already the president has urged Parliament to pass laws that conform to the BBI proposals – this even before the proposed referendum that will decide whether the majority of the country’s citizens are for or against the BBI’s raft of recommendations. In other words, the BBI proposals may become laws even before the country decides whether these laws are acceptable and are what the country needs.

Are the goodies proposed in the BBI, such as providing debt relief to jobless graduates and allocating a larger share of national revenue to the counties, just enticements to lure Kenyans onto the BBI bandwagon so as to ensure that the current political establishment consolidates its hold on power? Is the BBI a Trojan horse disguised as a guardian angel? Only time will tell.

One possibility, however, is that a groundswell of public opinion against the BBI might just overturn the whole process.

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Kenyan Statues Must Fall

What could or should full decolonization in Kenya look like?

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Kenyan Statues Must Fall
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In the last few months, Kenyans on Twitter have been circulating images of statues of political elites replaced by deserving national heroes. Most notable is the replacement of the statue of the first president Kenyatta with that of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. This movement has been spurred by the toppling of statues in the US and Europe, where protestors are demanding that their countries grapple with the protracted systemic racism that pervades quotidian Black life.

Calls for the removal of statues that serve as colonial and racist relics have become common means of subverting power structures. In 2015, the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa successfully called for the removal of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes statue. Rhodes, a British imperialist and mining magnate, was at the forefront of laying the foundations of apartheid in South Africa. This decolonizing movement sparked similar outrage on other campuses, as in Oxford, where protesters are now demanding the removal of the Rhodes statue by the university. Similarly, in the US, the politics of memorialization remain contentious, as calls for institutions to atone for their involvement in slavery continue.

Closer to home, in Kenya, what does the fall of statues mean for most postcolonial cities that are mired in complex and intricate histories, whose architecture centers colonial rulers and the postcolonial elite? Cities were, and remain, arenas of power contestations, political games, and socio-cultural constructions. These conjunctural spaces are important sites of study in that they not only inform us about the larger political situations in the country, but also the relationship between the nation-state and its citizens, the pre-independent state, and its former metropole. Borrowing from Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre who contends that conceptions of space have always been political, analyzing city structures is paramount.

Attempting to trace the history of Nairobi’s statues and monuments brings up the city’s deep ties to British colonialism, manifested in the politics surrounding this memorial architecture. During the colonial period, England’s proclivity for erecting monuments and naming streets and physical features to honor their own heroes was a tool for their imperial project as they established Western dominance. For example, the Duke of Connaught unveiled the Queen Victoria statue in 1906, signifying the ascendancy of British rule in Kenya. Alibhai Jevanjee, an Indian who owned a shipping company that worked with the Imperial British East Africa Company—a colonial enterprise that administered the protectorates before the British government assumed full responsibilities—paid for its construction. The Queen’s statue was located in the Jevanjee Gardens in the Central Business District until 2015 before it was vandalized. And, in celebration of King George V’s 25-year reign, his life-like statue graced the newly built High Court Square in the city center. Later, during a state of emergency (1952-1959) imposed by the British colonial government in response to growing anti-colonial upheavals, the administrators erected the East Africa Memorial and the King George VI Memorial. The East Africa Memorial, built in 1956 in the Nairobi War Cemetery, recognized the efforts of the multi-racial troops that fought in Italian Somaliland, Southern Ethiopia, Kenya, and Madagascar in an effort to prop up loyalty to the colonial government. In 1957, the King George VI memorial plaque was put up along Connaught Road, now Parliament Road, to assert colonial presence. These statues and monuments were taken down in 1964 after Kenya was recognized as a republic, signaling the end of British rule.

Some might argue that the tearing down of colonial monuments reduced Nairobi’s significance as a site of memory, however telling accurate history to prevent erasure of the past should be emphasized. Initially, removal of the statues, as well as renaming exercises, were a means to promote nationalism and reduce imperial domination in post-colonial Nairobi. Political elites co-opted this process to position themselves at the forefront of the country’s independence struggle, erasing the efforts of deserving nationalists and groups that fervently fought colonization, such as the Mau Mau.

The erection of monuments in Nairobi after independence was strategically undertaken to inscribe power and shift the landscape. These notable monuments were important instruments in asserting authority over Kenyan citizens and especially those who lived in the city and interacted daily with these structures. In 1973, the government commissioned a London-based sculptor, James Butler, to design a twelve-foot seated statue resembling President Kenyatta, showing continuity with the colonial monumental landscape by replacing King George VI plaque at the city square. The statue stands as an island in front of the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) square—the conference center being one of the more salient buildings in Nairobi. The KICC was the tallest building in the city for about 26 years, underpinning the strategic position of the Kenyatta statue. Interestingly, President Kenyatta launched the conference center and the statue during the 10th anniversary of Kenya’s independence.

President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi came to power in 1978, after Kenyatta’s sudden death and his era was also riddled with monuments as commemorative tools. Just as Kenyatta had the Harambee (pulling together) philosophy, which emphasized collective participation and self-help in development, Moi developed Nyayo, (footsteps) as he was keen on following Kenyatta’s ideals. Nyayo, intended to be a moving force and denoting peace, love, and unity, would later be legitimized as Kenyan law. To be “anti-Nyayo [was] to be anti-Kenya.” Moi set about building monuments all over the city that reflected an ideological philosophy that those around him deeply espoused. On the 20th anniversary of Kenya’s independence in 1983, two monuments were launched: a grand water fountain in Central Park and an intricate National Monument at Uhuru Gardens, just outside the city.

Prior to these celebrations, rumors spread of an alleged coup by Charles Njonjo, a member of the cabinet challenging Moi’s credibility. In response, Moi called for impromptu elections, ensuring that Njonjo’s cronies would be kicked out of the government. The decision to erect these two monuments at the end of the year was, therefore, a strategic signifier that the Moi/Nyayo government was still in power. Geographically, the locations of these monuments were no coincidence either. The Nyayo Fountain was built in Central Park, one of the few remaining public green spaces that most Nairobians frequented to unwind and where most political rallies were held. The National Monument was erected at Uhuru Gardens, the site for the symbolic lowering of the Union Jack at independence. This prominent white Nyayo monument was flanked by two black sculptures to show, ironically, that the government stood for peace and purity.

Erecting statues, as well as renaming streets, institutions, and buildings in Nairobi was meant to signal new political leadership and ideologies. It was also meant to recognize freedom fighters, whose efforts the independent government criminalized and largely ignored. Memorialization is ongoing to date, and despite the practical justifications to erect statues in memory of freedom fighters, the motives of such projects have remained deeply political. For example, it was not until 2007 when Dedan Kimathi’s statue was unveiled, finally recognizing the tremendous efforts of the Mau movement. This statue was put up following surviving fighters’ outcry to honor their marshal. Previously, Kenyan leaders had considered the movement a “terrorist” organization, dropping this colonial-era categorization in 2003, more than 50 years after it was imposed. This would finally allow freedom fighters to demand compensation from the British government for the torture they endured during the rebellion. While Kimathi’s statue is a pride of the city and remains a site of protest and prayers, it has been neglected—unlike Kenyatta’s statute that remains guarded in a controlled space. Furthermore, despite this symbolic recognition of the war heroes, Kimathi’s family, as well as other Mau Mau veterans, continue to live in squalid conditions dispossessed of their land, as the political dynasties plunder our country.

Nairobi remains a space where imperial and postcolonial ideas continually collide to create a new political hybrid that uplifts elite actors while disenfranchising the majority. Monuments celebrating members of the political elite dominate the political landscape, shaping public opinion through farcical reputation-building. As Ugandans call for their streets to be renamed in Kampala, we also insist on not only interrogating and falling our physical structures, which belie the deeds of our “founding fathers,” but also providing history about these monuments that foregrounds the efforts of those who actually fought for our independence.

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Jacinda Ardern, a New Leadership Paradigm and the New Zealand Miracle

New Zealand’s Prime Minister is a very nice centrist. People in the rest of the world, including Africans, calling for her to be emulated should be careful what they wish for.

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Jacinda Ardern, a New Leadership Paradigm and the New Zealand Miracle
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Ever since first coming to power in 2017, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been lauded around the world as a refreshingly empathetic and competent contrast to the increasingly right-wing and often inept leadership seen in countries including the US, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and India. The African continent has been no exception to “Jacindamania,” with people in Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and more expressing their admiration for Ardern and their desire for a similar leader.

When she won a second term in mid-October on the back of a landslide victory for her center-left Labor Party, for example, Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa tweeted congratulations. Chamisa also used the opportunity to unfavorably contrast Zimbabwe’s election infrastructure (“humbling and refreshing to see others holding clean, free, and fair elections”), though some wished to remind him that he was no Ardern: “at least they lead from the forefront and are very strategic, not just on Twitter writing bible verses!” Elsewhere on social media, some South Africans compared her gender and youthfulness to their revolving door of old, underwhelming leaders. Their Nigerian counterparts, in the midst of a national strike against police brutality, concurred: “Nigeria needs a President like Jacinda Ardern. Young, passionate, hardworking consistent and a listener…” (It helped when one of her party’s candidates, Terisa Ngobi, partly of Samoan descent and married to a Ugandan immigrant, defeated a white South African running in Ōtaki, near the capital Wellington, for the far-right New Conservative party. Martin Flauenstein, who finished fifth out of eight candidates, claimed to be an “apartheid survivor,” only to push for “reduced” immigration and to criminalize abortion. For this, he was thoroughly mocked online by South Africans back home.)

But the international hype around Ardern often obscures what it is she represents, and her actual record to date. While there is no doubt that Ardern is a charismatic and effective leader, she has yet to deliver on her promise to lead a truly transformational government.

Ardern’s first term in office was largely defined by multiple unprecedented crises and she rightly deserves significant praise for her response to them. She has demonstrated calm, compassionate, and effective leadership in steering the country through the white supremacist massacre in Christchurch, the deadly volcanic eruption at Whakaari, and now COVID-19. Her response to the Christchurch massacre and the Whakaari eruption prompted journalist Toby Manhire to describe Ardern as bringing “an empathy, steel and clarity that in the most appalling circumstances brought New Zealanders together and inspired people the world over.” Arden has brought the same approach to the COVID-19 response, where her government’s clear communication and swift and decisive action has resulted in one of the most effective responses in the world.

Yet, despite Ardern’s effective leadership and some scattered positive changes—including tightening the country’s gun laws, increasing New Zealand’s refugee quota, investing a record amount in mental health, and decriminalizing abortion—she has largely failed to live up to her own progressive rhetoric and vision for the country. After coming to power in 2017, Ardern promised a “government of transformation” that would “lift up those who have been forgotten or neglected” and “build a truly prosperous nation and a fair society.” Instead, across a range of areas the reality of her government’s action has often been limited and underwhelming.

On climate change, Ardern described it in 2017 as her “generation’s nuclear-free moment.” And yet while her government banned new offshore oil and gas exploration permits and passed the Zero Carbon Act setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050, existing exploration permits remain valid and the act lacks enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, there is no systematic approach to overhauling different sectors of society to address emissions, particularly in transport and agriculture, and to create a green economy. On voting rights, Ardern’s government partially undid the previous National Party government’s ban on prisoner voting. But in only restoring voting rights for prisoners with sentences of three years or less, the government ensured that most prisoners remain disenfranchised. On welfare, the government made some improvements, including introducing a small increase to benefits—but well below the amount recommended by a working group the government had convened, and ignoring, thus far, the majority of the working group’s other recommendations. On tax reform, despite proposing a modest change to the top tax rate, Ardern has repeatedly ruled out a capital gains tax (to tax the sale of assets) and more recently ruled out a wealth tax proposed by the left-wing Greens. On drug reform, while the government made changes to improve access to medical marijuana, the legalization of recreational use was put to a referendum. Ardern then refused to use her political capital to advocate for legalization or say how she would vote in the referendum, only revealing she voted in favor of legalization after results were announced and the public had narrowly voted against it.

If people across the African continent want nice, competent, centrism then Ardern is certainly a leader to emulate. But if they want truly progressive change then it remains to be seen whether she will provide a compelling example to follow. While Ardern tinkers, the climate crisis worsens, inequality increases, housing becomes ever more unaffordable, and poverty and homelessness persist at alarming levels.

Following the recent election, Labor’s former coalition partner and center-right populists New Zealand First (generally regarded as a handbrake on progress during Ardern’s first term) are now gone from government and parliament and Ardern arguably has more political capital than ever. The resounding victory for the left in New Zealand, with the Labor Party and the Greens combined winning over 70 seats in the 120-seat parliament, means there are now no excuses for Ardern not to enact a coherent transformational progressive agenda.

The next three years will ultimately show whether Ardern has the political will and imagination to do so, but so far she has given little indication that her second term will be significantly different from her first. All we are left with then is centrist tinkering and the seemingly endless accumulation of political capital without ever using it.

This post is from a new 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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