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Building Bridges or Sowing Division? Maasai, BBI, and a Century of Misinterpretation

12 min read.

Maasai leaders have presented the BBI Taskforce with demands that lands stolen in colonial times and post-1963 “revert” to the Maa Nation. But what does “reversion” actually mean in practice?



Building Bridges or Sowing Division? Maasai, BBI, and a Century of Misinterpretation

Maasai leaders used a BBI (Building Bridges Initiative) rally in Narok in February 2020 to demand the return of lands stolen by British colonisers. Leaders called for, among other things, “the return of community land grabbed during the colonial era” (Nation, 22 February 2020). They submitted a memorandum to the BBI Taskforce, subtitled “Urgent Declarations [sic] by the Maa Nation”. Narok Senator Ledama Ole Kina, who made a rousing appeal to defend Maasai land against non-Maasai intruders, was arrested for hate speech soon afterwards. (The case has been pending since June 2020.)  The late MP William Ntimama’s daughter Leah hit out at local leaders who are Kipsigis and Kalenjin. The rally turned acrimonious, and two local political leaders walked out. Soon after his arrest, Ole Kina (441.8K Twitter followers) got busy tweeting remarks such as this: “Extremism in defense of truth and liberty for the Maa Nation is not being tribal.” Many Kenyans responded angrily.

Here we are more than a year down the line, COVID having put BBI on the back burner. The BBI Taskforce Report has since been published (October 2020). Most recently, the High Court has blocked the Constitution of Kenya Amendment Bill (2020), ruling it unconstitutional. Despite high excitement among the Maasai that the BBI will deliver long-awaited redress for historical injustices, the Bill to change the constitution does not mention this. The BBI Taskforce Report only alludes to the issue briefly, when reporting what Kenyans called for in their submissions. It fails to say anything about redressing historical injustices in its recommendations, and none of its proposed Bills is about land or historical injustices. The BBI does not have a mandate to deal with these issues. But many Maasai, particularly politicians and land rights activists, seem to believe otherwise.

Senator Ole Kina has repeated his earlier calls for the return of Laikipia, tweeting on 30 July 2021: “When I become President of Kenya . . . [n]o single person will own more than 1000 acres of land. All ranches in Laikipia will revert back to the original owners! Neocolonialism will end!” He had referred to Laikipia in a tweet in February 2020: “I am reaching out to huge land owners in Laikipia to relinquish part of their lands back to the Maasai Nation to be preserved for grazing . . . The land when handed over will be owned by the community.” In July 2020, he tweeted: “The Maasai Nation is finalizing on its claim soon to be filed in the UK courts @10 Downing Street [sic]. Laikipia and all other parts taken forcefully from the Maasai must be fully compensated.” I asked for more information, but received no reply.

This is just the latest instalment in a sorry tale of “lost” land, historical injustices, and misunderstood documents, starting with the Masai (sic, this was the anglicised name) Treaties, also known as the Masai Agreements of 1904 and 1911 between the British and Maasai leaders. These are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements, which is not their proper name. (The TJRC’s final report made the same error.) Many Maasai seem to have repeatedly misread and misinterpreted these and other key documents, which is not at all helpful to them if they hope to claim land back. In order to understand what is going on now, and Maasai “readings” of the BBI, we need to go back in time and trace some historical continuities.

Which lands were Maasai leaders referring to in their memorandum? They include Naivasha, Molo, Nakuru, Mau Narok, Kedong, Kitet, Laikipia and Ndabibi. The memorandum also listed other land, including that occupied since 1911 by the Magadi Soda Company in Kajiado. These lands, it said, must all be “reverted back to the community’s ownership”. But the memorandum failed to explain what “revert” means.

The memo also called on the government to establish a Commission on Historical Land Injustices and Contested Communal Land Claims, as if the National Land Commission (NLC) had not already been tasked with investigating historical injustices. (The BBI Taskforce Report also mentions this second proposed commission as something Kenyans are calling for.) Maasai groups in some parts of the country are preparing to submit complaints about historical injustices to the NLC by 21 September, which appears to be the cut-off date for such claims. (There is some confusion about the deadline, say lawyers.) Anyhow, the NLC only has the power to make recommendations.

It is important to make clear that Kenyan Maasai are by no means unanimous in their views on BBI. One activist who runs an NGO in Laikipia gave this opinion:  “[BBI] is about power realignment, and Maasai leaders are moving with the wave aligning with the system, hoping that they will consolidate power and remain in power. We are not gaining anything as far as land is concerned. We are losing more and more.”

Now, some of my Maasai friends – who include indigenous rights activists – will not like what I am about to say. One particular activist and his long-time American collaborator have accused me of opposing Maasai land rights. Not true. I have critiqued some approaches to claiming land rights, which is totally different. This article also contains a critique, one that is meant to be constructive. I am in a strong position to comment, since I’ve studied and written about the historical background to all this for years. My doctoral research in 1997-2002 centred on the colonial British alienation of Maasai land, the forced moves of the 1900s, the 1904 and 1911 Masai Treaties, and a 1913 court case brought by the Maasai with the aid of British sympathisers and lawyers that challenged the legality of the moves and the 1911 Agreement. In researching and writing this “story”, I gathered and used a great deal of oral testimony, some from elders old enough to have taken part in the 1911-12 forced moves as children, and wove this together with archival evidence. The latter included a stash of letters written by Dr Norman Leys, a British whistle-blower and medical doctor in government service, to British MPs and humanitarians, alerting them to the plight of the Maasai. They told a truly shocking tale of how the Maasai were parted from their land. Leys lost his job as a result of his whistleblowing, and never quite recovered.

It is important to make clear that Kenyan Maasai are by no means unanimous in their views on BBI.

As I make very clear in my 2006 book Moving the Maasai, there is no doubt that this land alienation and the forced moves constituted a major injustice perpetrated by the British colonial power. It is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of the land they had once utilised, maybe much more. (I deliberately avoid the word “owned” because individual Maasai did not own land in those days. Land was communally owned, and used seasonally, and still is in some places.) Every ethnic group in Kenya lost land to the British, but this was probably one of the largest grabs, and the most high profile.

There is nothing new about the Maasai demanding their land back. They have done so, on and off, ever since the 1913 court case, which failed on a technicality. My old friend John Keen, the late politician, did his best at the second Lancaster House constitutional talks in London in 1962, which he attended as part of a Maasai delegation. He walked out in disgust when Maasai demands were not met, and the delegation refused to sign the final constitutional documents. Keen would have been the first to say that the Maasai have since missed many opportunities to bring a land claim against Britain, or alternatively against Kenya. I was at a 2006 meeting held in Nairobi to plan a future lawsuit that was attended by Maasai from across Kenya, who included lawyers. Both Keen and Ntimama were there too. Keen declared: “I pledge half a million Kenya shillings towards the court expenses, here and now. If the Maasai go ahead with the case, I pledge another half million!” There was a lot of talk, but nothing came of it.

Every ethnic group in Kenya lost land to the British, but this was probably one of the largest grabs, and the most high profile.

It is now highly likely that too much time has passed for such a case to stand any chance in court. Years ago, I ran the question of a hypothetical claim against Britain past Martyn Day of the London-based law firm Leigh Day, who in turn consulted QCs; this was their considered opinion. Besides, unlike the successful Mau Mau reparations case (the one brought by Leigh Day and the KHRC; others have since failed), all the potential witnesses are long dead.

But in asking for the return of land now, and making this a domestic issue rather than an anti-British one, the Maasai do not seem to realise that they risk opening a Pandora’s box that would inevitably lead to ethnic strife –  the very opposite of building bridges. Their memorandum says that they hope BBI will “transform Kenya from a geographical patch-up [sic] of antagonizing [sic] indigenous nationalities to a symphony of a thriving nationhood.” How is this demand helping?


Those calling for the return of land have not thought through the implications for other Kenyans now living in places once occupied by the Maasai. If their pre-1904 land were to be returned, this would involve throwing thousands if not millions of Kenyans off land they believe is theirs, and for which they may well hold title. Cue civil war. We would see former victims of injustice forcibly displacing and dispossessing their fellow citizens. Other ethnic groups could then try to follow suit, and demand the return of their land. And where would the displaced go? All productive land in Kenya is already spoken for.

The Maasai’s BBI memorandum singles out “all Laikipia white settlers” for the reversion treatment, ignoring the fact that land in Laikipia is owned by a mélange of Kenyan citizens – black, brown and white. The sight of huge ranches owned by a handful of Europeans, many of which are now conservancies, understandably makes landless Africans angry and covetous. But the picture is more complex. Scholar Graham R. Fox has written: “Overall . . . Laikipia’s political landscape is defined by actors who defy the black-white, rancher-pastoralist dichotomy”.

The singling out of white settlers came to a head in 2004, when Maa-speaking invaders targeted ranchers of European descent whose leases were believed to be about to expire. Talk of the land ‘reverting’ once settler leases expired became common parlance then, on the 100th anniversary of the 1904 Masai Agreement. This was wrongly believed to expire 99 years after it was written. In fact, it was not a land lease and did not have an expiry date, as a quick read of it will confirm. Maasai activists confused settler leases and the Agreements, and some continue to do so. Moreover, few European settlers moved onto Laikipia before 1918, after World War One, so the majority of leases were not due to expire in 2004 anyway. There was another wave of ranch invasions in 2017, by Pokot and Samburu herders, egged on by a prominent Samburu politician. This time around, land owned by non-whites was also overrun by armed raiders – including a ranch owned by the Maasai former Speaker of the National Assembly, Francis Ole Kaparo.

Going back to the 1960s, politician Justus Ole Tipis (also a member of the Lancaster House delegation) used the term “revert” when suggesting to Reginald Maudling, Secretary of State for the Colonies, that Maasai land ought to be returned when the British left Kenya. (Parselelo Kantai mentions this in his 2007 journal article, In the Grip of the Vampire State. The Maasai delegation’s 1962 memorandum, presented at Lancaster House, centred on the idea that land had only been given out for the purpose of European settlement, and was now at risk of falling into other hands (in other words, Kikuyu). The word “revert” did not enter popular discourse until much later. Now the BBI Taskforce Report states, when reporting what Kenyans called for: “Reversion of ownership of land to the community upon expiry of leasehold ownership by non-citizens”. Since most settlers of European descent are Kenyan citizens, this would not apply to them.


One of the myths that has developed around the Masai Agreements is that they said the alienated land would be returned once the British left Kenya. In fact, they said no such thing. Why would they? Colonial powers believed that the sun would never set on empire. They would hardly include a caveat, in a formal treaty with African subjects, which foresaw their future departure and demise. Making this concept the cornerstone of the BBI memorandum is therefore ahistorical, confused, and confusing.

With respect, Maasai activists and lawyers need to get to grips with the facts, rather than allow their imaginations to run away with them. Few seem to have bothered to read the Agreements, yet the 1911 document is online and copies of both are freely available in libraries and archives. Myths also fed into the TJRC evidence. I asked a Maasai lawyer who was involved in drafting the BBI memorandum where the idea of reversion had come from; he just referred me to the TJRC final report. In fact, it says no such thing in its recommendations on land, or in the chapter on land in Volume IIB. Some Maasai who gave evidence to the TJRC talked of reversion, but this is not the same as the TJRC endorsing it.

The word “revert” keeps popping up everywhere. See for example the story headlined Kedong Maasai to block BBI meeting in Narok: “The community told the new investors on the [Kedong] ranch they will not be responsible for any losses they incur once the land reverts to the Kitet Maasai”. And again: “[Robinson] Torome said legendary Laibon Lenana signed an agreement with the British settler community members, who lived in Kedong, in 1904 that the land would be returned to the Kitet community when they were done with it”. (My emphasis). Furthermore, there was in all likelihood no, or very few, European settlers on Kedong in 1904. (Sandford’s 1919 account, see below, just refers to applications for land at Kedong having been received by the government by February 1904.) This reading of the Agreement also makes the mistake of thinking it was made with white settlers, rather than government.

According to media coverage of current struggles over Kedong, much of it factually inaccurate with regard to history, the Maasai are calling for the 75,000 acres to “revert” to them. Its value has soared since plans were laid for new industrial zones, dry ports and the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway), hence intensifying contestation. “Revert” has become a mantra. But those hoping to take historical land claims to court must understand that this concept has no legal or historical basis.

Activists have concocted another false and unhelpful narrative about Kedong, in an attempt to link present-day contestation over the ranch to the Kedong Massacre of 1895. That event is well documented, but again some people refuse to believe sources simply because they were written (in this case) by a colonial civil servant, George Sandford (published 1919). Scholars have also written about this much more recently than Sandford. What reportedly happened was this: Maasai warriors killed 650 porters in a Swahili/Arab caravan crossing Maasailand on its way to Uganda, after porters snatched two Maasai girls from a warrior manyatta. A freelance British trader called Andrew Dick, who was in the area with two Frenchmen, set out to avenge the massacre despite being ordered not to do so by British officials. He is said to have killed around 100 warriors before being speared to death.

Maasai activists and lawyers need to get to grips with the facts, rather than allow their imaginations to run away with them.

The Frenchmen refused to accompany Dick on his little escapade, and rushed to the nearest British fort to report what had happened. A British investigation into the incident exonerated the Maasai after deciding they had been sorely provoked. But now activists have invented a second massacre – by British forces (who were not in the area at that time) against Maasai, alleging that 2,000 warriors were killed. Others claim warriors were shot dead by British farmers, but there were none at Kedong in 1895; settlers did not begin to arrive until the turn of the century, and many of the earliest were South African, not British. Activists are now using this invented second massacre to claim that Maasai suffered land losses at Kedong starting in 1895, when in fact the two things are not related.

Another enduring myth linked to the signing of the 1911 Agreement concerns the death of the prophet Olonana, who is said to have been poisoned by British officials who then put his thumb-print onto the Agreement posthumously. Nonsense; his name and thumbprint are not on the document, and the British had no motive to kill their closest Maasai ally, who reportedly died of dysentery. Some activists call all this revisionism “decolonizing Maasai history”. In fact, it’s called making stuff up to suit yourself, without providing any supporting evidence. The tragedy for the wider Maasai community is that it does not suit them, but undermines what could be valid claims for redress.

Richard Waller, a leading historian of the Maasai, had this to say about the process of inventing history to suit modern-day political purposes: “It is indeed tragic that Maasai history has been ‘reconceptualized’ in this way, not only because it will cut no ice in any legal arena but also because it obscures and falsifies/over-simplifies a history which is deep and fascinating.  Maasai – especially the younger generation – deserve better than this.”

‘Native reserves’

In reclaiming Maasai land for the Maasai, leaders are (ironically) echoing the colonial policy of confining Africans to so-called native reserves. These were mono-ethnic, and designed to exclude members of other ethnic groups. Reserves made it easier for the British to tax and control their subjects. But in today’s world, the legacy of reserves, and the mentality of reservation on ethnic grounds, feeds into ethnic territorialism, ethnicised identity politics, and a nostalgia for “what was once ours”. The TJRC touched on this in its final report, referring more broadly to colonial administrative units: “The Commission finds that the creation of these administrative units planted the seeds of ethnic hatred as communities started to establish ownership of their territories to the exclusion of others”. The Maasai are, in effect, asking for the return of the Southern Maasai Reserve, and for it to be kept for their exclusive use as the British pledged in 1911. Fondness for a reserve: how colonial administrators would laugh in their graves!

Activists have concocted another false and unhelpful narrative about Kedong, in an attempt to link present-day contestation over the ranch to the Kedong Massacre of 1895.

Moreover, “going back to where you come from” makes no sense in a multicultural society like Kenya. Most citizens are now too thoroughly mixed up, intermarried and inter-settled to want to return (even if this were possible) to mono-ethnic enclaves. The richness of Kenya lies in its diversity, a point made in the Preamble to the 2010 katiba. The Constitution also says Kenyans have the right to live anywhere they like, regardless of ethnic origin.

Other practicalities   

Even if the land were returned, to whom would it be returned? Individuals, communities, county governments dominated by the Maasai? How about the diaspora? Would everyone who is part-Maasai have to prove their blood quantum (a dangerous notion) in order to receive their cut?  The fact is that the Maasai have intermarried with other ethnic groups, notably the Kikuyu, for generations. The notion of racial purity is nonsense, all part of the nativist, far-right racist narrative that is in the ascendancy worldwide, including in the UK where deluded Little Englanders are calling, post-Brexit, for “illegal migrants” to be expelled – especially Muslims, and those with black or brown skins. Let’s not go down that path. There is no difference, in my view, between calls for “England for the English” and “Maasailand for the Maasai”; neither has merit.

So, my Maasai friends, protest your losses by all means, support the BBI by all means. Defend your contemporary land rights against encroachers such as industrial giants and infrastructure projects. Use the law to seek compensation for historical injustices. But please avoid trampling on the rights of fellow Kenyans in the process. Most importantly, do closely read, and get a handle on, historical documents that could help your case, rather than continue to misinterpret and mangle them.

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Dr Lotte Hughes is an historian of Kenya and empire, and a journalist, who has written extensively about Kenya. Her publications include Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure (2006). Academic profile:


Revealed: Angola’s Largest Hospital Without Ambulances

The Luanda General Hospital (HGL), for example, considered a potential “reference unit” in 2016 by the then governor of Luanda, General Higino Carneiro, has been without functional ambulances for more than two months to assist patients in need.



Revealed: Angola’s Largest Hospital Without Ambulances

The largest hospital in Luanda, reopened in June 2015 by the Angolan executive and currently managed by the GPL, has been without functional ambulances for about two months to assist patients who need them. In the struggle between life and death, many are forced to wait more than 24 hours for light at the end of the tunnel and a chance to save their lives, when there is still time.

At a time when governments around the world are forced to reflect on the attention and investments they devote to their health systems, due to the collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital units in Angola, regardless of their size and or capacity, they also face needs that are so elementary that they compromise their normal functioning, often costing defenseless citizens the lives of them.

The Luanda General Hospital (HGL), for example, considered a potential “reference unit” in 2016 by the then governor of Luanda, General Higino Carneiro, has been without functional ambulances for more than two months to assist patients in need. immediate medical transfer to other hospitals in the capital, a source confirmed to Maka Angola.

Our source says that currently the HGL has only one ambulance in operation and that it has been with this one that has helped the “most serious and urgent” cases. To make matters worse, the vehicle, despite “running more or less well”, does not have the ideal specific requirements to be used as an ambulance.

“This car lacks a siren, a horn, the fireflies don’t work well and there’s not even oxygen in the back”, assured our source.

It is a white Toyota Land Cruiser, with a sticker bearing the Republic of Angola insignia and large letters written “Ministério da Saúde”, with a cracked front window, perhaps because it was hit by a stone or similar.

As for the poor technical condition of this ambulance, the HGL board confirmed to Maka Angola that it is aware of the situation, but does not consider it a problem. “It doesn’t have a siren, but at least it has an ambulance!”, the director of the HGL, Dr. Bernabé Lemos, told our report.

On the day of our second visit to the HGL, July 22, 2021, we witnessed the arrival of this same ambulance at the hospital, bringing two different patients, who did not even know each other, and in completely different health conditions: one lying on a stretcher and the other sitting in one of the back seats of the car. What, according to one of the nurses at the hospital, who prefers not to be identified for fear of reprisals, has been a recurrent practice, “due to scarcity of resources”.

“This has happened even during a pandemic!” emphasizes the nurse.

Parked in the interior park of the HGL, we identified two more ambulances, one of the Renaut-Master brand, in relatively good condition, despite having suffered an accident, it damaged one of its rear bumpers; and another brand Stavic Sv 270, visibly damaged, with flat tires and apparently out of service for some time.

None of them, as we have found, are working. “They’ve been out of order for some time,” adds our source.

“We found only one functional ambulance”

In order to better understand the imbroglio of HGL ambulances, there is a variable that cannot be ruled out. It is an alleged workshop where many hospital ambulances go and from which they never return.

Our source has memory of at least two ambulances that were taken to the alleged workshop and that so far have not returned to the hospital. “They say they are going to take the ambulances to the workshop. Some go and don’t come back anymore”, he declared.

A former HGL doctor, who also prefers not to be identified, says he has a memory that, during his time working in that unit, about a year ago, the hospital had about five ambulances.

“If I remember correctly, there was an ambulance for each specialty: one for surgery, one for gynecology/obstetrics, one for pediatrics, one for internal medicine and one for nephrology,” the doctor told Maka Angola.

Therefore, there is a question that does not want to remain silent: where are the other ambulances at the Hospital Geral de Luanda?

In order to better understand the imbroglio of HGL ambulances, there is a variable that cannot be ruled out. It is an alleged workshop where many hospital ambulances go and from which they never return.

The current management of the HGL, in office since May 2021, says it is not aware of the existence of the ambulances in question and claims to have received only three ambulances from the previous management, one in operation and two completely out of order.

“We found only one functional ambulance, but also in poor technical condition”, assures the new director of the HGL, Dr. Bernabé Lemos.

At this moment, according to the director, there is one more ambulance to be repaired so that the hospital can have at least two functional ambulances.

As for the alleged mysterious workshop, the current HGL management says they are totally unaware of what it is: “From our management, the only ambulances that went to the workshop are this one, which is walking, without a siren, and the other one that is about to go out.” If there are ambulances going to the garage and not returning to the hospital, adds the director, “only if it was in the past administration. In my lifetime there is no ambulance that was sent to the workshop at our command and has not yet returned.”

Maka Angola contacted the former director of HGL, current director of Hospital Josina Machel. In this portal, Dr. Carlos Zeca refuted the existence of more ambulances than those he left to the hospital’s new management.

“From 2016 to 2021 [the time of his term] the HGL only had three ambulances, which are the ones I left in the hospital,” said the doctor categorically. As for the “mysterious workshop”, Carlos Zeca says this is not a new conversation, as he also heard it when he arrived at HGL in 2016 to manage the unit.

“The ambulances at this hospital, when we arrived, they all said they were at the mechanic. When we got there, none of them were in conditions”, reveals the hospital manager. The former director of HGL also stated that the lack of ambulances has always been a concern for the hospital and that, therefore, they have always relied on INEMA’s collaboration for medical transfers. He adds that in 2019 the hospital received an ambulance from MINSA, through the Central for Procurement and Supply of Medicines and Medical Resources of Angola (CECOMA), the Renaut-Master, stopped in the hospital’s interior park due to an unknown malfunction.

Human lives at risk from mismanagement

While the whereabouts of certain HGL ambulances remain uncertain and others remain to be repaired, it is the patients who need them who suffer most from the effects of this problem of poor hospital management.

Jack António, 10, was admitted to the HGL emergency room on the morning of Sunday, 11 July, with severe pain in his jaw and difficulty breathing. The attending physician detected a fracture in his jaw and informed his family that he needed immediate surgical intervention.

As the HGL did not have any professional specialized in the type of surgical intervention required, Jack had to be transferred to the Josina Machel «Maria Pia» Hospital. The only problem is that at that time the HGL had no ambulance available.

António Komba, Jack’s uncle, says that his nephew’s condition got worse during the day he was admitted to the hospital, but that the staff said they couldn’t do anything else.

“They said to wait for the ambulance to be able to take the boy to Maria Pia’s pediatrics, but until 8 pm nothing had been done! And they weren’t touching him, they weren’t doing anything to him,” his uncle declared.

According to one of our sources at the hospital, who was on duty on the day of the incident, “the hospital was trying to contact INEMA to request an ambulance for the boy, but they didn’t answer”.

Daniel Nzagi, another uncle of the patient, explains that he had to impose himself so that the hospital would do anything to guarantee the transfer of his nephew. “I had to threaten the hospital management that I would denounce the ‘Fala Angola’ program if they didn’t solve the ambulance problem.”

As the HGL did not have any professional specialized in the type of surgical intervention required, Jack had to be transferred to the Josina Machel «Maria Pia» Hospital. The only problem is that at that time the HGL had no ambulance available.

After nearly 48 hours, Jack was finally transferred from the HGL to “Maria Pia” by an INEMA ambulance around 5 pm on Monday, July 12th.

As for this occurrence, the director of the HGL says he has no knowledge: “I was not going to allow that to happen. I don’t know; it didn’t come to me.”

However, it promises an internal investigation to investigate the circumstances of the facts that occurred.

Jack Antonio is just one of hundreds of patients who see their lives at risk due to the lack of ambulances at the HGL. Others weren’t even as lucky. In February 2019, for example, Jornal de Angola reported that a 13-year-old boy died at Luanda General Hospital after waiting eight hours for an ambulance from the institution that was supposed to transport him to the Josina Machel. The director of the HGL, at the time of the facts, denied the occurrence and assured that “we have the three ambulances working”, according to JA. An ambulance is more than a car; it’s a way that can save lives. It is necessary that the managers of hospitals in Angola look at the ambulances, their technical conditions and their drivers with a clear eye, so that they stop innocent Angolans from dying for serious errors in hospital management.

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Ethiopia: The Grim Search for Political Light in a Crisis

For a political system in a country like Ethiopia that is a “no-accountability zone” for state actors and powerful political elites, the social field is critical to building a political community that is more democratic and more in sync with the logic and sociality of “the governed”, argues Semeneh Asfaw.



Ethiopia: The Grim Search for Political Light in a Crisis

Ethiopia is suffering. It has become a large community of pain. A dizzying daily multiplication of death and violence in various parts of the country, an all-out war and mass starvation in Tigray, a disquieting feeling of a society at war with itself, describes our current situation. The war continues to spread across the country. Mistrust between communities, fear, insecurity, hopelessness, a crushing inflation, a sense of a deteriorating future, and a constantly declining social world, define the mood of our times. This situation, coupled with political and social tensions, has been slowly building up since 2014. A popular upsurge in the following years resulted in an implosion within the ruling EPRDF regime, culminating in the ascension of Abiy Ahmed to power, as prime minister, in April 2018. Inter-communal conflict and political violence continued to put a heavy strain on the country in the years that followed, albeit with a new vigour. 

Social suffering as a function of war, displacement, migration, and political and structural violence is, in the main, generated by state and military powers. The un-acknowledged pain and social misery of individual communities by the larger society besets the crisis of the social. “Enemy”-making discourse has pitted organized political actors against each other in wars of negation, injecting and provoking frightening levels of social antagonism between communities. Discursive and actual wars are waged against simplistically defined single enemies who are often constructed as the culprit of all evils, and all social, political and economic problems. Reckless and unhinged political language is crowned as “truth”, while human suffering is often dismissed as hyperbole.

Powerful political players, in and outside the state, with significant sway and influence on political discourse, gave rise to this condition. For that reason, seeking the solution to our predicament must involve the political elite. However, this on its own is not a sufficient remedy; as polarization and hostility between communities is upsetting the social-structure, “fixing” the problem by relying on a narrowly defined political solution would not suffice. Beyond a state that is on the brink of collapse, we are facing a social fabric that is fast decomposing, unable to hold together its diverse constituent parts.

Caustic political rhetoric and insidious political discourse have contaminated the “power block” or the political structure, and have gone further to cause a considerable wound to our social relations. This ubiquitous crisis that is a manifestation of the entrenched, political, social and moral adversity that the country is facing calls for a more imaginative approach, beyond conventional politics. To deal with the implications of the crisis of politics on the social demands that we implore and pay attention to the emotive, to help us connect with one another as a society.

In the absence of a collective outrage, individual communities are left to grieve massive death, displacement and starvation in isolation. The general public is far too divided to speak in unison. This is perhaps most apparent with the war in Tigray—between Federal and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces—that has left in its wake atrocities and destruction on an enormous scale. Very few in the larger public are willing to imagine the deprivations of daily life and the feelings of isolation that Tigrayans are undergoing as a result of this ruinous war. Death, hunger, persecution or the violation of the female body as a site of a cruel game do not seem to move the larger public.

Nevertheless, the enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular. Rather, this war is but a climactic landmark that expresses the debilitating effects of selective outrage on the social. Human fatality, dislocation and the devastation of towns, cities and livelihoods due to political violence have become numbingly mundane and superfluous in the past three years. No regional state or linguistic and cultural communities have been left unaffected. The casualness of suffering has cast aside an alibi for a fundamental crisis that has befallen the country—the social fabric is witnessing the crumbling of its covenants.

The social assets that held the society together are eroded, and appear too frail to avert our downward spiral into a moral abyss. Shared social norms like tur (ጡር) or neg bene (ነግ በኔ) that dissuaded people from engaging in acts of injustice on others, that had long sustained the social compact, despite the historically widespread violence, and the despotism of the Ethiopian state, have been eroded. This glue that has long been the life force of the social-fabric is everywhere desecrated. The social that has been the bulwark of interconnections between heterogeneous communities and groups is fracturing under the weight of the crisis of conventional politics.

The enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular.

However, recognizing that the crisis of the moment has permeated society or that there are cracks in the social fabric should not hinder us from appreciating the political validity and vitality of the social. While the condition for the proliferation of social suffering is indifference and disregard for loss and pain, collective mourning of all suffering could be a site of possibility for healing. This recognition should motivate us to strive to rescue the social from further degradation so that we can connect with each other—to feel beyond our political affiliations and identities, and to envision a politics of the social that is based on reherahe ርህራኄ (“radical empathy”/radical humanity).

Rebuilding the social 

As politicians are taking us down the bottomless pit, there are way too many of us in this society who are too preoccupied with trailing behind and echoing self-absorbed “leaders”. In this epoch of populist un-reason, vitriolic political language heaved in a discursive climate dominated by a sinister, invisible virtual space, seduces its clients to speak without bounds—without care. Politics is condensed into an art of following. The political arena has depoliticized social actors and turned the public into “users” and “consumers”, whose “political” role is largely limited to “liking”, “disliking”, “re-tweeting”, “sharing” and ultimately, doing the bidding of powerful political actors and “social media patriots”. The journey to the precipice continues and the tragedy multiplies, if we as a society continue to refuse to feel the pain that we see meted out everywhere in our common land.

Even if the social is more than its national identification, it is largely reduced to its “political expression”—“the nation”—in this moment of crisis. And the nation, either in its pan-Ethiopian or particular forms, has become the chief arbiter that determines whose pain, agony and loss matters. It has come to define communities in contradistinction against one another. Rather than nurturing and struggling for the positive, free expression of community and publicness, nationalisms of all vintages have mobilized war-making speeches that caricature presumed opponents. Contenders are seen not as adversaries to engage, but as enemies to be annihilated. Simple answers are sought to complex political, economic and social problems. In such a highly polarized context, the instinctive human identification with pain and loss appears to lose its force. Pan-Ethiopian nationalism, or identity politics, while privileging the concerns of some, appears to predicate their activism on the negation of, or insensitivity to, the pain of what they consider to be the other. In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities. 

I believe the question we must ask in this moment of crisis needs to be, what can we do when conventional politics has failed and “love for country” or “love for the nation” is the vector of the war machine? What can be done when jingoism and oppositional nationalism justify war and when they deepen the crisis by excusing impunity and carnage as “collateral damage”? What do we do when speech is muted by “sheer violence” and “rational” deliberation appears impossible? What can we do where politics is held hostage by political elites? Where do we seek our answers when structural decline and calls for more war are threatening to engulf us all?

In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities.

To my mind, from the vantage point of society and social actors, the remedy is to be found in the effort we make to rebuild and reconstitute the social. In a society that is so intermingled, where interconnections are far too many to disentangle and a common future is unavoidable, recognizing suffering is imperative to re-build the social fabric. Our survival as a society depends on our ability to empathize with one another. First and foremost, recognizing the social demand that we “bear witness” to pain to reclaim and take back our human ability to empathize with others. Through reherahe (ርህራሄ)—a term that is often used in Ethiopia to describe the radical humanity of mothers— we transcend the limits of our supposed inability to identify and reconnect with the anguish and distress of others. Hence, if we were to allow reherahe as a shared sentiment for all, we could open it up to reshape society and repair our disintegrating inter-communal relations. As a “civic virtue”, it would be freed from its narrow confines as the “natural” preserve of our mothers, and could be used to govern this polity and transform our political life.

The poesis of collective mourning and the politics of the social

We need to reaffirm our connectedness through an act of collective mourning. Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”. Rather, the survival of the social fabric depends on our ability to recognize suffering in the entire society. This demands the unequivocal rejection of the conditions that engender the explosion of social misery. And the precondition for this is the rejection of all wars of negation fought in the name of “the survival”, “unity”, or “the love of” the nation. Instead of relying on political actors, or sinking into the passion of our hearts, we must insist on relating to one another with the depth of our humanity, our wailing guts and emotive faculties.

In these wars of the people against the people, nothing makes sense except mourning all suffering through commonly shed tears. Until and unless we do that, we have no real victories to celebrate, no heroes to praise, no flags to wave. Nothing but the hollow, Pyrrhic victory that is in fact the demise of our social world. The only victory that makes sense is one that expiates and affirms our social ties. And this victory starts with the repudiation of these wars of negation.

The alternative we have is to let these wars continue to not only destroy our future, but also to repudiate the ways we lived in the past. We must acknowledge that despite the injustices and inequities of the past, wrought by successive ruling regimes, the social domain has never seen the levels of polarization and social antagonism that we are currently witnessing between linguistic and cultural communities. The resilience of the social-fabric was such that it was able to maintain, throughout the 20th century, a level of social decorum that retained a sense of community within and between different communities.

Sure, this larger community was not a community where every group was politically alive and treated the same. Nor was it a community that lived “in harmony” and “tolerance”, as some would like us to believe. Nonetheless, it was at the same time a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic community that shared cultural assets, sentiments and experiences, whose common ties nurtured similar socialities. In spite of its in-built inequities, differences, rivalries, contesting interests and conflicts, it was a community that was bound and enlivened by shared values of moral restraint with a deep sense of human fragility, inter-dependent social life and mutual-aid.

Beyond the act of collective mourning to re-build the social fabric, the social field should also be a space for thinking about the otherwise, to envision a better future. Where the social is conceived as a site of political transformation, it could create the condition of possibility for the activation of the affective and moral ties that have long bound the social compact. Social assets such as mutual-aid and solidarity with the aggrieved can serve not only to repair the social fabric but also to remake a more robust social realm.

Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”.

Ritual practices like Leqso (the communal act of mourning with the bereaved) and edir (the mutual aid association of neighbours) that are shared social assets across various communities in the country, could be calibrated to repair our troubled inter-communal relations and our beleaguered social world. Leqso and edir, that form key elements of our social existence, have long forged a sense of neighbourliness among members of heterogeneous communities. Members of edir who visited and counselled mourners, and fed and catered for the bereaved, as well as the leqestegnoch, who gathered to participate in collective acts of mourning, made up the community. This guild of mourners grieved together as a community. Many grieved the dead among them. Some grieved loved ones who were long departed while others mourned the “prospective death” of loved ones as well as their own mortality. Leqso and edir produced the platform for communal care, and prompted the engagement of communities with the human condition. They forged and strengthened communal bonds and created the possibility for collective healing to occur.

In this moment of crisis, a politics of the social that insists on collective mourning and healing is most imperative, as it obliges us to re-think and activate inbuilt social devices to bridge communities pulled apart by hostile political discourse and political violence. The politics of the social that emerges from the sentimental, normative and communitarian practices of everyday people could thus rely on such shared social assets to rebuild and reconstitute the social.

While recognizing that “the political” and “the social” domain are imbricated and that their energies flow into in the constitution of one another, there is also political value in distinguishing the social as a sphere that has its own logic of existence and raison d’être. This recognition entails that the assets of the social must be made more visible to animate, humanize and democratize the political arena. For a political system in a country like Ethiopia that is a “no-accountability zone” for state actors and powerful political elites, the social field as a “site of dynamic [political] possibility” is critical to building a political community that is more democratic and more in sync with the logic and sociality of “the governed”.

The political domain should reflect and respond to the associated life of its heterogeneous groups, as well as their concerns and aspirations. By capitalizing on our social assets, this moment of crisis is a moment when we need to seek to reconstitute society as a field of co-existence and co-creation for a multi-ethnic “labouring community”. Such a society could allow for the emergence of a community that does not just merely co-exist peaceably, but one that strives to create a substantively equal and just political community.

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The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya

A cabal of politicos has appropriated the everyday language of hardworking Kenyans to camouflage their intentions to perpetuate corruption and state capture.



The Evolving Language of Corruption in Kenya

Andrew Ngumba had a curious way of explaining away institutionalized corruption every time he was accused of engaging in it. “In the days gone by, before the village elders arbitrated any pressing or thorny issue, they would be offered libation just before the deliberations and then thanked with a goat thereafter, as an appreciation for a job well done.”

Those who are old enough will remember Ngumba, who died in 1997, as the mayor of Nairobi from 1977–1980. He later became the MP for Mathare constituency, renamed Kasarani, from 1983–1986. Ngumba estate, off Thika highway, next to East African Breweries, is named after the canny entrepreneur-politician, who founded Rural Urban Credit Finance Limited, dubbed the “ghetto bank”. The finance house collapsed in 1984 and Ngumba sought political refuge in Sweden.

Just like your archetypal politician, the wily Ngumba would with characteristic panache then ask, “Was the libation and the goat a form of saying ‘thank you for your time’ to the elders, or was it just plain corruption?” His cheekiness aside, which Kenyan society was Ngumba describing? Pre-colonial, before the advent of British settlers and missionaries? Or was he referring to a pre-urban, rural-setting Kenya, before it was contaminated by colonialism, modern capitalism and corruption?

We can imagine what his answer to his own rhetorical question was. Of greater interest, is the way he chose to re-tell the socio-cultural anecdote, with the obvious intention of exonerating himself and like-minded politicians, when caught engaging in bribery and institutional corruption: he implicitly gave a nod to the nefarious activity by normalizing bribery, a vice previously unknown and unexperienced in the very society he was describing.

“Political elites [also] appropriate moral language and social norms to ‘conventionalise’ corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that takes the moral sting from opprobrium, corruption and its various forms,” says Wachira Maina in his report, State Capture – Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption. “Corruption is ‘traditionalised’ and reframed as gift-giving or as a form of socially recognizable reciprocity. Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some ‘token benefit’.”

But when is a gift a bribe and a bribe a gift? Let us take the example of the chief – village or otherwise. Until very recently, up to the late 1990s, the chief was a powerful creature bestowed with the powers of “life and death” over his subjects. Until just before the December 1997 general elections, the statutory powers of the chief were many times greater than those of any elected official that you can think of. With the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms, some of their powers were supposedly clipped.

Picture this: Two parties are squabbling over a land boundary. They must go to the chief for arbitration. On the eve of the arbitration, one of the parties, most probably the one who has encroached on his neighbour’s land, gets a brainwave and pays the chief a visit in advance, ostensibly to remind him of their big day. Because of the unwritten law that it is “culturally rude” to visit a chief “empty-handed”, the visiting party decides to “gift” the chief with whatever, as has happened from time immemorial. One can, without too much effort, imagine the possible outcome of the land tussle the following day.

Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned. Should we wonder why chiefs as public officials, for example, own some of the biggest chunks of land in their area of jurisdiction? At the grassroots level, a socio-cultural norm was deliberately subverted to allow open bribery and the establishment of institutionalized corruption.

As currently constituted in the country, chiefs are an invention of British colonial rule. They are part of the indirect rule that the colonial government imposed on Kenyans. When Kenya gained independence from the British in 1963, the post-independent government inherited the colonial indirect system of government — the whole kit and caboodle. With their “illegitimacy” and corruption networks carried over and sanctioned by the new African government, chiefs entrenched themselves even further by extending their corrupt patronage networks within the government bureaucratic structures.

During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”; any person with matters arising at the chief’s court knew that a “gift” had to be carried along. So, even though this form of corruption was covert and not dangerous to the existence of the state, it impoverished and terrorized the poor peasants.

Chiefs were not only very powerful, they happened to be some of the richest people wherever they reigned.

Corruption, as an evolving concept, was introduced into Kenya society by the British colonial government and, the civil service has been known to be the home of institutionalized state corruption since pre-independence Kenya. Think about it, the word corruption does not exist in the lexicons of Kenya’s ethnic communities. In the Kikuyu community, for instance, there is a specific lexicon that describes a thief and theft, but there is no word for corruption per se, because in African societies, corruption, a Western concept (and as defined today), was unknown in many African traditional societies.

Indeed, as Wachira observes in his report released in 2019, “corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence, but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992.”

What is corruption? For the longest time, corruption has been defined in the binary fashion of either petty or grand corruption. Political scientists have variously described corruption as an act in which the power of public office is used for personal gain. In other words, the misuse of public resources by state officials for private gain. Corruption has also been described as behaviour that deviates from the formal rules of conduct governing the actions of someone in a position of public authority or trust.

The benefits of corruption are either economic — when an exchange of cash occurs — or social, in the case of favouritism or nepotism. Hence, grand corruption, sometimes referred to as political corruption, involves top government officials and political decision makers who engage in exchanges of large sums of illegally acquired money. Petty corruption involves mid- or low-level state officials, who are often underpaid and who interact with the public on a daily basis.

In his concise report, Wachira notes that “a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.” Why? “Part of the problem is conceptual: How we name corruption and how we understand its character,” points out the constitutional lawyer.

These simple but loaded terms of “petty” and “grand” corruption present a false dichotomy, says Wachira. “Petty” suggests that the corruption is merely an irritant, something people do to speed up things or evade a long queue — a way of “lubricating the system. “The term suggests an expedient with trivial effect, considered case by case. In fact, that characterization is deeply mistaken. . . . Most important, it becomes a fee, because it guarantees that what was initially a free service is no longer so. From a macro-economic perspective, its distortionary effect could be as at least as impactful as grand corruption,” writes Wachira.

That is why petty corruption in Kenya has long been baptized chai, meaning tea, or kitu kidogo, which means something small. It is daily language that is used to camouflage an illegal act by likening it to one of Kenya’s best-known pastimes — drinking tea. Civil servants demand chai from the public in order, they argue, to grease the bureaucratic wheel, which oftentimes revolves very, very slowly and needs to be lubricated for it to move. Chai and Kitu Kidogo have become interchangeable, because “something small” also connotes a kind of “lubricant” that “hastens” service delivery.

The police, especially traffic cops, who are synonymous with petty corruption, have perfected the language of chai-taking more than any other state official such that when Kenyans conjure bribe giving, the first person who immediately comes to mind is the policeman.

The State Capture report says, “Indeed language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice ‘cuppa’ tea between intimates.”

During their “reign of terror”, which continues today, chiefs interpreted bribes as “gifts” that had to be given by “force of law”.

The report further states that, “the term ‘grand’ on the other hand can also be misleading if grand suggests debilitating to the state. Implicit in the term is the notion of a corrupt deal of significant size, involving senior officials and high-ranking politicians. Such corruption involves large-scale stealing of state resources and, the theory goes, it erodes confidence in government, undermines the rule of law and spawns economic instability.”

In Kenya, grand corruption has involved such mindboggling money schemes as the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scandals and more recently, the Eurobond scandal. These mega-scams are a result of collusion between state officials and politicians, who over time have formed powerful corruption cartels that have proved inextinguishable.

Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public? Why is it not obvious to all? “There are cases in which the term ‘grand’ corruption fails to communicate the moral shock and magnitude that seems implicit. ‘Grand’ then becomes merely an audit term that simply describes financial scale,” says Wachira. “If that conclusion is right, it would then explain the frequent lack of moral outrage about widespread theft in government, with the result that there will be cases in which characterising corruption as petty or grand implies nothing about its impact or the social and political levers one can push to eliminate it.”

“Grand corruption” in Kenya today has evidently surpassed the current nomenclature; the staggering sums of money stolen have numbed the people’s sensibilities to shock and have refused to register in their psyche. How, for example, can the president have the audacity of treating Kenyans to shock therapy by telling them that KSh2 billion is stolen from the state coffers every 24 hours? That kind of pillage can no longer be termed as corruption, let alone grand corruption. A more appropriate language has to be found; and there can be no other word for it other than theft.

The State Capture report problematizes the matter of the naming of state plunder and discusses at length what could be the problem with language that seeks to explain the massive haemorrhage of state resources orchestrated by unscrupulous individuals. The report notes that corruption in Kenya has been described as a malignant tumour that hampers the government from governing properly “The problem of naming [corruption] is then compounded by medical or sociological language that pathologises corruption. . . . Therein lies the problem: Anti-corruption programmes ‘pathologise’ the relationship between corruption and the state, deploying medical terms like ‘cancer on the body politic,’ ‘a disease that we must cure’ or ‘a pervasive ill’ potentially responsive to curative interventions.

Wachira says,

Even when the language used is sociological rather medical, the pathological dimension stays. Corruption is ‘a perverse culture’ or ‘negative norm’. Both the medical and the sociological language mobilise a deep-seated ‘conviction that there is something pathological – an illness – within [Kenya] politics and culture’. This suggests that what the reformers must do is ‘to identify this pathology’ and formulate a diagnosis that examines the Kenyan society and brings to the surface the ‘fissures and contradictions’ that explain the graft.

In his report, Wachira goes on to say, “The medical perspective that implies that the state has gone awry and can be put to rights with an appropriate intervention is pervasive. Implicit in the diagnosis and the proposed cure is the thought that the state is constructed for some legitimate — or benign — purpose that has been perverted by corruption.”

Joseph G. Kibe, a Permanent Secretary in six different ministries in the 1970s, was once interviewed about his experience working as a top government bureaucrat, many years after his retirement in 1979. Said Kibe, “In those days, I could see some kind of low-level corruption starting to creep in, especially involving clerks. For instance, in the Lands Office, they would remove one file and hide it away from where the index shows it is and wait until the owners of the land wanted to conduct a transaction at which point they would ask for a bribe.”

The same low-level corruption has been rampant in the corridors of justice. The low-paid court clerk in the magistrate’s court “disappears” a case file so that he can solicit a bribe to enable the miraculous re-appearance of the “lost” file.

“A generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic of Kenya.”

The former PS, who went on to work for Transparency International (TI) Kenya Chapter, said in 2004, “Corruption had crept into ministries, departments and government corporations and was likely to entrench itself unless it was stopped. With corruption you give up development because all resources you have, only a little will do good. A lot will be taken away for personal use.”

Because the patronage networks created by the civil service and the political class have ensured that corruption is profitable and has high returns, it has become extremely difficult to fight the vice. “The difficulties of fighting corruption lie in the union of corruption and politics; a union in which, at least since Goldenberg scandal, a power elite has captured the state, especially the Presidency and the Treasury and repurposed the machinery of the government into a ‘temporary zone for personalised appropriation’” says Wachira.

State capture is a term that was popularized in South Africa, a country that since its independence 27 years ago, has witnessed some of the biggest state scandals since the end of Apartheid. “What is at play in Kenya [today] is ‘state capture’ defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit”, explains the State Capture report.

The success of the state capture rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy, while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of the politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt. Arrest and indictments are often the precursor of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.

“Corruption eats at the moral fabric of the nation,” once said Harris Mule, one of the finest PSs to have served at Kenya’s Ministry of Finance. “Positive norms and traditions, once appropriated by the corrupt, instantly transform themselves into curses. Take the uniquely Kenyan institution of Harambee, as an example. It has been changed from what was once a positive manifestation of the culture of philanthropy and community service, into a political tool that fails to deliver what it promises.”

Mule further said, “Corruption causes poverty by promoting unfair distribution of [the] national income and inefficient use of resources. Poverty and inequality in turn breed discontent and can cause national instability. The political implications of sharp economic inequalities are potent.” The former PS was clear in his mind that corruption was the art of “transferring state assets into private hands at the expense of the public interest and purse.”

Harambee, which means, “pulling together”, was a noble idea that tapped into the egalitarian and altruistic nature of African society, that of pooling their meagre resources together for the public good. It was very popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. When Mwai Kibaki came to power in 2003, his government instituted a probe into the now much-maligned popular group effort. Wachira explains that,

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees showed clearly, politicians are the largest donors to ‘charitable’ causes — churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites — to which they give fortunes that are many times more that their own legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait and switch ploy: once moral institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to dip deeper into the public coffers.

Both the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes misused the Harambee spirit for self-aggrandizement. Mzee Kenyatta, who hardly gave any money towards any Harambee effort and if he did, it was a symbolic sum, expected Kenyans to contribute to his Harambee causes, which were baptized all manner of noteworthy names. The monies were not accounted for and nobody would dare ask how the funds raised were spent, whether they were spent on the causes for which they had been contributed. In many instances, the money collected went to line the pockets of Mzee’s friends.

During Moi’s time, Harambee was used by civil servants, especially chiefs, to solicit bribes and favours from people calling into government offices for services that are meant to be free. A citizen visiting a chief’s office to obtain a personal identification document would be presented with a card for a Harambee by the chief and his subordinates. If you wanted to be served at the Ministry of Lands for example, you would be presented with a Harambee card by a junior officer acting on behalf of his boss. Yours was not to question the authenticity of the card, why a public office was presenting a Harambee card to and all sundry, or why it was “mandatory” to contribute before being served in a public office. If you did, you would be called an “enemy of development” and labelled anti-Nyayo.

Why does this corruption on a massive scale not cause moral outrage or shock in the public?

Just after the Narc party was swept into power in 2003, the country witnessed a “citizen’s jury” at work: it exposed and sometimes went as far as making citizens’ arrests of errant police officers caught engaging in bribery. But what happened to citizens’ arrests? It was just a matter of time before the citizens themselves caved in and returned to offering the same bribes to the very same police officers. Why? Because they realized belatedly that to fight institutionalized corruption in Kenya, there must be goodwill and concerted effort from the government: the fish rots from the head and the fight against corruption must begin at the top.

Since 2013, corruption seems to have acquired a new word to camouflage it – hustler. Under the Jubilee government, “hustler” has come to describe tenderpreneurs masquerading as the toiling masses. It is the new lexicon that has been adopted by a cabal of people intent on raiding government coffers, a cabal that has appropriated the everyday language of Kenyans who eke out a living the hard way. It is the latest socio-cultural jargon that has been unleashed on the political landscape by a network of politicos intent on acquiring state power so that, in their turn, they can perpetuate state capture.

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