Connect with us
close

Politics

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

12 min read.

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.

Published

on

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.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

Avatar
By

Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

Published

on

Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

Continue Reading

Politics

Uhuru’s Wheelbarrow Woes

As President Uhuru Kenyatta plots how to woo the recalcitrant Kikuyus back into his political fold, a gleeful Deputy President William Ruto seems to have stolen his thunder with a mere 500 wheelbarrows.

Published

on

Uhuru’s Wheelbarrow Woes

Two days to the third Sagana State Lodge meeting, called by President Uhuru Kenyatta in the absence of his deputy William Ruto on 30 January 2021, 41 central Kenya MPs sent a no-holds-barred letter to Uhuru. The Sagana meeting came hot on the heels of a “state of the nation address to the Kikuyu people” at State House, Nairobi, on 18 January.

The 51-minute question and answer session — in reality a monologue from President Uhuru — was broadcast live on all the Kikuyu-language radio stations. The president was for the umpteenth time beseeching the Kikuyu voter to unquestioningly and unequivocally accept the logic of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), whose latest moniker is Building Billionaires Initiative.

The Building Bridges Initiative was birthed immediately after President Uhuru and Raila Odinga shook hands on 18 March 2018. Three years into the handshake, President Uhuru’s backyard has shunned the document and basically ignored the President’s pleas to support it. The exclusively ethnic meeting with the Kikuyu radio and television presenters and the Sagana State Lodge baraza were a concerted effort to bring the Kikuyu rank and file to his side.

Among the salient issues that were contained in the MPs’ 12-page letter, four stood out for me:

“In Nyamakima, Gikomba, Kamukunji and on Taveta and Kirinyaga Roads, businesses have closed as besieged traders relocate to the rural areas to dress their wounds.”

“In the bitter cold of a freezing July [sic] at the height of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, hardworking Kenyans in Ruai and Kariobangi were woken up in the terrible turmoil of heavy machinery pulverising their homes, businesses and little hustles.”

“It has also been noted that you’ve never visited any part of Mt Kenya region to say thank you.”

“For eight years, between 2011–2018, you consistently and persistently cautioned us that Raila Odinga was Kenya’s foremost problem and pleaded with us to send him home for the country to move forward. The successful effort you made to persuade the people to render Raila Odinga unacceptable in Mt Kenya cannot be undone in your lifetime.”

That letter specifically addressed the Kikuyu people’s economic problems after the 2017 presidential elections that saw Uhuru’s win on 8 August 2017 cancelled by the Supreme Court of Kenya on  1 September only for him to win a pyrrhic victory 56 days later, on 26 October. Sworn-in on 28 November, Uhuru’s victory could not hold – hence the handshake just three months later. President Uhuru would later tell his Jubilee Party members that he could not have effectively ruled the country with Raila still in the opposition.

Kikuyus are the largest ethnic community conducting business in Gikomba, Kamukunji and Nyamakima and on Taveta and Kirinyaga Roads. The “hardworking Kenyans in Ruai and Kariobangi” referred to in the letter to Uhuru are Kikuyus. The “you cautioned us” statement also refers to the Kikuyu. But did not the president himself address an ethnic matter in an ethnic language, couched as a national question? The MPs might as well have written their letter in Kikuyu.

Three years into the handshake, President Uhuru’s backyard has shunned the document and basically ignored the President’s pleas to support it.

The Nyamakima debacle was reported in The Elephant in 2019. In July 2020, The Elephant published a piece about the Kariobangi North evictions. The brutal, state-sanctioned demolitions – the letter speaks of a “freezing July” but the evictions actually took place during a very cold month of May — were visited on the hapless impoverished ghetto dwellers. Thoroughly embarrassed, the government asked the Internal Security Principal Secretary’s office to identify all the victims of the evictions and indemnify them quietly away from the glare of the public and the press.

The 41 MPs were not invited to Sagana because they do not belong to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wing of the Jubilee Party, dubbed Kieleweke, but belong to Tanga Tanga, a tag that connotes a loiterer. The MPs’ letter was a deft move by politicians who have detected dissent from rebellious peasants against President Uhuru and smelt a rat on a waddling president who is serving his lame-duck years and could therefore afford to tell him off without fear of recrimination. (In October 2019, The Elephant published a story titled The Rebels Within: The politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya.) 

Immediately after his December holidays in his Murang’a County, on 30 December 2020, Senator Irungu Kang’ata  penned “a letter to my president”. The long winding letter was just about one thing: “Mr President, you’re unpopular and not wanted in Mt Kenya region. And you know why. Period.” A month and a half after the letter was leaked to the press, Kang’ata was replaced as Senate Majority Whip by Kiambu County Senator Kimani Wamatangi on 9 February 2021. Kang’ata had replaced Nakuru County Senator Susan Kihika in May 2020; she was removed because she belongs to the Tanga Tanga team.

The address to the Kikuyu nation boomeranged on the beleaguered President, even as he hoped to frame his monologue as an “us vs them”, “us” being the Kikuyu and “them” being the Kalenjin. “How could the President have the audacity to tell the Kikuyu poverty stricken fellow that the government loses KSh2 billion every single day?” posed Stanislaus Njogu of the Kĩama Kĩa Ma (the Truth Council).

“The Kikuyus were very furious; if Uhuru thought he was impressing them, he had scored zero points,” Njogu, an elder from Kiambu County said after listening to the president calling them andũ aitũ (our people), Kikuyus decided that “Uhuru nĩ kwĩyarĩria ekũĩyaragĩria na kũoguo ecokeria.” President Uhuru had been talking to himself, therefore, he can as well answer himself. Njogu said many Kikuyus wanted President Uhuru to desist from using the royal “we” when referring to them, “we are no longer together”. The mzee said that is what some of the council members had told him.

The MPs’ letter was a deft move by politicians who have detected dissent from rebellious peasants against President Uhuru.

Kĩama Kĩa Ma, which is led by engineer Patrick Mwiru from Gatundu South, is a much bigger and more credible organisation than the Wachira Kiago-led Kikuyu Council of Elders. It is more active, more broad-based, has both a youthful and an older membership, the majority from Kiambu County.

The statement on the daily theft of KSh2 billion had particularly infuriated ordinary Kikuyus: “Gũtirĩ mũici na mũcũthĩrĩria,” there is no thief and onlooker, said a middle-aged man who had just paid his dues – a sacrificial lamb – to the Truth Council in order to be initiated as a junior elder. “So, Uhuru’s aware of the exact cash that is being pilfered daily from the state coffers? Therefore, he knows who does it? What has he had done about it? That money is probably stolen by himself and his cronies. He can’t keep telling us Ruto is a thief – did we elect Ruto or Uhuru?”

Mũtahi Ngunyi, nowadays a State House operative, recently told me that Ruto being referred to as a thief by Kikuyu political barons was a shot in the dark: “Kikuyus grew up being called thieves, big deal, the word thief to a Kikuyu is not an abomination, to tell them that Ruto is a thief is to remind them that, indeed, he’s one of them. Try something else.”

The junior elder said President Uhuru had failed the Kikuyus miserably and for that they were hell-bent on punishing him. “Gĩathĩ kĩa ngũha gĩthiragĩra gũtũ.” The resolve of a tick (a parasite) to draw blood from a cow ends up at the ear. “It seems the Kikuyus’ resolve to seek revenge on Uhuru is total,” said Njogu. “Right now, they are behaving like the proverbial tick: they won’t rest until they draw blood.” Njogu said the leadership of the Truth Council will not publicly voice their dissent against the BBI, but it is not happy. It doesn’t want to pick a fight with Uhuru, not now, but the followership which is mostly made up of middle-aged men was taking no prisoners.

“After ruining our lives, Uhuru now wants to impose Raila on us,” said the junior elder. “The hatred for Raila among the Kikuyus is total: we’ll never accept him. I’m a true Kikuyu and will never vote for him. If Raila is such a fanciful idea to [Uhuru], how come he has yet to bring him to us? It is because he is unsellable – now more than ever before. Ruto’s a thief, uh huh? We like thieves. Kaba gũciara mũici gũkira kĩrimũ.” It is better to sire a thief than an idiot, said the junior elder.

The junior elder said President Uhuru’s association with David Mũrathe leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many Kikuyus. “Murathe is a scam, he’s a loudmouth and no sane Kikuyu pays attention to his utterances.” He alleged that Murathe had sold the Gatanga seat to Kanu in 1997, and for that, Kikuyus, especially those from Murang’a County, had not forgiven him. Kanu –  then led by President Daniel Moi –  is anathema to Kikuyus.

One June evening last year at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Murathe went for a drink at Castle Inn in Garden estate. Some Murang’a moguls who patronise the club found him seated at the counter alone. Once ensconced in their corner, they summoned the manager and told him to evict Murathe. These tycoons are the kings of downtown Nairobi, overseeing multi-million shilling businesses that include real estate and major distributorships of both alcoholic and soft beverages, among others. The moguls, who on a quiet evening, in a single sitting, can write a cheque for tens of thousands of shillings, call the shots at the club. Murathe was asked to leave immediately, his unpaid bill notwithstanding.

Maina Kamanda, a nominated MP and a vocal BBI proponent who has accompanied Raila several times as he tries to make inroads into the hearts and minds of the Kikuyu, is also held in contempt, especially by Kikuyu traders in Nairobi. “They consider him selfish and a sectionalist,” said Njogu. Although he hails from the greater Murang’a, Kamanda’s home is today in Nyandarua County, near Ol Kalou town, where he bought land and where he is mostly to be found when not engaged in politics.

“Kamanda is a spent force, he neither speaks for Kikuyus in Nairobi nor Murang’a,” said a street vendor from Murang’a County. “If he is still interested in politics, he should run in Nyandarua. We’ll never elect him here in Nairobi, and he can’t be voted in Murang’a after dissing his ancestral home.” Njogu said it was odious that President Uhuru should ask Kamanda to accompany Raila to address Kikuyu rallies: “Kamanda draws only scorn and distaste from Kikuyus.”

President Uhuru had treated Merus recklessly and shabbily, said a Kĩama Kĩa Ma Meru elder. “I’ll tell you this, Merus are very annoyed with Uhuru for taking us for granted. Even after some of us voted for him thrice, he hasn’t found it fitting to at least say thank you. He hasn’t visited the area, he just moved on with his life after getting the Meru votes.” He could not but be nostalgic about President Mwai Kibaki’s days. Kibaki was Kenya’s third president between 2003 and 2013. “Kibaki was an honourable old man, he knew how to say thank you and we loved him. How we miss the days he was President.”

The notion that President Uhuru had “neglected” the Mt Kenya region, especially the region occupied by Embu, Meru and Mbeere people, was also echoed by Joseph Nyagah in a conversation we had weeks before he died on 11 December 2020.

If President Uhuru’s radio interview was a “car crash”, the outcome of the Sagana State Lodge meeting was even less soothing to struggling Kikuyus. “You mean Uhuru has just acquiesced to the greedy MCAs?” said Muchiri, a Nairobi businessman. “He can find KSh4 billion to give to politicians to buy cars, but he can’t find money to stock medicine in hospitals? We’ll be waiting for these MCAs next year, 2022 is not a century away and for Uhuru and his BBI, he can bribe the MCAs all he wants, we’ll not pass the damn document.”

Njogu said Kikuyu hatred for President Uhuru had gone grassroots. “The angriest are those that voted for him twice in 2017. They cannot now believe that he’s wining and dining with Raila.” The mzee said that Kikuyus consider this to be the ultimate insult. “After poisoning them against Raila for such a long time and to now tell them that he’s the man they should work with was just mindboggling.”

Faced with the threat of being taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2012, Uhuru Kenyatta whipped up ethnic Kikuyus in a well-choreographed tribal mobilisation the likes of which had not been witnessed in modern Kenya. By election day on 4 March 2013,  Kikuyus were so filled with anti-Raila venom that they could have died or killed for Uhuru. “Uhuru succeeded in dangerously balkanising the Kikuyus, telling them that Raila was planning to send him to the ICC once he takes over as President of Kenya,” said a lawyer from Kiambu County that I interviewed in 2012. That lawyer is one of the writers of the BBI (II) document that proposes a powerful presidency.

Thiya ndĩthũire mũmĩũragi ta mũmeanĩrĩri. An antelope hates those who expose it to danger more than it does its predators. “Kikuyus have always been wary of Raila’s intentions if he ever took state power,” said Njogu, quoting to me the above Kikuyu idiom, “They have a lot of misgiving about him: from truly believing that he will revenge against them for the sins committed against his father [Jaramogi Oginga Odinga] by [Jomo] Kenyatta to weirdly believing that when he says he will fight institutional corruption, he actually means that he will ensure they are cut to size, that is, crash their businesses and riches.”

If President Uhuru’s radio interview was a “car crash”, the outcome of the Sagana State Lodge meeting was even less soothing to struggling Kikuyus.

Njogu said Kikuyus like reminding themselves how Raila crafted the narrative of “‘41 [tribes] against one’, inordinately exposing his malicious intentions against the Kikuyu people.” In the lead-up to the hotly contested 2007 presidential election that pitted President Kibaki, running on a Party of National Unity (PNU) ticket, to Raila who was running on an Orange Democratic Party (ODM) ticket — with Ruto as Raila’s de facto running mate — the 41 vs 1 came to be viewed as the opposition’s official mantra.

During Raila’s recent meet-the-Kikuyu-people Githurai Market tour, the wary Kikuyus could be heard saying “tũramuonera eitini,” meaning, “we are aware of Raila’s dubious intentions”. Raila arrived at the Market at 10.30 a.m. on 28 January 2021 and went straight to the Migingo area. The market is divided into several areas such as Posta and Family Bank. Migingo is now ring-fenced because it had encroached on railway land, but it is still expansive and it can hold a meeting.

At Migingo Raila was welcomed by the market leaders led by Joseph Wanyoike and Peter Kamau. They told him about the need to construct a bridge to connect to the railway line area that was separated by the fence. Ever since the fence was erected, people have to walk a long distance to cross over to the other side. Raila promised that the government would build the bridge. It was a short meeting and he moved on to the roundabout area where the masses was waiting.

Raila spoke to the crowd atop his vehicle, cautioning them not to be confused by the “wheelbarrow” narrative as he extolled the virtues of BBI. “Will you allow that man of the wheelbarrow to sow his retrogressive politics here?” Raila upped his rhetoric. The waiting crowds answered him by chanting Ruto’s name interspersed with shouts of “wheelbarrow”. The crowd did not allow him to continue speaking, with some yelling, “you cannot feed on rhetoric.”

The crowd exasperated Raila and he accused Jubilee Party-nominated Senator Isaac Mwaura of inciting them. On 9 February Mwaura was demoted and stripped off his senatorial position by the party.  Mwaura had indeed visited the market area on the eve of Raila’s visit and incited the people. “Nĩmwakĩmenya rũciũ nĩagoka, mũkĩmenye ũrĩa mũkamwĩra.” You are aware (Raila) is coming here tomorrow. I hope you’ve planned what to tell him.

Mwaura, whose entry into the political limelight was through the opposition ranks when he was nominated as ODM MP in 2013, was to shift gears and join the ruling Jubilee Party in 2016, where he was rewarded with yet another nomination in 2017. Keen to enter elective politics, Mwaura seems to be preparing to contest the Ruiru constituency seat in Kiambu County. He has defected once more – this time within the Jubilee Party ranks –  and thrown in his lot with the Tanga Tanga team. His bashing of the BBI has greatly displeased the president, who must have sanctioned his sacking.

In October 2020, Ruto too had gone to Githurai Market. The market is a catchment area, which represents a cache of votes because of its huge population that straddles Nairobi and Kiambu counties. The deputy president came along with 500 wheelbarrows and 100 mkokotenis (push carts). He had certainly done his “market survey” (pun intended). The wheelbarrow is the most sought-after piece of equipment at the bustling market. Because of this, it is also the most stolen item. Traders who do not have their own wheelbarrows hire them for KSh50 a day and in the evening, they pay an extra KSh20 for storage overnight. Each of the wheelbarrows that Ruto delivered came with an umbrella to protect the trader from the vagaries of the weather.

“Detractors of the wheelbarrow can say all they want,” said 30-year-old trader Peter Mungai. “For all the 10 years I’ve lived in Nairobi, I’ve earned my keep from this wheelbarrow.” Mungai started hawking watermelons on a pavement next to the market. Then in 2019, a brutal eviction by Nairobi County askaris led to the loss of goods and equipment including wheelbarrows and push carts. Mungai bought a new wheelbarrow and now hawks sugarcane.

“Hawking sugarcane has a much wider radius than melons,” explained Mungai. “I’ll tell you this: I voted Uhuru two times in 2017, but look at his gratitude. I don’t want to know about BBI, its promises and lies, I’ve no need for it. Make no assumptions, I went to school, I can read and comprehend. In the 10 years I’ve lived in Nairobi, I started a family, all because of this wheelbarrow. In 2022, I’ll be voting for Ruto, because I’m a wheelbarrow hustler.”

“Uhuru and Raila and indeed anybody else can criminalise the wheelbarrow. What have they ever given? I don’t want to speak much, some of my friends were lucky to get a wheelbarrow from ‘thief Ruto’. They can hustle and deliver something to their families in the evenings. Meanwhile ‘thieves Uhuru and Raila’ can continue selling BBI, telling us it will bring us [Kikuyus] goodies. It is good because our children will feed on something called promises hidden somewhere in the BBI, which must wait to be passed by a referendum.”

The story of the wheelbarrow, in the words of Mungai, indeed cannot be spoken about much here. It is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that at Githurai Market I met a 27-year-old Kenyatta University BA graduate. From an impoverished peasant family, he did not waste time looking for a non-existent job after graduating with an upper second in economics. He landed at Githurai Market and started carrying the market women’s goods as a kua, a man who carries a load on his shoulders.

“Look at me, I’m a lanky fellow, but was I going to further burden my mother with my survival problems? She had already done much and I’ll be eternally grateful for ensuring I got some education. At the market, the women call him Ka-Waithira, son of Waithira, because that is how he calls himself. From kua, Ka-Waithira graduated to a wheelbarrow owner and made his work easier. “I’m now looking to investing in a push cart, because it carries much bigger and heavier loads.”

Ka-Waithira told me he had expanded his skills to include balancing accounts for the market women: “You’d be shocked to learn the kind of money these women handle. I was.” In his spare time he also explains simple economics to the women – supply and demand theory, economies of scale, the difference between macro- and microeconomies. “I really have no time for Uhuru and BBI. He has hugely let my mother down. She believed in him and it nearly killed her because of depression. Githurai, as you’ve seen for yourself is a ‘hustler nation’. Uhuru has only been interested in advancing his family’s fortunes and the Kikuyus have become the wiser. Do you think I’d be languishing here at Githurai Market if I came from a well-connected family or I schooled at St Mary’s?”

As President Uhuru Kenyatta plots how to woo the recalcitrant Kikuyus back into his political fold, it is evident that his work for in the next 16 months is cut out him. For now,  he has to contend with a gleeful Deputy President William Ruto who seems to have effortlessly taken over his backyard.

Continue Reading

Politics

Ethiopia’s Next Poll Could Be More Competitive. But Big Challenges Remain

The upcoming 6th general elections are yet another historic chance for Ethiopia to hold free and fair elections.

Published

on

Speak of Me as I Am: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

Ethiopia is set to hold general elections for members of the federal parliament and regional councils on June 5, 2021. It will be the sixth such elections, and another chance for Ethiopia to transit to democracy.

For many centuries, Ethiopia was ruled by a long line of absolute monarchs . The last emperor was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1974. However, the revolution was hijacked by a military junta that ruled the country until its overthrow in 1991.

There was hope that Ethiopia would embrace democracy for the first time when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnic political parties, took power in 1991 and introduced multiparty elections. This was not to be. The front conducted five sham general elections and ruled the country with an iron fist for 28 years.

From 2016 up to 2018, the coalition faced a popular uprising against increased human rights violations and massive corruption. It also faced an internal power struggle between reformists who sought the opening of the political space and those who wanted to maintain the status quo.

The political crisis climaxed in the exit of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and entry of prime minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.

The new optimism of a democratic transition springs from several important developments. In the last two years, the government has taken political and legislative reforms that may contribute to a more competitive election. For example, the electoral board which oversees the polling has been re-established as an independent institution.

Despite the upbeat expectations, the June elections face serious challenges. Ethiopia’s party system is extremely volatile. Political parties are weak and fragmented. And the elections will take place amid the upheaval in Tigray, one of the country’s 10 federal regions.

Advances

There are many reasons for the optimism.

Firstly, several exiled opposition politicians and political parties are allowed to operate inside the country.

Secondly, a new electoral law has set out new rules for political party registration. These have had the effect of pushing out a large number of weak and fragmented political parties from the party system. Previously, there were more than 130 political parties many of which were weak and volatile. The majority were not active in elections or any political movement. The new law requires re-registration on the basis of standards such as proof of endorsement from voters and constituencies.

Alongside this, political parties that have previously been marginalised in the regional states of Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, Harari, Gambela, and Somali are now part of the national political discourse.

Thirdly, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia is now accountable to the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the federal legislative house. And, in a significant compromise between the ruling and opposition political parties, a prominent former opposition politician and political prisoner, was appointed by the House of Peoples’ Representatives in late 2018 to lead the board.

Fourth, the Federal Supreme Court and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission are now led by prominent professionals. Both worked for the advancement of human rights and social justice for many years.

And a new law on civil society has made it possible for nongovernmental organisations, professional associations, and consortiums to engage in the advancement of human rights and democracy. These include civic and voter education, capacity building for political parties, human rights institutions, and courts.

Nevertheless there are still serious challenges.

Challenges

Parties continue to exist that don’t have strong links with voters and constituencies. In addition, most of the political parties that make up the party system are regional and continue to be focused on ethnicity to mobilise supporters.

The problem with this is that ethnic political parties use extreme ethnic propaganda to win the support of the ethnic groups they claim to represent. They are also unlikely to seek political compromises.

Another challenge is the first-past-the-post election rule. The rule makes representation of diverse interests and views in the federal and regional legislative organs difficult. Likewise, some leaders of opposition parties are in prison, limiting the diversity of views and interests that should be represented in the general elections.

The lack of security in some constituencies poses an additional challenge to the general elections. In the regional state of Tigray, the election for the regional council has been postponed by the National Electoral Board until security is improved, and election polls are established by the provisional regional government.

Also, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a threat against several aspects of the election process. This includes voter and candidate registration, voter education, organisation of polling stations and constituencies, election campaigns and voting.

Postponed ballot and fallout

The 2021 elections were originally set to be carried out on 29 August, 2020. But they were pushed back by the House of Peoples’ Representatives because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to an extension of the mandate of the federal government that run out on 5 October, 2020.

Both processes faced criticism from opposition politicians and political parties. The Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front, the political party which governed the regional state of Tigray for 30 years, opposed the extension. Moreover, the front refused to recognise the federal government beyond 5 October, 2020.

The front conducted its own regional election on 20 September, 2020 and declared itself the winner. This was in violation of the Federal Constitution and against the mandate of the National Electoral Board. This action led to the escalation of political differences between the front and the federal government.

The Tigray Peoples’ Libration Front had been on a collision path with the federal government from the first day of its fall from a federal to regional power in 2018.

In addition, the fact that the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front is an armed ethnic political group arguably made it inherently susceptible to resort to violence as a way of resolving political differences.

Conclusion

The upcoming 6th general elections are yet another historic chance for Ethiopia to hold free and fair elections. Through democratic competition, Ethiopia can avert conflict, strengthen its democratic institutions, and begin the transition to democracy. The elections are a matter of survival.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading

Trending