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Will COVID-19 Spell the Death of Cities?

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 in urban areas is raising questions about whether this pandemic will herald the demise of cities. RASNA WARAH argues that cities will continue to exist and grow despite the coronavirus crisis because of the distinctly human need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration.

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Will COVID-19 Spell the Death of Cities?
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“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” – Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City (2011)

In February this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the Kenyan government to impose a partial lockdown in the country, I moved to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a city with a population of 4.4 million, from Malindi, a small town along Kenya’s coast with a population of just 120,000. I had been intending to move back home for several years but 2020 seemed an opportune time to do it. I had spent ten long years in Malindi and was ready to get back to the thick of things where the action was.

Now I know, for most people who live in Nairobi, the city is not “home” – the “true north” of most Nairobians, as Alexander Ikawah pointed out in a recent article, is their rural home, the place they identify most with. Ikawah says that Nairobi is just a place where “city villagers” work; where they have “houses”, not “homes”.

But I am not among these people. I was born in Nairobi, and so was my father and my grandfather. Kenyan Asians don’t typically have a rural home (Asians in Kenya were not encouraged to settle in rural or agricultural land both before and after independence and so are concentrated mainly in urban areas). And even if they have an ancestral home in India or Pakistan, they don’t tend to refer to it as “home”, nor does this ancestral home loom large in their imagination. In fact, many Kenyan Asians have never visited their “motherland”.

I have lived in London in the UK and Boston in the USA, and have travelled to many, many, cities around the world – New York (my favourite city), Istanbul (a cultural delight where East meets West), Mogadishu (a wounded city with nice beaches), Kabul (wounded but with majestic snowy peak backdrops), Havana (a salsa-lover’s dream, arguably the world’s most egalitarian city), Paris (a romantic city with many bridges), Mumbai (a buzzing “maximum city” of people, people, and more people), Beijing (interesting but with high levels of air pollution), Cairo (history lives here), Florence (a beautiful outdoor museum), Johannesburg (a legacy of apartheid, not my favourite city), Dar es Salaam (a friendly coastal city with huge potential), to name a few – but for me, Nairobi is not only home, it is also the place where most of my memories reside.

I will not go into the details about my reasons for leaving Nairobi in the first place, but it had a lot to do with trying to regain some perspective on life after having led a busy treadmill-like work existence where career success depended so much on pleasing a boss and undermining colleagues to move up the career ladder. I was hoping that a break would allow me to do things I hadn’t had time for before, like writing and spending more time with my husband. I dreamed of looking out of the window and seeing palm trees swaying in the wind, and breathing in the salty Indian Ocean breeze. Oh what bliss (and it was)…until I discovered that meaningful social interaction was much more important to me than the sounds and smells of nature. Voluntary self-isolation, I discovered, is neither natural nor healthy. Human beings are wired to be social animals – that is how they survived as a species.

While living in a small sleepy town where nothing much happens gave me the freedom to pursue writing (I ended up writing three books during my self-imposed “exile”) and other interests, I had a gnawing sense that I was in danger of disconnecting and self-isolating myself from all that was meaningful in my life. I yearned for intellectual stimulation and missed cultural and literary events. I longed to go to the cinema and hang out with my family. My social interactions in Malindi were superficial; I was in danger of becoming like the many expatriate (mostly Italian and British) retirees in the town, whose lives revolve around bridge parties and afternoon siestas induced by copious amounts of wine.

The truth is, I was lonely. I had not found my “tribe” in Malindi.

Then COVID-19 happened. It is unfortunate that my return to Nairobi coincided with a dusk-to-dawn curfew and partial lockdown, so my intentions of absorbing myself into city life have once again have been put on hold. I am back to self-isolating again.

Cities are not the problem

The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about whether cities will lose their allure, and whether people will look to leading simpler rural or small town lives. The fact that the virus emanated from the city of Wuhan in China and spread across the world through networks of cities and transport hubs is making people wonder whether we should be seeking more dispersed and less dense forms of settlement.

However, Tomasz Sudra, a former colleague who is now retired from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told me that it was unfair to blame cities for COVID-19 because the virus could have been contained early if the Chinese government had not decided to suppress “bad news”.

“The medical doctor who blew the whistle on the virus and died from it was forced to confess that he was spreading false news and was arrested,” he said. “The epidemic [in China] became a pandemic because the government suppressed the free flow of information.”

Cities have not only been associated with the rapid spread of diseases, but environmental degradation as well. The concentration of human and industrial activity in cities and the over-reliance on motorised forms of transport have been blamed for the air pollution that characterises so many of the world’s large cities. Images of smog-free cities as a result of lockdowns (especially in China, where air pollution levels are so excessive that city residents routinely wear face masks) have been circulating on social media. People are asking whether the climate crisis could be blamed on cities, and whether COVID-19 will force us to seek alternative lifestyles.

John Gray, writing in the 3 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, says that the current crisis is a “turning point” in history. “The era of peak globalization is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were,” he predicts.

Is the city – itself a product of globalisation and the movement of goods and people from one shore or trading route to another – losing its attraction? Will there be a return to the nostalgic longing for rural life popularised by people like Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “true India” could only be found in the country’s villages? I don’t think so. The world, including India, is more urban than it was in Gandhi’s time. “True India” is no longer only in India’s villages, but in its teeming cities and towns, which currently host 34 per cent of the country’s population.

Just over a decade ago, there were more rural folk on this planet than city folk, but that changed around 2007 when the world’s urban population equaled the world’s rural population for the first time. Though some regions of the world, notably Europe, North America and Latin America, became predominantly urban much earlier (around the 1950s), the rapid urban growth rates in poorer parts of the world in the last fifty years have demonstrated that the pull of the city is stronger than ever. Cities must be offering something that villages don’t, or can’t.

I must confess that I have spent much of my professional life writing about what is wrong with cities and what can be done about it. At UN-Habitat, where I worked as an editor for more than a decade, the emphasis was on urban poverty and all its manifestations, including informal settlements (also known as slums). In 2006, UN-Habitat declared that one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum, with sub-Saharan Africa having the largest proportion of its urban population living in slum conditions, with little or no access to water, sanitation, electricity and adequate housing. Asia hosted the largest number of slum dwellers, though some sub-regions in the continent were doing better than others. Slums, warned UN-Habitat, were threatening to become a “dominant and distinct type of settlement in cities of the developing world”.

This grim assessment was followed by another one in 2008, when UN-Habitat sounded the alarm on rising inequalities in cities, and warned that economic and social inequalities in urban areas had the potential to destabilise countries and make them economically unsustainable. Highly unequal cities – where the rich lead vastly different lives from the poor – are breeding grounds for social unrest, and social unrest disrupts economic activities, went the argument. UN-Habitat stated that pro-poor and inclusive urban development could significantly decrease these inequalities and make cities more sustainable. While the UN agency acknowledged that energy consumption in cities was impacting negatively on the environment, it made a case for mitigating the impact of carbon emissions through solutions such as environmentally-friendly public transport and the use of green energy.

Cities are not the problem; how we plan them is the central issue, said the experts.

The benefits of city life

Throughout history, cities have a played a central role in creating and sustaining civilizations. Cities are not just places where economic activities are concentrated, they are also crucibles of innovation and culture. The rise and fall of cities has often been associated with the rise and fall of civilizations. Cities such as Rome and Athens had their “golden ages”; some survived a loss of status; others became relics.

In 2006, I was asked to write a short chapter on the benefits of urban living for UN-Habitat’s 2006 State of the World’s Cities report, which focused almost entirely on the gloomy topic of slums. The thinking was that there was a danger that in highlighting the problems in cities and slums, we might inadvertently throw the baby out with the bath water and that as the UN’s “City Agency”, it would be counterproductive to focus only on the negative aspects of urban life. In other words, by presenting cities as places where nasty things happen, we might actually be sending an anti-urban message to the general public and to policymakers.

Because cities were – and still are – viewed as the engines of economic development, and economic growth is generally credited for reducing poverty levels (though this has not been the case in some countries), I had to make an argument that made economic sense to governments and the public at large. So I argued that because so much economic activity in a country is concentrated in its cities, “cities make countries rich”. I further pointed out that the concentration of populations and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewerage systems, drains, roads, and other infrastructure. Therefore, the economies of scale that cities offer are not replicable in small, less dense human settlements. Building a hospital or a road in a town or village with a population of just 50,000 is far less efficient per capita than building a hospital or road in a large urban area that hosts a population of 5 million (regardless of the ethics of making such a choice).

The central argument was that rural people don’t just up and move to a city; the main driver of rural-to-urban migration is economic opportunities and the chance to lead a better quality of life. In almost all countries, rural poverty levels are higher than urban poverty levels. (For instance, the poverty rate in rural Kenya is about 40 per cent, compared to around 28 per cent in peri-urban and urban areas.) Indeed, the data showed that despite the pathetic and hazardous living conditions in slums, people who lived in slums often viewed them as a “first step” out of rural poverty. As Edward Glaeser, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says in his book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.”

However, villages are not stagnant places either; some, like Mumbai, which was once a fishing village, grow to become megacities (defined as cities with populations of more than 10 million). Some cities, like Nairobi, were not even villages originally; Nairobi literally grew out of nothing except a railway depot built at the beginning of the 20th century. The world’s great cities did not only grow because they were centres of trade and commerce; they also grew because they were religious, political, administrative or cultural centres, and this is what drew – and continues to draw – people to them.

Many rural people move to cities because they believe that they and their families will have better access to health and education. Cities also offer women more opportunities for social and economic mobility. Unrestrained by discriminatory customs and traditions, urban women are more likely than their rural counterparts to have access to property and other assets. Child and maternal mortality rates are also lower in cities, including in slums, compared to rural areas.

The downside is that city life exposes people to hazards such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, congestion, and crime, which significantly impacts the health and lives of urban dwellers. Cities can be incubators of disease, crime and other vices; but these disadvantages have never stopped cities from growing, even when plagues and other health hazards infest cities and kill populations. The 1665 Great Plague of London, for example, killed thousands, but did not diminish London’s stature. COVID-19 has decimated populations in the city of New York – the city with the highest COVID-19-related death rate in the United States – but even images of mass graves of the disease’s victims are unlikely to deter people from moving there.

Safety nets are also weaker in cities, which is one reason why so many people in the developing world (where there are few government-funded welfare systems) identify with their rural homes, where, as Ikawah points out, social capital obtained through filial ties is much stronger (though associational life in slums, through cooperatives and self-help groups, have helped reduce some of this deficit).

Cities have also been derided for promoting mindless consumerism. They have been accused of driving a type of capitalism that encourages people to go on endless shopping expeditions to buy things they might never use or need. Large shopping malls – a distinct feature of modern cities – are filled with products that keep the wheels of capitalism moving. Alain Kamal Martial Henry predicts that the coronavirus will overthrow this “Western bourgeois model” imposed by capitalism. And this may lead to the eventual demise of cities and urban living.

The problem that has no name

I asked Daniel Biau, a former colleague who served as the Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat from 1998 to 2005, whether we could from henceforth witness a decline in urban growth levels, and whether people will now seek to move out of large cities to places that are less dense and concentrated.

Biau was not convinced that the coronavirus pandemic will change the way people view cities. “As usual, a few journalists will write about risky cities but their alarming views will be completely ignored by ordinary people who know very well that cities are, above all, places of job opportunities, social interactions, education and cultural development,” he said.

He predicts that in the digital age, it is likely that small and medium-sized cities will grow faster than big metropolises because teleworking will become the norm. “Already in France 40 per cent of the working population is currently teleworking,” he said.

“History has shown that some cities could shrink due to economic or environmental reasons. But cities have never disappeared due to health reasons. This is why the UN should provide guidelines for the promotion of safer and healthier cities as part of the wider sustainable cities development paradigm,” added Biau in an email exchange.

Cities will exist – and continue to grow – because of human beings’ need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration. As Glaeser points out in his book, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

However, despite their density and diversity, cities can also be lonely places. The “little town blues” that I talked about earlier are also experienced in large cities. People living in high-rise apartment blocks in big cities or in suburbs on the periphery of cities often report not knowing their neighbours and lacking a sense of “community”.

Some believe that rapid suburbanisation since the 1950s, especially in the United States, led to increasing disillusionment among married women, whose isolated lives in well-planned (but boring) suburbs led them to question patriarchial norms and the virtues of being stay-at-home wives and mothers. This angst (described by Betty Friedan as “the problem that has no name” in her book, The Feminine Mystique) sowed the seeds of the American women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, and led many women to seek careers outside the home.

Some cities are better at fostering human interaction than others through carefully planned urban designs, and more people-friendly infrastructure, such as parks and other public spaces, including pedestrian-only streets. Recently, after a wave of rape cases in India, urban planners have also been thinking about how cities can be made more woman-friendly, with more street lighting and more gender-sensitive public transport. The designers of these cities understand one basic fact: cities are not about buildings and infrastructure; they are about people and communities.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have demonstrated how abnormal and disturbing self-isolation and social distancing can be. The pandemic has underscored the fact that human beings have an inherent need to interact with other human beings, even if it is at a cursory level. This physical connection with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds is what makes cities attractive, and is the reason why the city – in all its beauty and ugliness – is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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

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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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