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Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People

12 min read.

The European Union Timber Regulation of 2013 has proved ineffectual and it is still easy to ship illegally harvested teak, “the king of woods”, from South Sudan to Europe via India.

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Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People

In front of the entrance of the Rivièra Maison furniture store in Utrecht stand two low garden tables made of teak. On sale, says the saleswoman, because the next season is already coming up. Where does the wood come from? “Oops,” she replies, “that is an unusual question.” She goes to the computer inside the shop and comes back out radiantly: “These tables are from India!” That sounds likely, because since 2013 exports of furniture from India to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Just like Rivièra Maison, a large chain with a hundred sales points in the Netherlands and six hundred worldwide, dozens of other Dutch companies source their teak products from India. While the country itself produces only a limited amount of teak, India is the world’s largest exporter of teak products.

In order to meet the enormous demand, India is importing more and more wood from other countries for processing into “Indian” furniture or other objects. Teak is a popular wood but difficult to obtain and whenever a fertile source of teak is restricted by international regulations, such as virgin forests in Thailand and Myanmar, India shifts its focus to new suppliers.

Today, much of the teak in India actually comes from the young East African state of South Sudan, a country where the trade in timber is barely regulated. South Sudanese wood is not prohibited on the European market, but the seller must be able to prove that it comes from a legal source. The chance of that happening is small: 90 per cent of South Sudanese logging is illegal. Any wood that reaches European stores is therefore almost always illegal.

The citizens of poverty-stricken South Sudan are excluded from the timber trade which is dominated by foreign companies whose little domestic revenues go into the pockets of corrupt politicians and rebels who until 2020 used it to finance a destructive internal war. Using trade data, social media forums and discussions with importers, we followed the potential route that looted South Sudanese timber takes to Europe via India. We pretended to be traders and proposed one illegal deal after another, often on the basis of forged documents. Despite the introduction of the European Timber Act in 2013, which should have ended the sale of illegally harvested timber, it still appears to be easy to get illegal timber onto the Dutch market.

“Sir we get the supply from Sudan. The certificate of origin we can make Uganda, Congo or whatever you want”, responds our contact from Pratham Exim Solutions when we approach him in a Facebook group and present the strict European guidelines. “We pay some money to an official and get the origin papers we want.” We can choose from five East African countries of origin: Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda. Of those, only Congo and Tanzania actually have teak plantations.

Various Facebook groups show how India gets its teak. Timber traders, mainly from India, offer large quantities of teak of dubious origin. Posing as traders, we ask if someone can deliver timber from South Sudan to the Netherlands. Someone can. “We get teak from Sudan that comes via Uganda, where we fill the containers in Kampala before it leaves for the port of Mombasa. From there we ship it to India or another country,” says the owner of Pratham Exim Solutions when asked which route the wood will take on its way to Europe.

At our request, he draws up a plan to ship our consignment of wood first to India, and from there to Rotterdam. India, which also has teak plantations, is in principle a legitimate country of origin. “We have good contacts at the Indian Chamber of Commerce, so the papers are not a problem,” assures the merchant. The chat provides evidence of forged labels of origin and a detailed plan to sell wood from South Sudan via India as wood from India. We cut off the conversation just before closing the deal.

Export data of timber consignments from East Africa to India for 2019 shows more than a hundred companies that demonstrably ship South Sudanese teak to India. We bought this data from the Seair, an Indian company that collects import and export data at Indian customs. It concerns five hundred teak shipments totaling twenty thousand cubic meters, with an official value of twelve million euros – not including the inevitable bribes. We also count another 120 parties from Kenya and Uganda that most likely also come from South Sudan. South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated: as soon as a South Sudanese party enters a timber market in the nearby Ugandan capital of Kampala, the freight becomes “Ugandan”. A number of these companies also say they do business with Europe.

Our data is just the tip of the iceberg. According to calculations by the American research firm C4ADS, more than 100,000 tons of teak from South Sudan go on the world market every year. Teak, “the king of woods,” is native to Southeast Asia and is particularly popular in the boat building and furniture industries because of its weather resistance and “stability”, as traders call it. The limited and more selective logging in primary forests in recent decades has driven up the price.

While luxury yacht builders continue to prefer “primal teak”, plantation wood from Africa is an inexpensive alternative for furniture builders. South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for felling. Usually, plantation teak is relatively well regulated, but this is not the case in South Sudan. The United Nations reports that there are virtually no legal logging concessions, not even for large companies, and that there is no supervision. In addition, replanting trees is a prerequisite for felling in regulated plantations but this does not happen in South Sudan.

South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated.

Besides oil, teak is the young state’s most valuable raw material, were it not for the fact that the lion’s share of the logging takes place below the radar of the tax authorities. According to the UN, the country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually. In reality, only one to two million comes in.

On the Internet, the trade in Sudanese timber is less disguised. There are photos of traders proudly posing next to packed containers on Facebook. “Good Sudan prices” is the caption. Pixelated number plates reveal the Ugandan heritage of the individuals. Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu went undercover to investigate the South Sudanese timber market for his documentary series The Profiteers in 2018. Namu shows how illegally felled teak from South Sudan is mixed with teak from some legal concessions in surrounding regions at a timber market in the Ugandan capital Kampala—the most common method used to conceal the origin of the wood according to Interpol. The fully loaded containers leave Kampala for their next destination, the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where they are hoisted onto cargo ships. An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India, where it is cut or processed into furniture.

“South Sudan has only existed since 2011 and has had little time and capacity to regulate the timber market,” Namu said from his office in Nairobi. “The market is largely in the hands of foreign companies who pay generous bribes to government officials and rebels who protect loggers.” The money has been used to finance a civil war since 2013, Namu said. That ethnic conflict between the two largest populations in the country came to an end in early 2020 yet there is still fighting in some regions. The population is very poor and the government is among the most corrupt in the world.

Somewhere in the Lopik industrial area of Utrecht in the Netherlands the smell of wet wood is in the air. Wet angelim vermelho, a tropical wood, gives off a sweet-sour scent. Ipe, itauba, massaranduba and twenty other tropical woods are also cut here. But teak is missing. “If you trade in it, you just have blood on your hands,” says timber merchant Albert Oudenaarden. Oudenaarden is the director of Van den Berg Hardhout, a wholesaler who only trades in wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) as sustainable. He can trace every plank of wood in his timber yard to a specific place in the jungle.

Oudenaarden can talk for hours about the importance of wood and the controlled felling of trees which creates space in the jungle and is good for biodiversity if done right. Never remove too much in one place, cut safely and in a controlled manner, do not go into the forest with big trucks, leave important places for animals and the local population alone. His dream? To have only sustainably harvested wood on the Dutch market. Since 2013, however, he has seen the demand for his sustainable wood stagnate. This is a bitter consequence of the new European wood law. “Many companies are increasingly ignoring FSC. The law is intended to combat illegal logging, but whether it does so, I have my doubts about it. In any case, legality says nothing at all about the sustainability of a party.”

South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for cutting.

According to Oudenaarden, the law takes the wind out of the sails of sustainable wood. Furniture makers confirm this. “Such a label only costs money. The products comply with the wood law, so it is good, right?”

The European Union introduced the European Union Timber Regulation in 2013. Anyone who puts wood products on the market must research the entire trade chain and take measures to stem illegality in the chain. An authority has been designated in every European country to supervise the timber trade. Years of lobbying by environmental organisations preceded the introduction of the European Timber Regulation but seven years after its introduction, the scheme has turned out to be much less effective than hoped.

First of all, there are the exceptions: a multitude of products such as chairs, wooden coffins and musical instruments are not covered by the regulation. A teak garden chair made from legal, illegal or wood of unclear origin does not contravene the law. A second weakness is the susceptibility to fraud. Anyone who imports products that do comply with the regulation – table tops, cabinets, whole tree trunks – must have a lot of documents proving the exact, legal origin of the wood.

But that is only a “paper reality” says timber merchant Oudenaarden. You can say anything in documents. Indeed, we easily find a fictitious label of origin from the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Tampering with labels is common practice in the international timber market. Previous research shows, for example, that illegal coniferous wood from the Ukrainian Carpathians ended up in the Netherlands with false papers in 2016, and wood from Latin America and Southeast Asia is also “laundered” more than once.

Third is the weak control over this fraud, including in the Netherlands. Because the Timber Act does not regulate the import but only the marketing of timber, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is the supervisory authority in the Netherlands. The body makes company visits based on risk indicators such as the country of origin, product type or processing country. According to critics, that role should have been assigned to customs. “The border is the only place where you can really say something about the origin of wood,” says Peter Hartog, head of the environmental team of the Rotterdam police. “Once in the warehouse of a company, it is impossible to say whether that one pile of paper actually belongs to that one wood lot.”

The country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually.

“You better be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker,” says Hartog in his office in Hoogvliet, where the depot houses confiscated snakeskins and swordfish. “Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties,” he sums up. Since 2006, Hartog has completed five investigations into the illegal timber trade. There should and could have been more if the work was less international in character and the capacity of supervisory authorities somewhat higher.

The Netherlands has one of the five largest timber ports in Europe. Customs, which check for taxes and CITES – a list of internationally protected flora and fauna – has to deal with 75,000 containers of wood entering the port of Rotterdam every year, and the NVWA must supervise at least 5,000 traders. Other matters are also given higher priority in the investigation by the police. “Then calculate the chance of being caught,” says Hartog.

The European Union is only as strong as its weakest link. Under the Timber Act, only the first trader to place a prohibited batch on the market is punishable. And there are quite a few weak links, the European Commission concluded in an evaluation of the law in 2016. Most countries made far too few human and financial resources available, “which makes the deterrent effect of the enforcement activities rather limited”. Dutch customs acknowledges that they only employ a few people who can distinguish one type of wood from another, and two inspectors work at the NVWA.

In 2017, the authority imposed a conditional fine of 20,000 euros per imported cubic meter on the Boogaerdt company for illegally marketing teak from Myanmar. This is one of the few cases dealt with by the NVWA in recent years. Despite the fine, Royal Deck in Livorno, another company owned by the Boogaerdt family, still imports from Myanmar. A video that was until recently posted on the company’s website shows large shipments of timber in the port of the Asian country, and proudly advertises the timber’s provenance.

Myanmar is a notoriously high-risk country when it comes to the origin of wood. The Netherlands has blacklisted it because it is impossible to distinguish illegally from legally obtained timber in the country due to fraud. Yet it is openly sold in several places in the Netherlands. The fact that wood from forbidden countries of origin still ends up in Europe also illustrates the ease with which teak of more diffuse origin – such as South Sudan – can land in Europe.

Traditional East Asian countries of origin are increasingly restricting the export of teak. India, a country with a strong woodworking culture but too little wood of its own, drew its shortages from the jungles of Myanmar until 2014 when that country was issued an international export ban due to the widespread corruption and illegal logging involved in the sector. Indian merchants have since been importing from East Africa. A simple calculation explains the fraud: Indian forests today can only meet 5 per cent of the demand annually. The rest is imported from Africa and Latin America. Ninety per cent of the supply from East Africa comes from South Sudan. According to Indian sources, it cannot be determined where the wood on the Indian market was harvested. When asked where they get their wood from, Indian teak suppliers are curt: “We don’t do that business.” Or they hang up the phone.

 An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India where it is cut or processed into furniture.

Since 2013, Indian exports to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Some of the teak products arrive in the Netherlands through the Alibaba online store. Some of the companies we approach openly admit that they source their teak from East African countries such as South Sudan to market them on the European market as a “product of India”. “We deliver to Europe by land, air or sea. Never had any problems with it, “says Saurabh Gupta of the Indian company Medieval Edge.

In data on the trade flows between India, the Netherlands and Belgium, we find 161 consignments of teak products that were exported from India to the Low Countries between September 2018 and September 2020. Sometimes these are orders from private individuals, or products not intended for further sale: a large elephant, wooden horses for the furnishing of a pharmacy – “a teak temple for the home” bought at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Three quarters go to furniture chains and wholesalers who sell them on to local retailers.

Rivièra Maison’s  furniture buyer Gideon Manger does not want to believe his saleswoman’s answer. He must have provided incorrect information: “I would never import teak from India. We only work with certified wood from Indonesia. We think that is very important.” To reinforce his story, he sends a screenshot of a certificate from the factory in Indonesia.

That remains to be seen though. In export data, we see fourteen orders – making up a total of almost twelve hundred products made of teak and mango wood – from Rivièra Maison to a company in Moradabad, a city east of Delhi. Teak from India, and therefore of unclear origin. In an official response, Rivièra Maison says that the products ordered in India, although made of teak, are exempted by the European wood law and can therefore still be sold.

The furniture store is certainly not the only one that purchases in India. For example, furniture wholesaler Hazenkamp also sells teak products: wine racks, coffee tables, clocks and lanterns. Where does that come from? “Yes, it will all be India, it is produced there. I dare not say where the wood comes from. Yes, I think it comes from India.” But isn’t he legally obliged to investigate? The employee ends the conversation.

“Better to be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker. Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties”

The NVWA is aware of the existence of South Sudanese teak, the service says, but has not found it on the Dutch market in the past five years. According to the authority, most of the inspected companies have the correct documents, but she admits that this does not say everything. A report by Deloitte on behalf of Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten shows that the NVWA does indeed miss the big picture: it only carries out 50 wood inspections per year, often at the same companies. “It is first and foremost up to the business community itself to comply with the rules,” the NVWA said in a response. “After all, it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal deforestation.”

Nyarayek Moboic recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam as a lawyer and is determined to do something for her native country. She views the logging in South Sudan with sorrow. She fled the civil war in her country with her family in the 1990s. Relatives who have stayed in South Sudan see one loaded truck after another driving out of the jungle.

Indonesia introduced its own quality marks more than ten years ago and obliged exporters to process logged wood in the country first to maintain employment. Moboic has something like that in mind. She hopes to acquire a legal logging concession in the country so that her enterprising cousin can make furniture out of it to ship in a direct line to the Netherlands. “Unique furniture with local influences. But for people like my cousin, it is difficult to get teak. The only option is to buy it from foreigners while it grows in their country. The wood leaves South Sudan. Nothing is left for the Sudanese themselves.”

In collaboration with journalist Ankita Anand, this article is part of the Money Trail project supported by the Nationale Postcode Loterij.

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Romy van der Burgh (@BurghRomy) is an investigative freelance journalist. Linda van der Pol (@lindapolski) is a cultural historian and a freelance journalist based in The Netherlands.

Politics

Voting into Irrelevance

Elections will be properly respected when the society in question has been atomised into a collection of self-interested individuals dependent on the state.

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Voting into Irrelevance

The old saying that “if voting really changed anything no government would ever permit it”, perhaps needs to be updated.

True, voting has not really changed the governing systems in much of the East African region, despite elections being held fairly regularly in most of our countries.

Kenya’s economy is dominated by commodity cartels whose preservation and prosperity also depends on controlling political processes. Every election can also be understood as a bruising negotiation between these players over who will hold the levers of which economic sector. The evidence is in the outcomes: no matter who is in State House, the economic rights and conditions of ordinary Kenyan remain poor.

Tanzania may have had six different presidents since independence, but it has only ever had one political party in power: Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which is constituted mainly of the independence-era Tanganyika African National Union, TANU, and a smaller party from Zanzibar. And whatever credits for creating national unity and building infrastructure that party may claim, the fact is that being in an opposition party can be very dangerous for its members.

As for poor old Uganda, we have only had violent changes of government. That is, until 1986, since when we now have violent retention of the reins of government. This is where elections become interesting: due to its overwhelming military strength (by which I mean that the “national” army in fact remains the enforcing organ of the ruling National Resistance Movement party that brought it to power), any opposition candidate is actually up against not just a ruling party, but also its armed wing.

As we speak, the Ugandan electoral process is still ongoing in two of the usual ways. The first is the courts being swamped by a slew of petitions from those who have been pronounced losers (which is not the same thing as being the actual loser) at various levels, but usually at the parliamentary level. There is also always the Big One: the court petition by the first presidential runner-up (as announced), challenging the presidential results (as declared). There is a legally defined time limit within which these cases must be submitted, heard and adjudicated.

But running parallel with the court proceedings is the state security operation to manage the protests of those who supported the presidential candidate who was pronounced the loser between the time when the results were announced by the Electoral Commission in mid-January, and the swearing in of the new President (who in Uganda is also always the  incumbent) in mid-May. The established tradition is to have the main declared loser trailed, confined to their home, and generally harassed during this period. This was the four-time experience of former opposition strongman Dr Kizza Besigye.

Where matters seem to have escalated is in the targeted abductions, illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings of many supporters of the new opposition figurehead, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi. As many as 300 young Ugandans (the latest known one being just 15 years old), some of them activists, many not, may find themselves at one time or another on this macabre conveyor belt.

Often invoking the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, or even the last Rwanda Genocide, the regime usually offers vague and often contradictory justifications for this, and the ambassadors of the various supporting donor countries spend some time frowning and wringing their hands.

There is another kind of echo. After the disastrously-handled 1980 elections (that saw even the person in charge of the electoral body at the time flee into exile), the declaration of Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress party as the victor was followed by a massive witch-hunt of activists, campaign managers and, generally, vocal supporters of the losing sides, in particular Dr Paul Ssmogerere’s Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, elections in Uganda perhaps provide an opportunity to be positive about the civic journey Ugandans and East Africans have undertaken since the 1990s, when the end of the epic 1949-1989 global feud between the two white superpowers — the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union — came to an end.

This feud, the Cold War, had locked weaker countries worldwide into having to choose which of the two nuclear-armed giants’ tents they would rather live in. But this was rarely a democratically worked out choice. The two superpowers needed pawns on their chessboards, and so worked to see the imposition of their chosen autocrats in many countries of the South, especially in Africa and Asia. Elections barely featured in these processes.

The victorious West leaped on the demise of its rival to claim that there was now a “democratic dividend” to be reaped, and that now democracy was possible throughout the South where until then only autocrats had ruled.

This was brought into urgent focus by the underreported fact that the end of the Cold War also brought with it the inability of these tightly wound autocratic systems to maintain themselves. To the extent that our erstwhile dictators had any freedom themselves, it was through gaming the Cold War, and trying to play one superpower off against the other. Arefusal by superpower X to sell tyrant Y the latest military hardware would lead to him make very ostentatious visits and overtures to the capital of the other superpower, much like a young child threatening to go and live with the neighbours.

Suddenly, all that petulance had no audience, no effect. It is not accidental that the period immediately before and immediately after the end of the Cold War saw a rise in regime implosions, civil wars, ethnic landgrabs and country break-ups. And not just in the so-called Third World, but also in much of the poorer, less imperial part of Europe.

This led us into the Era of “good governance” where, suddenly, the Western powers —now reinvented as “donor partners” — felt both obliged and able to attach conditions about democracy and the like to the countries receiving the aid, a thing they had never done during the entire period of the Cold War, nor during the time before that, when Europe directly ruled much of Africa and Asia.

And so we began to see the design of broader, more ostensibly inclusive systems of government being rolled out.

In Uganda, this found resonance with the population, whatever the motives of the donors may have been. The right to assemble and to elect representatives has been one of the longest-standing demands in Ugandan politics, reaching way back into the early colonial period.

We ended up with a remarkable contraption called the 1995 Constitution (since then critically modified by presidential fiat) that included the most elaborate local government electoral systems, representation for “special interest groups” (the military, workers, the disabled, youth), as well as guarantees for gender balancing.

But Ugandans have always taken elections very seriously, and so they took the new constitution at its word, by seizing upon every electoral opportunity it presented. This was not what the ruling National Resistance Party had intended, judging by the reaction to the popularity of Dr Paul Ssemogerere, who stood again for the presidency against (again) President Yoweri Museveni in 1996.

The right to assemble and to elect representatives has been one of the longest-standing demands in Ugandan politics.

I distinctly recall the night after polling day where, in what had been billed as a national address, candidate Museveni appeared on national television in full military uniform and in rambling, agitated tones, issued a firm warning to Ssemogerere supporters about celebrating when the official results had not yet been released. This he did (in a sentence I will never forget), “speaking not just as the Commander of the Armed Forces, but also a founder of the army”.

I do not recall the electoral officials themselves — who should have been the ones concerned about curbing electoral misconduct — having voiced any concern that any such celebrations would be one such example.

I was watching the speech in the home of an old school friend whose in-laws had strong connections to the regime. Judging by the way one of them began to rant about how much of “a hypocrite” (which he pronounced “hypcryte” for some unfathomable reason) Dr Ssemogerere was for deciding to run again President Museveni who had once given him a ministerial post, I could see that “elections” meant something else to the supporters of the ruling party.

There has never been a proper election in Uganda.

Having covered parts of that 1996 election as a camera operator, I think I can testify that the only real change between then and now is that the mechanisms for fraud and intimidation have become more pervasive.

There has never been a proper election in Uganda, I repeat, because, the 1980 coup aside, even the Independence election elicited sharp criticism of one J. C. Peargram, the British civil servant in charge of the process, from, you guessed it, the Democratic Party.

We can speculate as to the intention behind all this constitution-designing and funding, but if it was to lock the politically active into endless but ultimately futile politicking, then this has only been partially successful.

Perhaps voting has changed something: it has brought about its own end.

In the midst of all that, people have gained experience and have seen what is real and what is not. There has been more public information, more skill in accessing and engaging with public information, and broader participation in the national discourse. Critically, there is a much clearer understanding of imperialism.

The only real change between then and now is that the mechanisms for fraud and intimidation have become more pervasive.

The problem is that these are all things that the government (and in my view the corporations behind the donor states) fear. One reaction has been to try to encourage parochial thinking by creating minuscule administrative units around which the locals can fight for posts and tenders. The government may be on to something.

The civic problem in Uganda is the attempt to apply a solution premised on individual rights to problems rooted in group identity.

The Western world — especially after the 1980s neo-liberal economic transformation — is premised on the idea that individual citizens vote for those they believe will bring them solutions to their individually experienced challenges. They do not vote in groups; they vote as collections of individuals. Elections are premised on individualism expressed collectively.

The civic problem in Uganda is the attempt to apply a solution premised on individual rights to problems rooted in group identity.

This is why mere electoralism failed to resolve the crisis of representation in the more “tribal” parts of the UK. In the artificial province of Northern Ireland, the political crisis that ran (and still rumbles) for over thirty years from the early 1960s — leading to one of the deadliest guerrilla wars — began when one group identity began to demand that the electoral system function properly and deliver civic rights and services to all groups. The other group holding the levers of power opposed this and within a decade, after rallies turned into riots which turned into an armed insurrection, the pretence at democracy was abandoned and the province was ruled directly from London.

I think, therefore, that the only time elections will be properly respected is if or when the society in question has been atomised into a collection of self-interested individuals dependent on the state, as opposed to our reality of quasi-autonomous extended families currently surviving the state.

But with neo-liberal policies steadily breaking up the extended family systems all over the region through a myriad of policies on land ownership, family governance, urban housing design, urbanisation itself, and even food production, that day may well come.

For East Africa to truly democratise, the people, in their current form, must first be destroyed.

And then there will be nothing important to vote about.

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Politics

BBI II: The Making of an Imperial Presidency

Raila Odinga had categorically stated that no changes would be made to the BBI II document other than punctuation marks but provisions for an imperial presidency have been furtively sneaked in.

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BBI II: The Making of an Imperial Presidency

The day after “Super Tuesday” — 23 February 2021 — when the BBI constitutional amendment bill achieved the minimum 24 counties needed to call for a referendum, I was at the famous Gikomba Market by 7 a.m. and as usual, the day’s business had already started well before the break of dawn. But a lot has changed at the market in recent times: the coronavirus pandemic has gravely affected the flow of business, the economic downturn that started in 2018 has hurt many traders and the midnight fires have returned.

“Those fires are set by arsonists,” said one of traders that I had gone to see. “They are meant to drive us out from this area, but we’ve been resilient because we’ve refused to give up the land and business.” The last fire that completely gutted the traders’ goods was on 25 June 2020. Two days later, just after the traders had finished rebuilding their semi-permanent structures that are constructed with timber and iron sheets, they were “welcomed very early morning by rumbling bulldozers and the National Youth Service (NYS) brigade that supervised the destruction of the newly-built structures,” said the traders.

“The director-general of Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) Mohamed Badi (nicknamed Saddam Hussein) had ordered the demolition. It was clearly evident our endurance was getting on the nerves of powerful forces in the government. For the longest time, we’d always suspected that a powerful politician has been eyeing the piece of land that the main market sits on. Now he was determined to drive us out of this area,” said the traders. An L-shaped high stonewall fence had since been erected to curve out the coveted piece of land.

I had gone to Gikomba to find out from the traders what they thought of the second BBI report — now that it had been passed by the Members of County Assemblies — and its various recommendations and findings. Some of the traders had actually taken the trouble to read sections of the PDF version that had been circulated around. “Look at what happened to us in the midst of COVID-19. Some of the people who have been planning to grab the market are the same people selling us a poisoned chalice. Who do they take us to be? Tell us, how do you claim to be building bridges by destroying people’s livelihoods?” exclaimed the traders.

In November 2020, a fierce fire gutted half of the remaining Ngara open-air market in downtown Nairobi. “I got a call past midnight on the morning of a Monday and was told the market was fire,” said Kihara, 22-year veteran of the market. “By the time I arrived at the market in the dead of the night, the fire had burnt all my goods.” The traders had to start all over again. In 2017, 17 acres of the market were forcefully fenced off with a high perimeter stone wall, displacing hundreds of traders. “That land was grabbed by a relative of the most powerful political family in this country,” alleged Kihara, “and you dare talk to me about BBI.”

The Gikomba and Ngara traders said BBI was about one thing only: “Uhuru’s plan to hold onto presidential power. For him to do that, he had to rope in Raila Odinga and lie to him that this time round he would make him king. Our businesses, which are our sole livelihoods, have been destroyed several times, Uhuru has mortgaged the country and his government is made up of thieves. Instead of him dealing with the urgent matter, that of resuscitating the economy, he’s been plotting how to stay on.”

“The MCAs may have passed the bill and we know why they passed it – I mean, what was expected of them after the car grant deal?” asked Gilbert Kanyi, a 71-year-old trader and one of the pioneers of Ngara Market. “We’ll be waiting for them. Is 2022 an eternity? The MCAs have just kissed their political ambitions bye bye. In central Kenya, where I come from, we’ll not be re-electing them. Let them enjoy their goodies while they can.”

Soon after the central Kenya MCAs passed the bill, an MCA from Nyeri stopped at Sagana town to catch a drink. No sooner had he sat down than patrons who recognised him accosted him. They took all their bills and dumped them on his table and walked away: “You recently received a bonus, pay those bills!”.It was a harbinger of what the MCAs, at least in central Kenya, will be facing in the coming 16 months. They are marked men; they will hardly be able to move around without being constantly taunted by the electorate.

“We didn’t vote for the bill because we liked it. It is because we were arm-twisted and blackmailed and even threatened with being hauled to court,” a central Kenya MCA told me. “You know many of the county tenders are given to MCAs; corruption, scandals and cutting corners are never far from an MCA. We had to toe the line.” The MCA said governors supervised the voting procedure. Apart from the promise of a car grant, it is alleged that each MCA received a “sitting allowance” of KSh200,000.

The traders said if the referendum is held, they will troop to the booths early to defeat it. The mitumba (second-hand clothes) businessmen said that Kikuyus were not talking much. “They are quiet because they’re decided on what to do: reject BBI. How many votes do the MCAs have? Will they also bribe all of us to vote for it?”

In the lead up to the 2017 presidential elections, both Gikomba and Ngara were the bastions of Jubilee Party support, and more so its candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. Scarcely three years after President Uhuru made his supporters go to the polls twice in 80 days (August 8 and October 262020), the mere mention of President Uhuru in a conversation among the traders oftentimes leads to heated debates and near fist fights. “We’ve said in this market [Gikomba] we don’t want Uhuru’s name mentioned. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths,” said one of the traders. At Ngara Market, the traders had ostracised one of their own for irritating them with his continued support for President Uhuru.

Apart from the promise of a car grant, it is alleged that each MCA received a “sitting allowance” of KSh200,000.

“It took us a long time to realise that the Kenyatta family has always been interested in their self-promotion and self-perpetuation. We the rest of the Kikuyus have been cogs in a wheel, to propel the family to economic and political power. This time round we’re saying loudly that we are tired of the Kenyatta family,” said Kihara. “In all the years that I’ve been at Ngara Market, this road next to the [Nairobi] River had never been repaired, you wouldn’t even have known a road existed, it had completely chipped away, but the other day it got a face-lift. Why? Because the family has bought two properties, which it has been developing and which Uhuru comes to supervise, often at night”.

Kenyatta fatigue

Kikuyus are currently experiencing Kenyatta fatigue. They are craving for a clean break from the domineering family, said a 70-year-old businessman from Murang’a County. “For 50 years, the Kenyattas have lorded it over the Kikuyus, but the Kikuyus could be waking up to the realisation that they don’t have to be their serfs forever. The apparent selfishness of the family, economic hardship, wanton theft in the government, a political handshake that had nothing to do with their welfare, had finally dawned on the Kikuyus that they are pawns in a chessboard.”

The BBI is a ploy by the Kenyatta family to continue maintaining a stranglehold on national politics through deceit and subterfuge, said the old man John Njoroge. “My father was detained at Manyani detention camp by the British for six years because he was fighting to see a free Kenya of the future for his progeny and not for that progeny to be latter-day slaves of the Kenyatta monarchy. How the Kikuyu people wiggle out of the Kenyatta family iron grip will not be easy, but an opening has been created, they must now seize the moment.”

“It took us a long time to realise that the Kenyatta family has always been interested in their self-promotion and self-perpetuation.”

“The President has been saying that the handshake is about peace and unity, that it is important to unite Kenyans who every cycle of five years fight over election results,” said Njoroge. “Really? Why, since 2007, is there always a propensity for violence after elections? Is it not because of electoral theft? And how do you deal with the theft? By creating an imperial presidency? Right? Tell me, how does increasing the powers of the presidency solve the theft of votes? Maintain peace? Of course, by appeasing the tribal lords…”

The BBI plan is nothing more than a power rearrangement by the status quo. Its grander scheme is to ensure presidential power does not slip from the political dynamos that have ruled the country since 1963.  The document is about the expansion of the presidential executive powers,” said an insider who is a BBI constituency coordinator for Kiambu County and cannot be named because he is not authorised to comment on matters BBI. “I may not for sure know who the imperial presidency is for, but I can tell you for sure who it is not for – Raila Odinga.”

The garden path 

“Raila Odinga is being led on. I mean, stop and think about it – do you really believe the Kikuyu political barons would dream of doing such a thing? Creating a powerful position for their eternal political nemesis? Power is not something to be handed over to someone like a gift. The son of Jaramogi is about to learn – if he hasn’t learned already – that he has yet again been led down the garden path.”

President Uhuru’s apparent thirst for greater political power and how to play power games was cultivated and inculcated through his association with President Daniel arap Moi, his political godfather. “It is Moi who put in Uhuru’s head the notion that he would be too young to abandon power,” alleged the insider. But for Moi, he had a greater scheme for Uhuru, even as he was socialising him with power play.

“Moi had always wanted Gideon to be at the core of the matrix of governance in Kenya and the person to help his favourite son is Uhuru Kenyatta.” Part of the BBI’s unspoken mission is to sneak Gideon into that matrix of power, said the coordinator. “Although Gideon was his favourite last born son, Moi pampered the boy too much, he doesn’t know how to do anything for himself – especially where his father thought mattered most: politics.”

The insider shared with me the content of a tête-à-tête he once had with President Mwai Kibaki: “Kibaki one time summoned me to his private office at Finance House in the city centre. After the usual pleasantries, he delved into the heart of the matter – ‘listen so-and-so, you never ever cede power under whatever circumstances. Is that clear to you?” After Kibaki assumed the presidency in January 2003 through a coalition of parties, among them the National Alliance of Kenya (NAK) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), murmurs began to be heard of a Memorandum of Understanding that had not been honoured.

Not long after, said the insider, Njenga Karume also summoned him. “’My dear friend, power is never given away, do you get it?’ Remember Mzee Njenga was Kibaki’s bosom buddy, but in the general elections of December 2002, Njenga had miscalculated and backed the ‘wrong horse’ –. Uhuru Kenyatta who lost to Kibaki. A remiss Mzee Njenga quickly collected himself, reworked his networks with Kibaki and went to pledge his loyalty to a recuperating Kibaki at Nairobi Hospital.”

For who is intended the creation of an imperial presidency more powerful than the presidency enshrined in the 2010 Constitution? Why was it furtively sneaked into the document if its intentions are noble? If we can answer that question we may begin to unravel the mystery of the real BBI agenda, said the insider.

The BBI is a ploy by the Kenyatta family to continue maintaining a stranglehold on national politics through deceit and subterfuge.

“The Kikuyu populace maybe cross with President Uhuru now, but at the appropriate time, he knows which buttons to switch and they will be turned on for his bidding. God forbid if Uhuru presented himself once again as a presidential candidate after a referendum that changes the constitution, with the imperial presidency clause intact. Who do you think the Kikuyus would vote for? The recent dissonant choruses from one Raphael Tuju and some evangelical pastors about Uhuru staying on after 2022 did not come out of the blue.”

In November 2020, Tuju, who is the secretary-general of the ruling Jubilee Party, made an off-the-cuff remark about the party extending President Uhuru’s term beyond the expiry of the mandated two-term limit which ends 2022. “I want to state there’s consensus especially from those of us holding senior positions in the party that it still needs Uhuru’s passion to bring this country together,” said Tuju.

“The BBI  I [first report] which was presented to the public on November 27, 2019 at Bomas of Kenya had a weakened ceremonial presidency with an executive prime ministerial position. The switching of the executive powers between the newly proposed president and prime minister positions and their deputies in BBI II [second report] is geared to serve a certain purpose for a certain person. The BBI II document is about one thing: how to retain executive powers by the powers that be. The rest of the issues purportedly discussed in the report are decorations; they are sugar and spices to give the document a palatable taste,” said the Kiambu County coordinator. “They don’t matter and anybody looking for any meaning from them is looking for a mirage.”

Nested games

Major (Rtd) John Seii, a BBI team member, opened a can of worms soon after the release of the report to the public, when he claimed that some of them had been duped into signing the document without re-reading it. It is unfortunate that some of the members of the team took for granted other members’ gullibility to pass the now contested document, to paraphrase the words of the former army man.

The second BBI report was allegedly written in a boardroom by President Uhuru’s innermost loyalists, said the constituency coordinator. “There was nothing like a second time validation; these are the people who changed the section on executive powers. Who are these Kenyans whose views were that we increase the powers of the president? I’d really like to see the notes detailing these facts, but of course, there are no notes.” The authorship of that report apparently divided the team, albeit away from the prying public, with some members hinting that it might be just a matter of time before the beans are spilled.

The BBI team members were called on 16 October 2020 and asked to travel to Nairobi for the signing of the final document. “There’s no roadmap for growing or revamping the battered economy,” said one of the members to me. “It is all about recapturing state power. Kenyans will soon discover that for themselves and it will be a huge anti-climax. They will not support the document. If the proponents of the BBI document were serious, they would be addressing the political-economy ills of the country. The clamour to push for the signatures’ campaign in the wake of the dangerous and devasting coronavirus was both immoral and insensitive; the locusts never went away, Kenyans’ dwindling economic fortunes have seen some of them unable to afford food. Today many of them cannot afford healthcare.”

For who is intended the creation of an imperial presidency more powerful than the presidency enshrined in the 2010 Constitution?

“If you read that document – from the front to the end, then backward to the front, it leads you to one thing – presidential powers. If you remove the section on national executive powers from the report, it ceases to be BBI,” said the team member. “These three things: a deteriorating economy, food insecurity and lack of affordable healthcare have crippled Kenyans’ capacity to participate in the national affairs of the state. Since 1963 till now, the political class has been typically interested in self-aggrandisement and self-perpetuation. The people have always been on their own. They have never been so alone, especially with this BBI.”

“The real architects of the BBI are involved in nested games. All that effort and money thrown around the report is about one thing – containment. Containment of one man: Raila Odinga,” alleged my BBI source. “President Uhuru and his team realised that for him to preside over a fractured country, nearly torn asunder by ethnic animosity, he needed to tame Raila. ‘Keep your friends close, keep your enemies even closer’, is a Mafioso dictum, but one that also applies well in realpolitik.”

Raila’s isolation 

President Uhuru reckoned that as long as Raila was allowed to play his politics outside of the state unchecked, he would not finish his second term in peace. “The whole idea was isolate Raila from his National Super Alliance (NASA) fraternity brothers, shower him with perks and presumed power and then bargain with him directly and personally. Today Raila is ostensibly all alone: he has fallen out with Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi. His western Luhya support base is cracking, he no longer commands the loyalty he did barely three years ago. The same with the coast region.”

On the eve of the collection of the one million referendum signatures, President Uhuru held a conversation with his deputy William Ruto and the ceremony to start off the collection of the signatures at Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) was called off. For the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) brigade that was keen to kick off the exercise, this was not good: it signalled a false start.

Ruto’s loyalists in the divided ruling Jubilee Party, who view BBI as a calculated machination poised against the deputy president who will endeavour to capture state power come 2022, interpreted the temporary truce between their man and President Uhuru as a victory of some sort. So much so that, Ruto himself called off his troops and asked them to go easy on their opposition to BBI because he was working on a consensus with the president.

A couple of days later when the two BBI principals, President Uhuru and Raila, were ready to launch the signature campaign, the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill had been somewhat altered. For instance, the ombudsman would now be appointed by the office of the Chief Justice as opposed to being appointed by the President. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) members would not be appointed by the political parties as earlier suggested. The establishment of the national police council and independent policing oversight had been scrapped and the creation of 70 additional constituencies was included, among other changes.

What was the reason for the abrupt changes to the amendment bill which seem to have caught Raila by surprise? Is it the Kenya Conference of Catholics Bishops (KCCB), who in their “pastoral letter” to Kenyans castigated the BBI II document? Said the bishops: “To give the President the power to appoint the Prime Minister and the two deputies risks consolidating more power around the president thereby creating an imperial presidency. This amendment could be creating the same problem it set out to solve.”

All that effort and money thrown around the report is about one thing – containment of Raila Odinga.

On the politicised IEBC, the KCCB pointed out that, “the proposal to have political parties appoint members of the IEBC is a dangerous one since it will politicise IEBC compromising its independence. This proposal will turn IEBC into a political outfit with partisan interests. The question will arise on how fair the elections will be.”

The tone of the bishops’ letter was one of dismay and disappointment with the second BBIreport. Listen to them: “In the wake of the persisting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit families across the country, is this the time to subject Kenyans to heightened political activity to undertake fundamental constitutional reforms? Can the country afford to spend its very limited resources in a referendum when there is a struggle in the education and health sectors to provide for urgently needed support due to the effects of COVID-19 pandemic?”

Is it because of the Kenya Muslim ulama, who through their spokesperson said: “It is shocking that in just 10 years the political leadership of this country has forgotten that we struggled for 20 years to put the 2010 constitution in place. And all of a sudden, they [President Uhuru and Raila] have assigned themselves the powers they don’t have even within the constitution, that two individuals can come up shake hands and believe they carry 40 million peoples’ opinion . . .  we’ve to be candid enough to say the truth, and what’s the truth? Neither Raila nor Uhuru for that matter can make decisions for 48 [sic] million Kenyans.”

Or is it as a result of the conversation that the President had with his deputy William Ruto? Is the amended bill a result of the consensus arrived at by the duo? It seems Ruto was so enchanted with the conversation that his sudden turnabout on the document must have taken his troops by surprise when he hinted that after all, it was not worthwhile to oppose the document. One of Ruto’s confidantes told me that for all the DP’s opposition to the President, he has always been careful not to be seen to oppose the president publicly if he can avoid it.  “This is not the time for a bareknuckle fight. Our time is coming. For now, we must be patient and play the game.”

Raila had categorically stated that no changes would be accommodated in the BBI II document other than punctuation marks. Of course, the changes in the document went beyond the said punctuation marks.

Whatever the outcome of the BBI document’s true agenda, 16 months to the 2022 general elections, Kenyans will witness political brinkmanship at its worst even as the BBI II document is shaped and re-shaped to fit the needs of its heavily invested architects as they play out their nested games.

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A Modern Pandemic, a New Vocabulary: How a Devastating Disease Has Changed Our Lives

Even as pandemic fatigue sets in, Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in homes and in the workplace, picking its victims from all ethnicities and all races without regard to creed, class or caste.

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A Modern Pandemic, a New Vocabulary: How a Devastating Disease Has Changed Our Lives

A year after COVID-19 was officially declared a crisis by the Chinese government in Wuhan Province, I travelled to Moi Ndabi on Christmas eve 2019, a fast-growing trading centre 40 kilometres from Naivasha town and 140 kilometres northwest of Nairobi city. The area is mainly populated by the Maasai people and migrant Kikuyus. I arrived in the sweltering heat of midday, my light blue surgical mask in place. It was the first thing that my hosts and the people at the trading centre noticed. “You people from Nairobi are the ones bringing this corona to us,” one of my hosts, Silvanus Kaamamia said, only half in jest.

“Can you see anybody wearing those things here? Here in Moi Ndabi there’s no corona, this is a foreign disease. It is a white man’s disease and we don’t believe it can infect a black man.” It was as if my mask had suddenly reminded the Moi Ndabi dwellers of the pandemic.

Kaamamia is the archetypal Maasai man. He once lived in the forest with other morans before being conscripted into the Kenya Army where he trained as a tank commander. “I’ve not worn any mask,” said Kaamamia, “nobody wears them here. They are not even sold in the shops.” A cursory stroll around the centre proved him right – no one wore a mask and no shop stocked them. I was the “sick man of Moi Ndabi” walking around with my nose and mouth covered.

The ex-army man told me that the coronavirus is an alien disease of the rich: “I’m yet to meet anyone who knows anybody who has died of the disease. Yes, I have been watching the television which has narrated how the devastating disease has invaded the white people in Europe and America. The white people are weak, their body immune system cannot withstand even the slightest of a feverish attack.” What about the black people who have been felled by the disease, including Kenyans? I asked him. “They had taken to the modern western lifestyle and heavily relied on western medicine.”

I was the “sick man of Moi Ndabi” walking around with my nose and mouth covered.

Kaamamia said he could not remember being hospitalised or even swallowing any antibiotics since coming of age: “When you live in the forests, you are taught to identify all the cultural and traditional medicinal plants that one can always rely on if sick. Forget about these pharmaceutical drugs, they are all toxic.” Kaamamia said he had already gathered some herbal plants which he had mixed and boiled for his family and friends. Ole tarmunyo is a bitter, stinging concoction, which can be taken at any time of the day by men, women and children alike.

Kaamamia’s wife, a university graduate and a teacher who is currently breastfeeding, takes a dose of ole tarmunyo every day. “The concoction is so effective that simple ailments like fever and fatigue are kept at bay, because the medicine bolsters your immunity and clears off toxicants from the body,” said the teacher. “It is the ultimate detox drink.” Taken for the first time, it can easily knock you out.

Kaamamia’s first cousin Jacob Letoya – a feisty, fast talking lanky fellow aged 32-years-old who looks like he has just turned 27 – had recently been down with fever. “I couldn’t tell what it was, I felt weak in the joints, like I’d caught malaria, I couldn’t eat meat, it felt tasteless, my body felt tired. What was that? Don’t tell me it was coronavirus. No real Maasai man can get this crazy disease. Anyhow, I called Kaamamia who ferried ole tarmunyo in a gallon to my house where I lay motionless.” Letoya lives a kilometre away from his cousin.

The following day, Letoya said, he was back to his usual self – as fleet of foot and as sprightly as an antelope. “The fever was all gone. You can never go wrong with our time-tested traditional medicine. As you people wait for the vaccine to come from abroad, which will be sold to you like gold by the thieving politicians even though they’ll have been given to distribute freely to the masses, we, we already have our own vaccine. I recommend you take a gallonful of ole tarmunyo back to Nairobi, I promise you, you won’t even be wearing that thing.”

On March 3, the first batch of one million AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Nairobi under the COVAX programme. COVAX is a global collaborative initiative driven by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that even the poorest countries that cannot afford the vaccine have access to it.

In Nairobi, the pandemic has led the urbanites to rediscover the value of garlic, ginger, and lemon and they have been mixing their own concoctions with these ingredients to fend off the disease, with the result that the price of lemons has shot up and remains high. A lemon that used to cost KSh5 pre-pandemic is retailing at KSh20 today. Many Nairobians have been religiously drinking this concoction morning and night so business is brisk for garlic, ginger and lemon merchants even as dispensing chemists have seen a spike in the number of people trooping in to stock up on antibiotics.

As life in Moi Ndabi went on oblivious to this pandemic that is ravaging humanity, Nairobi County, where I had been in lockdown for close to ten months, was already showing signs of “pandemic fatigue”. Pandemic fatigue has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.”

In a report titled Pandemic Fatigue – Reinvigorating the Public to Prevent COVID-19 published in August 2020, the WHO further states,

“At the beginning of a crisis, most people are able to tap into their surge capacity – a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations. However, when dire circumstances drag on, they have to adopt a different style of coping, and fatigue and demotivation may be the result.

“The demotivation is part of a complex interplay of many factors that affect protective behaviours. These relate to individual motivation and capability as well as to opportunities offered by the cultural, social, structural and legislative environment. Each of these factors can be barriers to and/or drivers of protective behaviours . . . the perceived threat of the virus may decrease as people become used to its existence – even if the epidemiological data show that the risk may, in fact, be increasing.

“At the same time, the perceived loss resulting from the pandemic response (lockdowns, restrictions) is likely to increase over time as people experience the long-term personal, social and potentially economic consequences of restrictions. For some people, the balance may shift, and the perceived costs of the response may start to outweigh the perceived risks related to the virus.”

Nairobians have been breaking critical pandemic rules: they are not maintaining social distancing in the crowded fruit and vegetable markets, at the matatu stops, in the pubs or in other social gatherings. The temperature gun has become a gadget to be casually pointed at customers entering office buildings, restaurants, schools and supermarkets. In many government buildings security does not even bother to pretend to take your temperature. Water dispensers at government buildings are more often than not either broken or simply not available. A friend recently told me bluntly: “Coronavirus is over, what’s your problem?”

Even masks have been discarded and many just hang them around their necks to avoid harassment from  the police. At Marigiti Market, which I frequent often, I asked my friend Morgan Njeri, a fruit vendor, why she had taken off her mask. Her reply was curt and precise: “I’m tired of this thing, I’ll not continue covering my face forever. Masks are for oldies like you, and the rich. Look around here, do you see anybody wearing any mask? What for? We don’t board planes and we don’t live in the leafy suburbs.”

But panic swept through Githurai Market after the deadly disease claimed the lives of more than ten men between March 13 and October 2020. “The men were all veterans of the market, and they succumbed one after the other,” said a market woman. Their deaths were hushed up among the market traders, said the vendor. “People have dismissed COVID-19 as a scare disease, one that would hardly find its way to Githurai. I mean how? Then we heard so-and-so was down with a terrible fever and the next thing he was is gone, just like that. Then another and another and people were now really scared.” The fruit vendor said that the men were hastily buried in their rural homes, eerily clothed in polythene suits.

“Coronavirus is over, what’s your problem?”

“I wear this thing because of the police,” said Njoroge, a friend of mine who works as a tout on the Nairobi-Kikuyu route. Once we reached Kangemi, he yanked off his mask and threw it away. “We’ve become slaves to these things, it hinders my work, I feel hot around the face, it’s just tiring. I hate it.”

The police have found a new lucrative line of extortion. If they catch you not wearing your mask properly, they pounce on you and demand KSh500. Five hundred bob is the bribe you must surrender to a predatory policeman or policewoman.

Although many of the 33-seater matatus have had their seats re-arranged to accommodate the social distancing rule, the reality is that no one really cares about social distancing. While during the day many matatus may indeed enforce physical distancing of just about a metre between passengers, in the evenings and at night all caution is thrown out of the window.

Travelling in a matatu to Kiambaa one evening in the thick of the pandemic lockdown, I asked the conductor why he was not afraid of being arrested for carrying a matatu that was full to capacity. “You boarded at the terminus, did you hear any passenger complain? They all want to go home, pay a fairer price and beat the curfew. If you want to observe social distancing, you’re free to hail an Uber. Wear your mask if you must, who really knows whether this COVID-19 exists or not. Personally, I’m very sceptical that it exists. But what do I know and what do I care? The police? For all they care, COVID-19 is a boon for them to make hay while the sun shines. At the roadblock, they’ll stop us, and you watch, I’ll come out, a one hundred shilling note folded in my hand, we’ll exchange pleasantries and they’ll wave us on, another day, another ritual and life goes on.”

The Kabete Police Station roadblock, which used to be erected just outside the station, was considered one of the most notorious countrywide. It has since been removed. Oblivious of the public, the police would openly solicit and collect bribes day and night from matatus, private vehicles and lorries. “The advent of the pandemic had emboldened the Kabete cops to harass the motorists, more so the matatus because of their vulnerability and familiarity with the police officers.”

“All they needed to do is accuse a matatu of not observing social distancing, accuse a motorist of carrying ‘excess’ passengers and everything else fell into place; they collected more and more bribes until they started boasting about it,” said a matatu Sacco boss. The powerful matatu bosses of the Nairobi-Kikuyu-Kiambaa route came together and complained to authorities higher up: if something was not done about the roadblock, they were going to ground their vehicles.

The coronavirus crisis has created a new revenue stream for the famously money-hungry Kenyan police and many have minted a fortune out of the pandemic. Last December some police officers from the Kikuyu Police Station came up with an invidious scheme – they stalked shoppers at a Zambezi Centre supermarket and arrested all those who were not wearing masks or were hanging them around their necks. Some waited for shoppers outside the supermarket. Threatened with the public embarrassment of being hauled off to the police station, many women shoppers quickly parted with KSh500 or more.

“That’s why these people never end well,” one woman who had fallen victim said to me. “Imagine there are some women who parted with half of their money. Every calamity has its own beneficiaries. At the top government echelons, coronavirus has been a blessing in disguise – some state bureaucrats have minted millions of shillings and their greatest prayer is: if only this thing could continue. The police have taken the cue and they are not to be left behind in the latest scheme to defraud the public.”

The coronavirus pandemic came as a shock to Kenyans: none had ever experienced an epidemic of global proportions so they assumed it was a whirlwind that would soon dissipate. The management of a private hospital in Nairobi decided to test all its staff for coronavirus. “Staffers were turning positive by the numbers”, confided a dispensing chemist stationed at the hospital. “In the finance department, human resources, nurses, consultant physicians and even pharmacists, all were tested. The management had neither anticipated the outcome nor prepared for the shock. The hospital immediately stopped the testing and forbade staff from talking about the exercise. The management reasoned that if a critical number of the staffers were quarantined, the hospital would grind to a halt because there would be no one to run it.”

A year later, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc everywhere: “I’m not talking to my husband,” one friend said to me in July. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” What was “wrong with him” was that he had lost his job and with his source of money gone, he could no longer support his young family and it now fell on his wife to take on most of the financial responsibilities. Unaccustomed to being the sole provider for the family, the added financial responsibilities were weighing her down. “He doesn’t even leave the house. Why can’t he take a stroll like other men?”

Another told me she had separated from her husband. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. What she “couldn’t take anymore”, was the fact that he could not now bring any bacon home “but he still wanted to be treated like the boss of the house”. “If you want to be king, let your actions prove it – don’t depend on your wife to prop up your bossy life.” She accused her husband of “bumming” around the house, “ordering everybody and waiting to be served.”

I asked my friend Eric why he was drinking on a weekday and at midday. I had met him in a mutual friend’s office. “I’m cooling off, can’t you feel the heat?” I did not immediately get the irony. Eric had lost his job and his wife, he told me, had become intolerable: “Every other day we are just picking quarrels. I don’t know where all these quarrels are coming from suddenly. I no longer want to stay in that house. I don’t even eat in that house nowadays. When I enter, I go straight to the bedroom and doze off.” The “heat” in the house, ostensibly caused by his wife, had driven him out.

Yet another friend shared with me how working from home has caused a lot of friction and grief between him and his wife: “I’m now having my Zoom meetings in restaurants; I’ve left the house to her. This COVID-19 crisis seems to have given her an excuse to transplant her office in the house. She will not do anything because she’s at the “office” working. “She says things like ‘after work, I need to put my feet up and relax’. She expelled the live-in house-help, apparently because of coronavirus, yet she will not cook or do anything, ‘we must share the responsibilities’ is her new mantra. I didn’t think it would come to this.”

Even people who have been married a long time have not been spared. “My husband has relocated to shags [rural area]. It seems Nairobi had become too much for him,” said a friend I have known for 35 years. She did not want to divulge much about the husband whom I have known for just as long. “He now wants to spend more and more time with his mother, more than anything else…” I could sense something was I amiss but I could not put my finger on it.

The arrival of the pandemic in Kenya has also exposed how some expatriates relate to Kenyans. My friend Otis, who works with a Chinese construction company, China Wu Yi, told me how in the middle of the raging coronavirus crisis, the Chinese staff at the company’s Kikuyu Town offices treated them like lepers. “They cautioned we Kenyans not to get anywhere near them. They barricaded themselves in the offices. They barked orders from afar and if they needed to pass on something to us the local team, they threw whatever it was at us. The Chinese staff claimed that we could pass coronavirus to them”, said Otis, who operates heavy machinery. “Can you believe it? COVID-19 had been discovered in their country, but here they were, telling us we could infect them with coronavirus.” If you ever doubted Chinese racism towards Africans, there it was, claimed Otis.

In the period between 13 March 2020 – when the government declared a quasi-lockdown in the country – and the arrival of the vaccines on 3 March 2021, COVID-19 had claimed its fair share of victims, among them people I had interacted with.

One such coronavirus victim was politician Joe Nyagah, a man I had come to know in his later years. Three weeks before his sudden death on 11 December 2020, I had been with Joe at his house in Nairobi where we spent the entire afternoon talking nothing else but raw politics, of course. Joe took every caution that a man of his age would take; whenever he was in Nairobi he walked regularly around his huge courtyard, he ate light and his hygiene regimen was impeccable. Joe was a spirited soul; he laughed often and regaled one with stories from his life in the corporate world, as a diplomat and of course as a canny politician. You could be a careful Joe, but coronavirus is no respecter of age, agility or ambition.

“My husband has relocated to shags. It seems Nairobi had become too much for him.”

The pandemic picks its victims from all ethnicities and all races, and does not discriminate along gender lines. My friend Hanif Adam, a Kenyan of Asian descent, told me how the coronavirus has caused havoc in the closeted Asian community.

“Kariokor cemetery where many of the Asians are interred has been closed off and is now a restricted area. The coronavirus crisis has scared off the management that runs the cemetery because the rate of interment has shot up dramatically. The management also fears for the lives of the people who run the cemetery. It is worried that they might get infected. The only bodies that are being accepted at the cemetery are those that have been certified as not resulting from COVID-19,” said Hanif. “All other bodies are to be buried at the Langata public cemetery.”

That is where one of Nairobi’s wealthiest Asians was buried. His body was cremated at the Langata Crematorium where a short funeral ceremony was also held. COVID-19 is no respecter of class, creed or caste. Hanif said the tycoon was infected with the coronavirus at an Asian wedding ceremony conducted at a five-star hotel in Nairobi. “Since then weddings have become no-go zones for [rich] Asians. Important as they are to our community, I’ve also stopped attending weddings: it doesn’t matter whether it is the wedding of my closest relative, social distancing notwithstanding.”

In the one year that the coronavirus has wrought havoc here and abroad, threats of Armageddon and rapture have suddenly disappeared from the incantations of the self-anointed and self-appointed apostles, bishops, evangelists, exorcists, ministers, pastors, prophets, spiritualists and soothsayers. What happened? COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of these miracle merchants and prophesy peddlers. By a twist of fate, God had not forewarned or revealed to them the great calamity that was coming and that was going to create such apocalyptic anxieties.

Even when it came, they still could not decipher the meaning of the strange disease, the  anxieties it was creating among their flock and what it portended for the future of humanity. The self-styled evangelical preachers who are used to “performing miracles” at crusades and holy sanctuaries could neither perform nor preach, whether privately or publicly. Fearing they would be victims of a modern pandemic themselves, the preachers went underground and secretly sought medical care from established private healthcare facilities as they abandoned their flock. They are yet to resurface. To use a cliché, it was everybody for themselves and God for us all.

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