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Reflections

Accept and Move On: The Handshake’s Hollow Cure for Decades of Communal Loss and Grief

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Prior to Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya.

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Accept and Move On: The Handshake’s Hollow Cure for Decades of Communal Loss and Grief
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In the year 2003, when I was a second-year student at Kenyatta University, news of Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s assassination broke. It was a time in Kenya when political tensions around constitutional amendments were rising like dark ominous clouds, engulfing the national psyche.

Dr. Mbai was the opposition’s lead in the negotiations that were taking place around the new constitution. It was a quiet day at Kenyatta University before a loud war cry tore through the morning air. Someone must have heard from the news on the radio or watched breaking news on television in the common room that Dr. Mbai had been murdered.

Upon hearing the news, we ran out of our lecture halls onto Thika Road, blocked it, and exploded our anger on innocent unsuspecting motorists. Thika Road was our coliseum, a place where we found some relief from the bloody plays we had with Kenya’s riot police. We needed to be heard by our government, and we were following a script that the government had taught us. To survive, one needed to be faster, more ruthless and more efficient than a government that took pride in its monopoly of corruption and brutality.

In the next few days, Thika road would be full of all sorts of debris, blood and tear gas smoke. We wanted to know why Dr. Mbai was killed, and who was responsible. We would have not protested, but Kenya being a place where justice is as scarce as life-saving medicines in public hospitals, we needed to register our anger somehow.

Most of us did not care much about the details of the constitution. It sounded like a bulky document, too complex and beyond the comprehension of the common Kenyan. It was, like any political tussle, defining the fault lines along tribal affiliations. My major attraction to it was that Raila Odinga and many other progressives were behind it. And that Dr. Mbai had paid with his life for it. And that two of my comrades, one from the same hostel as me, had been shot during these riots. In the midst of all the tear gas and gunshots, I knew I was living some realities that I had only watched on television.

In the following weeks, we succeeded in forcing the university to provide us transport to Mbai’s funeral. At the funeral, we were met by multitudes of people mourning in confusion, anger and loss. Many had walked on foot from afar, in the hot tropical sun, to join in the mourning. I am not sure if these personal sacrifices were inspired by a strong sense of connectedness to the struggle or some form of communal kinship.

At the funeral, I ran into my younger brother, who had traveled from Moi University. There was something eerily familiar at this funeral. I felt like I was walking on a path I was aware of, one that my grandparents and parents had walked before. It was one darkened with an engulfing sense of loss and helplessness of an entire community.

I went home later that day and I sought out my grandfather. As an ardent supporter of multi-party democracy, and by extension Jaramogi Odinga and then Raila Odinga, I wanted to hear his thoughts. I was also seeking comfort in his eyes that had experienced similar pain. We would take turns swimming in the sea of communal grief. He counted on his fingers and toes the numbers of young, industrious and pioneering men from the Luo community who had been assassinated since the community migrated with Odinga into the opposition. This decision would start a quest for power and democracy, a quest that would turn the community into a hunting ground for a bloodthirsty government.

***

Prior to Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya. I was also aware that prominent members of the Luo community were under active persecution.

In this environment, it was a burdensome task reconciling my national identity with my ethnic identity. Tension was always in the air, in the daily news bulletins, in the local dailies. It was dangling precariously in our household too, ready to drop at the dinner table and explode into emotional political diatribe. I could feel the tension in my father’s vociferous lamentations about the systematic exclusion of Luos from the national government. The people in the government were eating and we were poor. Our time would come. Before that, we needed to consolidate all efforts behind Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Raila Odinga thereafter. The two were the only anointed vehicles for our economic and political emancipation.

I knew that efforts at consolidating an entire community were met by ambivalence in some sections. The debate about opposition politics being a Luo agenda or the Odinga family’s ambition was a topic that was approached with utmost care, lest one slide and fall into the unwanted pile of traitors. This was a no-go zone unless one wanted to pry open community scars, like Tom Mboya’s assassination. This debate also always ended with someone yelling the word traitor at another person. The same word, traitor, was yelled in our household whenever a Luo accepted a cabinet appointment from President Daniel arap Moi during the infamous one o’clock news bulletin on KBC.

I knew the region we occupied, the vast Luo Nyanza that straddles the shores of Lake Victoria to the sugarcane belt, was deliberately marginalised. The roads were broken, the hospitals bearing the greatest weight of malaria and HIV were subjects of justification by NGOs for grants to save the people. Kisumu residents, seated on the shores of an expansive lake, were thirsty for liberation and for clean water to drink.

One of these traitors was Ojwang’ Kombudo. When Kombudo expressed support for Moi – an action that required public prostration with effusive praises lathering on Moi – he became a traitor. His support for Moi introduced the community to the good life that came with support for Moi, KANU and the government – his constituents in Nyakach enjoyed a short period of piped water and electricity. Like a pimp, Moi had his hand firmly on the Kenyan cookie jar, opening it to dish goodies to his cronies, with the most subservient getting the most, including opportunities to loot public funds.

Kombudo did not last long. In 1992, a wave of opposition gripped Luoland to the last man. Denis Akumu from Ford-Kenya replaced him. President Moi got into a fit of rage, sent government people in uniform to remove water pipes, including the ones that were at my grandfather’s gate. Electricity poles were not spared either. Once again, like a political pimp, Moi and his government were reminding the Luo community of the costs of supporting opposition. The remnants of broken pipes and vandalised water points, including one just near my grandfather’s homestead, serve as a reminder of the costs of voting against the government of the day.

In addition to marginalisation, there were deaths too. The first one I learned of was that of Argwings Kodhek. (I had an uncle named after him though I did not know the weight of memory that the name carried.) I came to learn of its significance listening to the songs of Gabriel Omolo, a popular Luo musician. In a deep sonorous voice, with each beat punctuated with pain, Gabriel mourned Kodhek. As if his lyrics could bring Kodhek to life, Gabriel pleaded with Kodhek’s killers to let Kodhek enjoy the fruits of his toil. It did not help that my grandfather played this song every other weekend before gazing deeply into the landscape of Nyakach – a landscape at the mercy of soil erosion, its nutrients washing away helplessly, just like the Luo community that was getting wiped out by the ferocious forces of multiparty politics and repression.

This would all end. There was a religious conviction that all these sorrows would be magically washed away when one of our own got into power. It was, therefore, imperative that the community united to the last man in support of the Odingas.

The communal wound from Argwing Kodhek’s mysterious death had not yet healed when six months later, Thomas Joseph Mboya fell to an assassin’s bullet in Nairobi. Mboya’s star shone far beyond Kenya. His wide and deep influence was evident in his friendship with influential Americans, such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Kenyan to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1960. His assassination, therefore, not only sent shockwaves around the country, but internationally as well.

Within Kenya, Mboya’s assassination sent a chilling reminder to young ambitious people that no one would be spared when Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency was threatened. My grandfather bemoaned how Mboya’s rich connections, as well as his prominence in the government and abroad, could not save him. Mboya’s death continues to be one of the biggest “what if” moments for the Luo community. What if he had lived? What if he had never gone to that pharmacy on Government Road (now known as Moi Avenue)? What if he had joined the opposition with Odinga? The threat was real, whether in government or in opposition. It did not matter where one’s star shone. It only mattered that its shine did not threaten the status quo.

The Luo community persisted after these assassinations. There was a shared belief that Kenya needed change in leadership and assassinations would not break their zeal. The differences between Jaramogi and Jomo Kenyatta continued to fester like a cancerous wound. Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of the region, ostensibly to familiarise himself with development projects there. The Luo community, still mourning Mboya, rebelled. Kenyatta’s guards reacted violently, shooting dead 11 protestors.

The extent of communal loss between January 1969, when Argwings died, to Mboya’s assassination in July of the same year and the Kisumu massacre three months later pointed to a systematic attempt at violent subjugation of the Luo community. The occurrences of those days are passed from generation to generation as a slow and painful narration of how the government killed Mboya, then came to our town and killed more when all we needed was to be left alone.

This year marks fifty years since those fateful events. The people who lived through that period, like my grandfather, have very hardened souls and a very strong suspicion of the government. It does not help that during each election cycle, regions occupied by the Luo community become over-policed and over-militarised and young people of the community become fair game when elections results are disputed.

***

I was only six months old when the coup failed. A good number of the soldiers involved were from Nyakach, my maternal grandfather’s home. And their misguided ambition had thrown the community into the dark underbelly of Kenyan politics.

As expected, the failed August 1982 coup entrenched government paranoia of young Luos. President Moi’s government essentially implemented systematic exclusion of young people from Luoland and other communities perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition from recruitment into the police and armed forces. This was a big blow to the quotidian life of the community. In a struggling economy with a rapidly growing population, the armed forces and the police provided sources of income and employment to healthy young people. By blacklisting young men and women from the Luo community, the government imposed a form of official economic depression on this community as an additional tool aimed at forcing them into political subjugation.

There were other deaths of note at the time when Raila was placed in detention after the attempted coup. The most prominent of these in the mid-1980s was that of the Gem MP, Horace Ongili. The immediate former area MP, Otieno Ambala, one of the leading suspects, was arrested and charged with the murder along with six other suspects. However, after a few months in jail, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. There was a feeling within the community and across the country that he too was killed to shield the real killers.

Nonetheless, this tragedy robbed the Luo community of two prominent leaders within a span of six months. This was a scary déjà vu moment, since Kodhek and Mboya had been assassinated approximately six months apart. The community felt that the government was eliminating prominent Luo males or imprisoning them in order to subdue the community’s will to fight. The government seemed to be reading from the same script that the colonialists used against the Kikuyu and other communities fighting for independence in Kenya.

In the early 1990s, as the opposition was gaining a very strong foothold in western Kenya, Dr. Robert Ouko’s star started rising within President Moi’s government. Dr. Ouko’s presence in the government meant that Moi had started looking at Luos in a slightly better light. He began visiting schools and dishing money in big brown envelopes during harambees and to delegations that visited him at State House. The benefits of “having our own” closer to the presidency was becoming evident.

This did not last long. In February 1990, Dr. Ouko was abducted from his home and killed in one of the most gruesome cases Kenya has ever witnessed. The Luo community’s grief was palpable. I was only eight years old and I remember violent riots in the streets of Kisumu. I remember my dad pacing, gesturing and talking with my uncle, who was a university student then, late into the night, angry at something. All universities were closed as rioting students burned their grief and rage in bonfires of lament. When Moi decided that he would forcefully attend Ouko’s funeral accompanied by hundreds of armed riot police officers, university students chanted to Moi, “You killed him, you burnt him, now eat him!” Another prominent Luo, Hezekiah Oyugi, who was the Minister for Internal Security, died in mysterious circumstances two years later, in June 1992. Ouko and Oyugi, like Mboya, were not spared, despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of the government.

In 2007, I directly witnessed loss in the form of post-election violence resulting from disputed elections. My job as a public health researcher in Kisumu exposed me to untold community suffering. In the free medical camps that had been organised by local NGOs, men and women, thousands in numbers, would show up with bodies broken and maimed by bullets. It was like a scene from what I imagined a war-torn country to be. I did not talk about these horrors with my grandfather because they overwhelmed me. They were close, inescapable and frightening.

During the 2017 elections, not much had changed. The violence continued, with over 300 people, even young children, dying from police violence. Several hundreds were shot and maimed too.

A couple of weeks before the August 2017 elections, Chris Msando, an ICT Director at Kenya’s election commission, was abducted, tortured and killed before his body was dumped in a forest. Again, there was another chilling reminder that there was a price to pay by anyone who was perceived to be an impediment to the status quo. This was almost fifty years after Kodhek and Mboya’s assassinations, and targeted killings have not stopped.

***

One of my early childhood memories is when Raila Odinga was released from detention in 1988. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s surprise that Raila did not die in prison. Most people, having known how ruthless Moi’s regime was, had expected Raila not to survive jail. I could sense massive euphoric relief when Raila walked out of detention alive. My grandfather regaled me with tales of how Raila’s magical powers saved him. How he could turn into a fly on a wall in State House and listen to plans to assassinate him. They said he would then fly back to prison and surprise his killers with his knowledge of their plans beforehand, throwing them into total confusion.

Then there was the swearing-in ceremony of 2018, and the lack of charges against Raila when others like Miguna Miguna continue to be forcefully exiled. Was this also due to Raila’s magical powers? Or was it a result of a savvy politician levering fanatical support from the community as insurance and a bargaining chip for personal political ambitions? This is where the lines get blurred. When we cannot clearly delineate the boundaries of communal ambitions and individual ambitions, it is hard to tell what we are giving our lives for.

And at the end of the road, when we weigh all the losses – both physical and emotional – and place them on a scale, and then measure them against the recent handshake and the public display of brotherly love between Raila and Uhuru, do we see a perfect balance? No, there is no balance. And there will be no restitution. Not even an apology or acceptance of blame for all these deaths.

The weight of communal loss is always borne privately, silently and sometimes in shame by the poor. There are no monuments that can adequately capture all the losses the Luo community have experienced in the last fifty years.

And what if the community would have known that the path to this political and economic utopia could be forged by a handshake? Would the community have protected their youth better? Would they have stopped them from the suicidal choices of fighting with memory, anger and stones on sisal slings? Standing bare-chested before barrels of Kalashnikovs held by government-sponsored killers?

But then again, what options did we as a community have? At the end of the day, we are all Kenyans, burdened by our peculiarities, such as the ability to accept anything and move on to the next tragedy.

That is what happened after the handshake – everyone put a bandage on old and fresh wounds. The magical mantra “accept and move on” is being repeated again and again until everything looks like a distant memory.

But I can’t stop knowing what I know.

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Norbert Odero is a Kenyan author, writer and scientist based in the USA.

Reflections

Coronavirus, Curfews, Corruption and Conspiracy Theories

Despite a curfew and the threat posed by COVID-19, it is business as usual in Kenya. Bribe-taking and beatings by the police have not stopped. And people have resorted to concocting conspiracy theories to make sense of their precarious situation.

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Coronavirus, Curfews, Corruption and Conspiracy Theories
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On Friday, 27 March 2020, the day the curfew took effect, I took a matatu ride to Zambezi, a distance of just about 20 kilometres from the Limuru-bound vehicles’ terminus on Kilome Road in downtown Nairobi. From this stage, you can board matatus going to Acre Ithano (Five Acres), Kiambaa, Limuru, Muguga, Rironi and Zambezi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta had, on 25 March 2019, decreed a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew countrywide – the government’s latest effort to combat the now really frightening coronavirus disease that could, in one fell swoop, easily send swathes of people to early graves. With a broken healthcare system countrywide, a government that treats its medics badly, the patient-bed ratio in its hundreds of thousands, and a demoralised corps of medical officers, the pandemic in Kenya, like in Italy, Spain and now the US, could be truly calamitous.

I was at the stage by 5.15 p.m. The rush to beat the curfew hours was evident: They were no matatus, so the people, who unusually go home at this hour, waited anxiously. That was already one worry too much, but more poignantly, the matatus had been ordered by the government to ferry half their carrying capacities. So, the 33-seater minibus was now allowing only 16 to 17 passengers, while the 14-seater Nissan shuttles only carried eight passengers. This added unforeseen problem was, to say the least, wrecking nerves.

With this new travel constraint, the matatu crew found a perfect excuse to inflate the fare and take advantage of an already precarious situation. A couple of days before, when the government had decreed that matatus should reduce their carrying capacity to create “social distance”, the matatus had, without flinching, more than doubled their fares. Now with the onset of the curfew, the fare is set to increase even further.

This extraordinary arrangement created a perfect state of anarchy: the rush to leave town, the shortage of matatus, which exacerbated passengers’ anxiety and despondency, and the fear that if by chance you were caught during the curfew hours you would be beaten up by the easily excitable paramilitary squad deployed by the state or by the overzealous police.

My tout friend reminded me, matter of factly, that it had been a long time since the General Service Unit (GSU) police had been unleashed on the streets, and they, therefore, were itching to break some ankles and elbows and trample on people’s heads with their boots. And perhaps even kill one or two Kenyans.

My tout friend, who was once a street boy who grew up in the roughhewn of Nairobi’s central business district, where he had been beaten and harassed by the police, knew exactly what he was talking about. The GSU, it soon emerged, in their over-enthusiasm to follow and implement government orders, not only broke ankles and elbow bones, they beat people with sjamboks (blood-drawing whips used by the infamous Boer police on the black masses at the height of the anti-apartheid resistance). In the process, the police killed a boda boda rider and two other Kenyans.

Passing through Westlands, we met a mass of humanity trekking to Kangemi, Kihumbu-ini, Mountain View, Sodom, Uthiru and Waruku. The conductor told me the fare to any of these places from Westlands had shot up to Sh100. (On a normally day, it is Sh30.) The choice was with the commuters: to cough up the Sh100 or walk.

I looked up into the skies and saw that a storm was fast gathering. If by a dint of bad luck, the skies decided to open up then, the people would suffer a double tragedy: arrive home both drenched and tired.

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic in the country has not only threatened to exterminate a panic-stricken people, it has equally conspired to appear at a time of great economic turbulence in the country, which has threatened to wipe out even the little earnings that the people possess.

The trip was uneventful until we reached the makeshift police check that just sprouted in the middle of the road at Mountain View stage, between the Shell and Total petrol stations. The first thing that came to mind was that the police, in their usual style of collecting bribes, would at least pretend to check that the driver and his crew were actually obeying the government’s strict directive. But no. The cop went to the driver’s side where, without wasting time, he quickly “greeted” him (corruption does not recognise coronavirus).

Two thoughts immediately came to my mind: this looked like an illegal road block; the normal road block is usually erected just outside of the Kabete Police Station. Additionally, the recent directive by the government that traffic offences would be henceforth dealt with by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) meant that there should not be a road block manned by the police on the roads. That rule had not changed, even with the pandemonium over coronavirus.

So what were the police doing on this particular road? The conductor told me that the Kabete traffic police, allegedly one of the most notorious departments in the country, was now erecting the road block as soon as dusk set in. “Tuliwazoesha vibaya, wako na njaa saa yote, na usipowalambisha, hautafanya kazi.” We spoiled them completely (by giving them bribes), so they are always hungry, yet, (the bigger problem) is, if you don’t grease their hands, you will never work.

For work to be done, the police must eat. The conductor said that the police now took it as their right to be bribed. “Let us not kid each other – police corruption is not about to end in a hurry,” said the conductor. He said that the Kabete police, in particular, couldn’t care less if people were decimated by coronavirus: “What they are most interested in is how they will continue to line their pockets.”

On arriving at stage 87, just after Uthiru, all pretence of being extra vigilant on combating the deadly coronavirus was thrown out of the window. At the Nairobi terminus, the conductor had been carrying a disinfectant (basically a mixture of soap and water), which he had sprayed on our hands. Once here, he dumped the can and began looking for passengers.

Women with huge baskets scrambled to board the matatu and snap the remaining seats. “Ithue tutihaicaga ndege.” We don’t board aeroplanes. “Coronavirus iranyita itonga.” The coronavirus is afflicting only the rich, said one woman, who grabbed the seat next to me.

At Kinoo stage, more people boarded the matatu: “Andu no mohaka mainoke…ni turikirara guku”. We must find our way home…I mean we can’t spend the night here, said some drunken fellow.

When we reached the next stage in Muthiga, some passengers dropped off as others alighted. By this time, the exorbitant fare had dropped to its normal rate of between Sh30 and Sh50. The chitchat in the matatu was, of course, about coronavirus. Conspiracy theories spawned by know-it-all dudes kept us busy and momentarily took away our attention from the more serious issue of observing social distance inside the matatu.

Blame the Chinese

“It is the Americans and the Chinese who are engaged in a biological warfare and now we’ve become collateral,” said an obviously drunk passenger. He said that the Chinese were devious and secretive people “You’ve seen them here – short and bossy and will not talk to anyone, unless shouting commands”.

Another claimed that China hoped to conquer the world by unleashing of the viral disease into the now global society. “How come they now seem to have, suddenly, found the cure for it? Coronavirus is ravishing the rest of the world as China, which has gone back to its normal self, now watches gleefully from afar. They have even offered to help Italy and America.”

The Chinese are constructing the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, which has stalled because the government has delayed payments to owners of buildings that need to be demolished to pave way for the expansion of the highway. The highway serves as the transport corridor of goods, from the Mombasa port to Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

After excavating the original dual highway two years ago in the hope of rebuilding the road, the section between Uthiru and Kiambaa seems to have been abandoned. And so it is in a terrible state. It has become the bane of the ever-complaining motorists who have no choice but to use the mangled road. The section just outside Uthiru Girls School is so bad that when last week there was a huge downpour, the 100-metre distance caused a five-hour traffic jam. The section has huge potholes in which small saloon cars disappear. This section not only causes traffic snarl-ups, it has become a dangerous point where muggers and thieves steal mobile phones and other valuables from cars stuck in the mud.

“President Uhuru has taken too much debt from the Chinese, that’s why he couldn’t stop the plane from China from landing in the country,” ventured the drunkard, who now had taken to entertaining the passengers. “Agiruo arihe thire ucio na kiumia kimwe.” If he had tried (stopping the plane from landing), he would have been asked to pay that debt in a week’s time.

In February, a plane flying from China was allowed to land in Nairobi despite a government directive to not allow planes from China to enter the country. It is believed that the China Southern Airlines plane had several Chinese nationals in it who were allowed to disembark and mingle with the rest of Kenyans at the height of the coronavirus explosion in Africa. For some reason, many Kenyans believe that those unnamed Chinese (nobody knows where they “dissipated” to) could in the near future put the country at risk.

“Kiguoya kia mundu,” commented the noisy drunkard. “President Uhuru was the coward of the country,” he said. After mortgaging the country to the Chinese, he’s now beholden to them: he cannot do anything until he asks them. I don’t know who told him that coronavirus is most effective only at night. Should we now stop making love to our wives? Eno curfew nitukumenya uria tuku deal nayo. Just wait, we’ll a find way of dealing with this curfew.”

Another passenger said that President Uhuru Kenyatta had put the country on a semi-lockdown and now curfew “because he was targeting to reap billions of dollars that would apparently be disbursed by our benefactors, both from the East and West to combat the disease. He and his cronies have devised a plan to pocket the billions – for them, they are in business. All this scare-mongering is just that: tactics for them to make money. This is not a black man’s disease – have you heard any black person who has died of the disease? All the people who have died from coronavirus are all Caucasian. The black man’s body is not to be felled by a mere fever.”

One drunkard started singing the following chorus:

Mwihoko wakwa no we Jesu
Kuma miaraho nginya hwa-ini
Thayo wakwa no we Jesu
Kigeno giakwa no we Jesu
Gutire kindu kingi gwenda tiga we Jesu
My only hope is you Jesus
From early in the morning till late in the night
My only peace is you Jesus
My only joy is you Jesus
All that I need is you Jesus

“When it came to implementing the curfew, Uhuru suddenly discovers his mojo: he does not entertain nonsense, he is decisive, firm, tough talking and threatens fire and brimstone to anyone defying his order by sending the paramilitary police to roughen up people with their death-knell rungus (clubs). How is it that this decisiveness and firmness is often lacking when dealing with the thieves and robbers who are his cronies and friends?” posed the drunkard.

“Ask him to go after the looters, and he suddenly becomes exhausted, handicapped and helpless, throwing his hands in the air…‘murenda njike atia?’ What do you what me to do? Uhuru is fake…after messing our economy, he now purports to be fighting this monster invasion.”

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Reflections

Remembering Thandika Mkandawire, A Beloved Teacher

I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.

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Remembering Thandika Mkandawire, A Beloved Teacher
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I am utterly distraught to learn that my favourite political economist and teacher, Thandika Mkandawire, has died. My intellectual development took a different direction when I found Thandika Mkandawire after Graduate School, first through his, edited, 1987 book “The State and Agriculture in Africa,” and subsequently through the brilliant work he did on Africa’s economic development, World Bank policies and the African state in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. I am certain that if I had not come across Thandika when I did, my intellectual development would have veered off in a completely different, almost certainly less fulfilling direction.

I was – at the time- young, restless, and, intellectually, very adventurous. Graduate school had lit a spark in me. But it had left me somewhat jaded. I had suddenly realized that I did not care for legal doctrine. I liked – and still like- law’s forensic tools – but I found doctrine sterile: it was either noisily obvious or complicatedly trivial. This was especially so when lawyers launched into voluble disputations on some arcane point. True, jurisprudence had real insight but then jurisprudence is academic law. Most of the rest of law is applied, or to put it differently, law is to jurisprudence what accounting is to economics.

There I was then: June 1993, a newly-minted graduate bristling that my training till then had neither asked nor answered the questions that had taken me to graduate school. I wanted to know what to do when those sworn to implement the laws regularly ignored them. I did not know what incentives or disincentives to put in place to discourage dictators or corporate chiefs from stealing public money. Could such incentives and disincentives be legally designed? I wondered why theories of sovereignty did not address the ways in which economic prescriptions by multilateral agencies subverted people’s control over governments in debtor countries. I knew what the rule of law was and could speak and write with great eloquence about its characteristics. Yet if you asked how institutional design might help secure it, I could not answer you. This background is necessary to explain just what a profound effect Thandika had on me.

My journey towards acquiring the perspectives and tools that would eventually help me grapple with these questions begun in two places, with Thandika Mkandawire’s “The State and Agriculture in Africa” and with all-night, whisky-inspired debates and arguments with David Ndii at Invergara Club. (David won’t like these confidential disclosures!) Thandika gave me different perspectives on how to understand the state. In this book, I learnt to look into and to question the fiscal basis of the state, any state. That is to say, I learnt to ask how a state raised revenues because, it turned out, as I learnt still later, that revenues and where they came from, shape how a state treated its citizens. Does the state raise revenues from taxes or from mineral rents? States that live off taxes –called merchant states – must have some implicit understanding with the key tax-paying groups in society. For this reason, governance in such states is likely to be more inclusive. States that live off rents- called rentier states- rest on narrow, exclusionary bargains between politicians and the companies involved in extraction. Mineral economies are essentially off-shore economies: Governments in states with such economies don’t care for public support. They survive by repression or co-optation, that is, by buying-off opponents.

This analysis opened my eyes to much that I had missed in my education. It sent me scurrying in unfamiliar but exciting research directions. Now I could explain why so many mineral or oil rich countries were either so fragile or so dictatorial. I now knew why populations in those countries were often poor: Politicians would rather squirrel the money away to tax havens than invest in public services. They paid no political price if they did that.

Thandika was always brilliant: He had the uncanny ability to illuminate a subject or to upend received wisdom with a simple vignette. I remember being extremely impressed by Paul Collier’s and Nicholas Sambanis brilliant work on conflict. Collier and Sambanis had put to bed the old canard that African conflicts are caused by ancient ethnic hatreds and grievances through a series of empirical studies showing that most conflicts could actually be explained by greed. That is, they offered evidence that most conflicts were driven by the scramble for lootable resources. Thandika was not persuaded by this thesis and though I do not know whether he ever wrote an essay that specifically responding to this argument he wrote a number of penetrating essays that very cleverly chipped away at the argument. His 2002 deceptively low-key essay, “The Terrible toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry” is particularly on point. Thandika asked a simple question, “Why are African rebel movements so violent towards peasants?” He returned the answer, which felt so intuitively right to me, that it was because the rebels were invariably urban elites who had migrated their disputes to rural Africa. This was astonishingly obvious when I thought about it. Until the violence after the 2007 election, Kenyan elites squabbling over the presidency had always taken their blood letting to the rural areas.

Perhaps Thandika’s most influential work- with colleagues like Bayo Olukoshi – was his 20 year interrogation of the neo-liberal stipulations of the World Bank – sold to Africa first as Structural Adjustment Programmes and then as Poverty Reduction Strategies. The neoliberal agenda put forth by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to Africa and the developing countries dressed up as the Washington Consensus. First as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA and later as Director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, Thandika was in the thick of debates about the viability of the Washington Consensus as policy prescription. He was completely vindicated by the dramatic unraveling of the Washington Consensus -in its neoliberalism garb- in the 2008 financial crisis.

Thandika and a handful of African scholars fought long and hard to liberate Africa’s development debate from the stranglehold of the so-called North American Africanists. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s these Africanists were extremely influential in policy circles in the West. Though their advice was regularly sought, Thandika was deeply disenchanted with their work. This research argued that under-development was as a result of neo-patrimonial politics: neopatrimonialism was itself defined in segmental and hierarchical terms. The standard model has the President and his ‘tribes-mates’ sitting as patrons atop the state, their hands on the public kitty, serving a web of grateful clients who repay him with loyalty and votes. On this view, Africa was under-developed because these neopatrimonial webs undermined or eroded rational policy making.

Thandika could not abide this empirically bankrupt argument. He felt that the Africanists were selling snake-oil to policy makers in Washington and London. He noticed – as did other African scholars – that Africanist circles were not only hermetically sealed against perspectives from scholars working in the field in the continent, they had also become intellectually incestuous – liberally quoting and cross-referencing each other. They were not promoting debate, they were more like congregants at a neo-liberal wake. Thandika thought that the neopatrimonial perspective – though highly privileged and valued in donor circles in western capitals –offered nothing useful analytically. And even worse, it had no predictive value.

Thandika’s interpretations of the possibilities of democracy in Africa were always original, cautiously optimistic and always refreshing. He had genuine flashes of insight. He made me question much that I thought self-evident. He hated complacency. I was privileged to participate in many fora with him. I remember, in particular, a discussion panel I shared with him and Prof. Anyang Ny’ongo in Accra Ghana in April 2014 during the “Pan-African Conference on Inequalities in the Context of Structural Transformation.” It was the first time that I got a really good chance to have a chat with him. What humility, what gentle persuasion and what intellectual charm. I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.

God speed you along, Beloved Teacher. Here is Laban Erapu’s ‘Elegy’ that you may not walk alone to underworld:

When he was here,
We planned each tomorrow
With him in mind
For we saw no parting
Looming beyond the horizon.

When he was here,
We joked and laughed together
And no fleeting shadow of a ghost
Ever crossed our paths.

Day by day we lived
On this side of the mist
And there was never a sign
That his hours were running fast.

When he was gone,
Through glazed eyes we searched
Beyond the mist and the shadows
For we couldn’t believe he was nowhere:
We couldn’t believe he was dead.

Adios Maestro.

I WILL MISS YOU.

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Reflections

Tributes to a Great African Mind: From Nyong’o, Mutunga and Shivji

Thandika will be sorely missed by the entire African intellectual community. His brilliance was matched by his humility, wit and willingness to mentor new generations of scholars to change the fate of the African people.

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Tributes to a Great African Mind: From Nyong'o, Mutunga and Shivji
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I remember one weekend in Dakar, Senegal, when Thandika and I had had a long afternoon talking and having some beer in his apartment. We were discussing Marxist approaches to the study of African politics which Thandika thought was rather deficient, with “everything being reduced to relations of production however poorly understood.” The year was 1979, and the African Institute for Economic Planning and Development (IDEP) was at its highest point of radical intellectual firepower, headed by Samir Amin, the eminent political economist of the “accumulation on a world scale” fame. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) had just been born literally on the ribs of IDEP, headed by Abdala Bujra, the well known Kenyan anthropologist. Thandika straddled between the two institutions, subsequently succeeding Bujra to ensure that CODESRIA became the springboard for most young African scholars as astounding social scientists.

I remember that afternoon very vividly. Thandika was full of innovative ideas and impatient with some pedantic social science scholarship on the African scene. I was surprised Thandika had hardly published on any of the innovative ideas he had which he expressed so convincingly. So I challenged him to stop being a typical African in love with the oral tradition and begin writing and publishing. It did not take long before he hit the road, leaving me miles behind in a very short time. Not long ago Thandika sent me the following mail:

“Here is an article I recently published in World Politics. Remember it is you who once challenged me to begin writing when we were in Dakar. I will never forget that.”

The article was on “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections” (World Politics, Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2015). I found this article perhaps one of the best analysis and critique of development theories in Africa, debunking theories of those who view the state as a pariah in Africa. Those who lump all African heads of state and government as “big men” out to eat state and society to the bone didn’t sit pretty with Thandika in this article either. Seeing the future of Africa as foretold, doomed and bereft of any meaningful development almost for ever is something that could pass as propaganda but not social science. On 25th of October 2013, Thandika wrote me as follows:

“Early this year I met Willy Mutunga (later our Chief Justice) who reminded me of a meeting at your house where we drafted the principles of the Kenyan constitution. It is nice to see some things come true.”

Neither Willy nor I worked on these principles with any idea that after the constitution was promulgated we would occupy the positions that we eventually did. Thandika was, of course, miles away only to be happy eventually that his contribution to our struggle eventually paid some dividends in Kenya’s social progress.

That is why Thandika could never accept a “one shoe fits all” view in of Africa’s political economy. Not all African middle classes are “comprador” nor are all African states dependent in the same way on external forces. Class relations are historically given within social formations which can be subjected to analysis by the same theoretical models of political economy that are capable of bringing out their similarities and differences. This comes out very clearly in Thandika’’s World Politics article I have referred to above.

When I was writing the “Introduction” to a book I recently published on “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Africa: Choices to be Made”(Nairobi: Booktalk Africa, 2019), I remembered that sometime in the mid-nineties, when we met as young Kenyan academics to discuss how we could advance the democratic struggle in our country, Thandika happened to be among us. As usual, he was always very ready to contribute productively to such discussions. We were so sure that the Moi regime was the only impediment between us and democracy.

But Thandika, always ready to be an intelligent gadfly at such times, posed the question: “Have you people thought about what kind of government you want to put in place after Moi which will be acceptable to the Kenyan people and which will achieve the democracy you seem to be looking for?”

From this statement one can see where Thandika’s theory of the “national democratic and developmental state” as a progressive alternative to the presidential authoritarian regimes of the Moi type came from. He had a deep commitment to democracy rooted in popular acceptance by the people because it is, among other things, capable of paying democratic dividends.

On a light note, we used to drink a beer in Dakar called “flag”. For Thandika, these letters stood for “Front de Liberation Alcoholic de Gauche.” We were definitely leftist Africans committed to the liberation of our continent. But we were not always drunk!

Rest In Peace Thandika.

P. Anyang’ Nyong’o is a public intellectual, educationist and is the current Governor of Kisumu county.

***

I first met Thandika in Nairobi in 1993. Kenya Human Rights Commission was then engaged in drafting a model constitution that was published in 1994. We used the model constitution to mobilise and organize Kenyans to demand a new constitution to breathe life into the then new political dispensation, multi-partism.

I have this great photograph of Thandika seated next to a dosing Peter Anyang Nyong’o. The two of them gave us a brilliant discussion on the ideology, politics, and economics of constitution-making. Thandika was wide awake through out. When Peter woke up he amazed all of us by responding to Thandika. This is the only time I have witnessed geniuses at work, one with his eyes wide open, and the other with eyes closed. The major difference between the two was not just the status of their eyes. Thandika was persuasive, calm, patient, always smiling, a present-day Socrates, and the very nemesis of what we used to call in Dar “academic terrorists.” (Let me be clear I do not believe Peter was one of those, but he can be at times intellectually intimidating and arrogant!). That Model Constitution owes a lot in its content to the advice both professors gave us. That critical education has accompanied me in my various careers. I have come to frown upon the lawyers professional refrain and brag that we are learned when we are, indeed,  very ignorant of other disciplines that are foundational to our discipline. Thus I have come to value multi-disciplinarities and inter-disciplinarities.

This encounter was long before I read Antonio Gramsci, the Italian exemplary revolutionary and philosopher who spent 10 years in Mussolini’s fascist prisons. We now know that Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks developed the theory of the organic intellectual, the intellectual Jan Ziegler in Foreword to Yash Tandon’s book, Trade is war: The west’s war against the world writes, “who, through his analyses, his visions, becomes an indispensable auxiliary of social movements.”

Thandika was an organic intellectual. He has died. However, his vision, writings, analysis, and his intellect are all immortal. He has, along with my other teachers (Issa Shivji, Karim Hirji, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Angela Davis, Wangari Maathai, Yash Tandon, Paul Zeleza, Alamin Mazrui, Dan Nabudere, Samir Amin and many others) fundamentally educated me in the social movements I have been in since the 1990s, and in my careers outside those social movements, through his writings.

As we envision Africa and a planet that is just, peaceful, non-militaristic, non-violent, ecologically safe, equitable, prosperous, and socialist, Thandika’s immortal work will be among those that will help us resurrect radical Pan Africanism, think through a new free and emancipated Africa, and a new world without neoliberalism.

Dr Willy Mutunga is a public intellectual and former Chief Justice of Kenya

***

A renowned and well-respected Pan-Africanist intellectual, Thandika Mkandawire, joined the ancestors on 27th March 2020 in the early hours of the morning. Sadness enveloped his colleagues, friends and the African intellectual community at large. Issa Shivji could not find prose to express the loss – he just jotted down these words (a poem?) in Kiswahili on the same day. Ida Hadjivyanis translated it to English.

Thandika mpenzi wetu
Tunahuzunika
Tumetandika mkeka wa kuomboleza.
Thandika anatabasamu:
Ewe Issa, mkeka wa nini!
Sherehekeni maisha
Kifo ni usumbufu tu
Msisumbuliwe
Endeleeni na mapambano
Kukomboa Africa
Kuunganisha Afrika
Kujenga ustaarabu mbadala
Uliosheheni haki na usawa

Issa Shivji
Dar es Salaam, 27/03/2020

***
Thandika our beloved
We are grieving
The mat is laid for mourning.
Thandika smiles:
O Issa, why this mat!
Celebrate life
Death is but an interruption
Let it not unsettle you all
The struggle must continue
To liberate Africa
To Unite Africa
To create that alternative civilisation
That overflows with justice and equality

(Translated by):

Ida Hadjivyanis
London, 28/03/2020

Prof. Issa G. Shivji, author, poet and academic, is one of Africa’s leading experts on law and development, presently occupies the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam.

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