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Carey Francis and the Decolonial Question in Kenya

11 min read.

When we limit politics to personal morality and ethnicity, we have no space for context, or conversation. But that instinct of educated Kenyans to narrow the space for conversation makes sense when we look at the life of Carey Francis.



Carey Francis and the Decolonial Question in Kenya

A child who went to school beginning in the 1970s, like I did, was fed on a steady dose of “the white man stole our African cultures” as a slogan for explaining all of Kenya’s socio-economic problems. And if one pursued literature as a subject, that slogan was repeated to the point of becoming shrill. At least that’s how I see it today. Back then, as a child, I treated it as the gospel truth and I carried it with me through all my student life, up to my doctoral studies. After all, many of the gurus of decolonial thought are Kenyan, with the classic text on decolonizing the mind being written by a Kenyan. There is no way one could get away with not quoting them, especially not in literature.

But once I was employed as an academic, the decolonial trope would not work, despite my best efforts. The Kenyan education and elite space is a suffocating animal that I had not reckoned with as a student. While I was a student, it was easier to get away with thinking outside the box. Easier, because I was still bullied, beaten and called a rebel (my self-esteem suffered greatly as a result), but I passed exams decently enough, and I would go home to be fed by my parents. My parents, however, suffered ostracization, job loss, and public humiliation for doing the same thing which I was imitating them in doing.

Now that I was employed, I had to walk the same tight rope that they did. That is when I discovered that raising the question of decolonization was not as straightforward as it looked like in the classroom. After all, even the scholars who raised it in the 1970s and 1980s were persecuted by the government and ended up in exile. However, what was left behind was a very strange phenomenon. Decolonization would be constantly cited in academic work, students would talk of colonial mentality even when discussing texts produced as recently as five years ago. But at the same time, there would be no innovation, no thinking about concrete issues, and sad to say, a huge emphasis on guilt and shame.

One instance that I’ve often cited was a conference on the state and identity that was hosted by the Samosa Festival. One interest of the Samosa Festival is to interact with the histories of Kenyan communities that face serious obstacles from the Kenyan state in terms of citizenship. Because African collective identities are locked in tribes, a phenomenon that Mahmood Mamdani explains in Citizen and Subject, tribe is the only political identity which the Kenya state recognizes. Therefore, communities which migrated to Kenya two or three centuries ago, or which live along Kenya’s borders, like the Makonde, Asians, Somalis and Nubians, are subjected to harrowing processes of obtaining identification documents and passports. And that is when they are successful.

The histories of such communities are not part of the mainstream Kenyan national memory. For example, little is known in the Kenyan public memory about workers’ movements during the colonial period, because many of their leaders were Indians who brought an international consciousness to the workers’ and freedom struggles. Yet these workers’ struggles scared the British and the Americans so much that the two governments worked hard to ensure that the radical, anti-colonial worker consciousness was kept at bay.

This was the issue for discussion, or so I thought. Instead, it became yet another session of delving into the riches of our pre-colonial past and shaming the younger generation for not knowing it, without talking about where they would learn it. The conversation got so exasperating that at one point a few of us wondered whether it was possible to have a conversation about Kenyan life without talking about ethnicity. What about other aspects of our identity? We asked. The response I got still makes me shudder.

Someone went through a list of different towns in Kenya, asking me which ones I had visited. I was then informed that people in Nairobi don’t care about ethnicity because they do not know their ethnic identity. I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

I refused to back down. I said that the conference was called to talk about the problem of Kenyans whose identity is questioned by the state, who cannot get identity cards, which means they cannot go to school, and as adults, cannot buy property, open a bank account, even get a death certificate for their parents, and here we were, talking about dances, funerals and weddings before colonial times. My friend Adam Hussein, whom I later wrote about in my account of that conference, and who has since passed on, was a great rugby player who qualified for the Kenya national team, but he could not play because he was denied a passport. Later, employers in Kenya would not touch him because he was Nubian. But when he got a job abroad, he could not travel to work without a passport. In other words, he was not wanted in Kenya, but he was not allowed to get out of Kenya. We were here to talk about such problems with identities, and now I was being asked for my travel itinerary as an individual.

I was being shamed into silence with an underhand suggestion that I had no right to speak because I was not African enough.

That has been the frustrating career of decolonizing in Kenya. It has been moralistic, messianic, and individualist and yet unable to address daily Kenyan life. I know of students who have been shamed in class by lecturers claiming that the students are not African or Kenyan enough, while at the same time being given assignments requiring them to discuss the benefits of colonialism. The recently instituted Competency-Based Curriculum is based on the racist ideology of settlers that Africans do not need knowledge, only technical skills. CBC also has a “parental involvement” component that directly draws from family values of US evangelicalism.

None of these problems seem to bother educated Kenyans. For scholars, we will decolonize if this racism is taught in African languages. I have even seen others say that TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is decolonizing pedagogy. And the same people who thought parental involvement was fun for their own kids, are now ranting about politicians and evangelical churches.

How do we arrive at this spectacular dissonance? In my view, this absurdity is exemplified by one man: Carey Francis.

An honourable man

Edward Carey Francis was the foremost educator in Kenya. He studied mathematics at Cambridge where he later became a fellow. At some point he served in the British army. He then came as a missionary to Kenya, and eventually became well known for his work in two elite schools in Kenya: Maseno in Kisumu, and Alliance in Kikuyu.

The strange thing about Carey Francis is that he embodied major contradictions. He was devoted to wrong ideas, but he was also an honest man. He was committed to the British Empire and believed that Christianity and British civilization were the way forward for Africa, but he was also blind to the reality that colonialism was destined to be violent. He was so idealistic that he criticized the colonial government for its atrocities and the settlers for their racist attitudes towards Africans. He frowned on his former students joining politics because he felt that politics was a deviation from their more noble calling of teaching and service.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students.

The man’s ideas were deeply flawed, but the wide range of his graduates all had one good thing to say about him: he was sincere and devoted to his students. In a biography written by LB Grieves, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga wrote a preface in which he called Francis “a moralist – almost too strict a moralist” who was “only slightly concerned that his model African Christian would never be quite equal to the European Christian”. He praises Francis for being devoted, dedicated to teaching, and showing genuine concern for his students, observing that,

In a newly independent country like Kenya, there are many people who suddenly find themselves in positions of power and influence. In the present materialistic world, temptations to use these positions for personal gain are bound to be great, as morality, honesty and other virtues become blurred. Under these conditions, it needs strong personal conviction and integrity to resist. I am satisfied that although some of those who went through the hands of Carey Francis at school have become victims of such temptations, there are nevertheless many more who have successfully maintained the trust bestowed on them by the Kenya public and who are helping to lay down the foundation of an honest public service for the country.

Duncan Ndegwa, who became the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, wrote in his eulogy that Francis “was the first European who called me an ‘ass,’ kindly.” He added that Francis

“Was a man whose great intellectual talents were supported by an intense personal faith – a kind of moral rectitude which saw life in simple terms of individual good and evil.

He left his pupils in no doubt of what kind of persons he wanted them to be. This element of paternalism in his approach was perhaps at fault. But the transparent honesty which illuminated all his relationships and the strictness which he applied equally to himself and to others, greatly mitigated such weakness as there may have been.

An individualist himself, he saw his purpose in life to work through individuals. An essentially simple man, he never understood that large organizations also have motivations, dynamics and momentums of their own quite apart from those of individuals.”

Benjamin Kipkorir, the Kenyan historian who did major work on analysing Kenya’s educated elite, and who was also an alumnus of Alliance and Cambridge, had this to say:

Francis was in every sense a great man. The tributes that have been paid to him are legion. Here, it seems to me, lies his greatness. He was “called” to service. No serious historian, no matter how agnostic, can scoff at such a reason.

As an educationist, Francis espoused the elitist approach. He was opposed to mass education – “casting pearls before swine.” He advocated the Colonial office tree-structure approach by which quality literary education was given to a few who in turn should go out to educate the many.

One side of Francis’ character which must be stressed was his ruthlessness. In everything he did, he was thorough. In tackling things he believed to be wrong, and therefore evil, Francis was thoroughly ruthless.

Francis, the missionary, first rate teacher of Africans, bitter and effective critic of government wrongs against Africans, failed to acknowledge that the only solution to African problems was political action. With Mau Mau he was able to have a deeper insight of the African plight. He was thus able to marginally modify, in private, his earlier hostility to politics. But overall, his pronouncements, delivered with his forceful teaching (…) had the effect of preventing many of his better pupils from ever venturing into politics.

From these snippets of his former students, many of whom became major government and political actors in Kenya, we see a conundrum. One, is Francis’s hatred for politics, and two, is Francis’s individual morality. Ndegwa explicitly names the problem here: individualism. What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief, which he was able to implement as a European pioneer missionary, that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society. This promise is articulated by Jaramogi in his hope for an “honest civil service” that uses individual morality to avoid exploiting Kenyans.

What is wrong with this picture? Kipkorir and Ndegwa have named it, Carey Francis was anti-political. And to use Lewis Gordon’s formulation of the term, Francis was acting in bad faith. Francis thought that social problems could be solved by individual morality and was blind to the unique dynamics of societies and institutions, and their impact on individual behaviour. This lack of social consciousness was also combined with elitism, the belief that only a few individuals were enough, and deserving enough, to change society.

What Francis embodied is the rather naïve belief that individual morality and honesty were enough of a foundation for society.

So these themes emerge from Francis’s career: individualism, universalism, an aversion to politics, and the ability to hold individual views that contradict one’s social context – the very characteristics of decolonization in the experiences I began with. Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African. It eschews the discussion of social and contemporary issues, which is the substance of politics.

And as I indicated, decolonization in Kenya encourages guilt and shame for being a victim of colonialism. This guilt and shame is now being used to push women to seek genital mutilation to pay a debt to their ancestors. Meanwhile, major social issues, like the geographical spaces still bearing European names, the export of Kenyan workers to countries abroad (to the extent of Kenyans being blamed for the injuries they suffer from rogue employers), the dominance of education policies from the west, the discrimination against Kenyans within their own country and the rampant economic inequality; all these take a back seat in comparison to personal redemption through the return to a pre-colonial past.

Euro-Christian Protestantism

Anyone who knows Christian Protestantism can see the same tropes here: African culture is presented as a redemption to individuals who have erred by being colonized, and which they can obtain through personal conversion such as reverse baptism (dropping European names) and literally crucifying (especially the woman’s) body.

In governance, the same epistemic foundation is expressed through a naïve belief that one’s morality is the sole measure of politics. Honesty is the measure of good public service, hence the current overarching political conversation is that the current president is a liar. If one raises the question of whether lying is a category with which to assess a wide range of political issues, the reply, again, is personal: it’s your ethnic group, it’s how you voted (never mind that ballots are secret), and you need to provide a solution to a problem that is not named. And although this moralism is highly Christian, it is common to professing Christians and secularists alike.

Carey Francis embodied the Euro-Christian liberalism that undergirds governance and politics in Kenya through the education system. Francis was moral and honest at the individual level, at the universal level, he believed in the British Empire. In between, he had little to say about the self-determination of African peoples. After independence, this dynamic became moral and ethnic at the individual level, and anti-colonial at the universal level, with little to say about racist policies and inequality in healthcare, education, employment and environment. Ali Mazrui, Kenya’s foremost liberal intellectual, articulated the problem of Western education when he noted that Western education is committed “to both individualism and universalism . . . what is missing is the intermediate category of the particular society in which the scholar operates”. And this problem is specific to the educated middle class, for as JF Ade Ajayi has explained, the missionaries in Africa promoted schooling to establish an African middle class as the “enlightened” purveyors of European-style industrial progress in Africa.

Decolonization discourse in Kenya is highly moralistic, and it is used to judge people’s individual credentials to qualify as African.

This inability to deal with the intermediary category of the local is Kenya’s greatest intellectual weakness, and it affects decolonization as well. We are seemingly unable to see each other as human beings in all our complexity, and to see colonialism as just an aspect of the great historical trajectory of Africa. Instead, we make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

The same character has been mapped onto Kenyan political life. Kenya is not only facing a tanking economy but a Kenyan middle class that cannot engage in a social conversation without resorting to name calling and character aspersions. The problem is that this is the class with access to international platforms, where it projects itself as secular and anti-colonial. And so the international impression of Kenya is that it has a vocal, anti-colonial, progressive, constitution-quoting educated class, with no idea that at home, the same anti-colonial rhetoric is inflicting injuries on ordinary Kenyans – especially on our children. Again, Mazrui observed this dynamic when he stated that “local African academics are less radical unless confronted with reactionary colonial academics”. Binyavanga Wainaina described this irony even better when he said:

To be a Kenyan is to be cursed by a system that pretends to function. There is enough of a school system, of a health system, of a private sector, good banks and tall buildings for everybody to see them. What nobody tells you is that this splendour is available only to the 5% who make it through the filters.

What is hidden in all the noise about African culture and lying politicians, is a very narrow area for engagement and conversation. When we limit politics to personal morality and ethnicity, we have no space for context, conversation or even innovation. And if one tries to widen the conversation, we accuse them of hypocrisy, which we almost always link to their ethnicity or personal experience. Rarely does the conversation extend to the social and the political.

We make suffocating demands for proof of authentic African expression which we equate to decolonizing, yet colonialism was a political project, not an individual one.

But that instinct of educated Kenyans to narrow the space for conversation makes sense when one looks at the life of Carey Francis. Francis appeared honest when he was judged within the narrow parameters of the school, the exam results of his students, and the prestigious jobs the young men got after school. But his honesty stopped being relevant when it was confronted with the political and institutional reality of colonialism. Nevertheless, the strong culture of individualism and moralism has remained entrenched in Kenyan public discourse. And, ironically, its epistemic foundation of Euro-Christian protestant liberalism seems to be the same foundation of decolonization in Kenya.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.


God Tax the King

The British royal family has tried to shake off its colonial past. But its long reign over these wrongs was succeeded by a new form of plunder, exacted today by Britain’s tax haven empire.



God Tax the King
Prince Charles in Kigali, Rwanda. Image credit Simon Dawson for No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The world’s biggest tax haven empire has a new king. King Charles III will be anointed, blessed, and consecrated on May 6. He is sovereign over Great Britain, the Crown Dependencies, and the British Overseas Territories, which collectively inflict nearly 40 percent of the tax revenue losses around the world.

Britain was starting to spin its web of tax havens around the time Charles was born in the late 1940s. Britain allowed and often encouraged this insidious second empire as many nations were breaking from the shackles of European and British colonialism. Currently, British tax havens aid and abet multinational corporations shifting profits out of the countries where most of the real business happens. Wealthy and powerful individuals are also able to hide money and assets behind the secretive laws of the spider’s web.

The Tax Justice Network—a coalition of activists, and scholars campaigning against tax avoidance—sent an open letter to King Charles urging the monarch to address the economic and human cost imposed by the British tax havens over which he is sovereign. The letter details the organization’s latest research which estimates that British tax havens mete out a total tax loss of more than US$189 billion per year on the world. The total tax losses are more than three times the humanitarian aid budget the UN needs this year to help 230 million people living on the brink after multiple disasters.

While Britain’s overseas aid has dwindled in recent years, unwinding the web of tax havens instead would help many governments fulfill the rights of their citizens. If we were to reverse the tax revenue losses caused by the UK spider’s web, there would be 36 million more people with access to basic sanitation, 18 million more people with access to basic drinking water, and almost seven million children could attend school for an extra year, according to the Universities of St. Andrews and Leicester modeling tool GRADE.

Yet, the British political establishment doesn’t look ready to reform. Successive Conservative prime ministers and their families have been fingered in leaks and investigations, including the Panama and Pandora Papers. The wife of current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also played the tax game, avoiding an estimated £2.1 million per year in taxes from foreign income.

The British government has also undermined efforts to transform international tax law. For the last 60 years, the UK—along with the exclusive club of the richest nations at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—has set rules to their benefit. African states, in an act of defiance, presented a resolution at the United Nations in November 2022 that paves the way for negotiations on an international tax cooperation framework at the UN instead. The UK and its OECD friends unsuccessfully pulled out all the stops to prevent a vote, and spoke out against the resolution, but ultimately joined in its unanimous adoption. They will likely throw many hurdles in the way to stop negotiations from getting off the ground at the UN General Assembly later this year, as their initial input to the Secretary-General’s Tax Report makes clear.

In his speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Rwanda last year, King Charles, then Prince of Wales, expressed his sorrow over Britain’s “most painful period of history.” “To unlock the power of our common future,” he said, “we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past.”

The British royalty’s long reign over these wrongs was succeeded by a new form of plunder, exacted today by Britain’s tax haven empire. King Charles has an opportunity to stop the clock running on this plunder. As the inheritor of the British Crown and its legacy, King Charles could use his unique position to encourage dialogue on UN leadership over international tax rules—a move that could pivot the course and legacies of history—and support the right of African countries to exercise sovereignty over their taxing rights at the UN General Assembly.

At home, the King might rightly argue that he has no business interfering in the UK government’s policies. It may be His Majesty’s Government, but it’s a democratically elected government of its people. We should not expect Charles to outline his positions on the need for the UK finally to meet its commitments to end anonymous companies that make it too easy for criminals and would-be tax evaders to hide assets and illicit money, or to introduce public country-by-country reporting so that multinational companies’ tax abuse remains largely out of sight. In the UK, the reporting would have increased corporate income tax by £2.5 billion per year.

What we can hope for, however, is that the new King will set the tone for the end of his tax haven empire. By acknowledging publicly Britain’s leading global role in tax abuse, and the human costs this imposes all around the world, Charles could make a necessary break from the history of imperial and royal denial. He could point the way to reparative funding for territories that make up the tax haven empire, as well as to those countries in Africa and elsewhere where the empire’s most violent extraction took place.

Extensive slavery routes and sanctioned colonial pillaging all added jewels to the crown over centuries, some of which make appearances at coronations. King Charles himself also has some questionable wealth and tax practices. Without changes in its tax havens and the global tax rules, Britain will continue to rack up its bill of reparations to former colonies.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Horrors of Shakahola: Which Way Forward?

The government is obligated to enforce the law by restraining any group, religious or otherwise, that encourages its followers to destroy life and property. But in restoring sanity in the religious sector, we must not hand the state unfettered powers that politicians could use to silence opponents.



The Horrors of Shakahola: Which Way Forward?

The happenings in Shakahola, Kilifi County, involving Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, have got many talking. According to The East African, Mackenzie, leader of Good News International Church, is accused of ordering his followers to starve themselves to death as that was the only path to God. The Nation reported that by Thursday 27th April, the number of bodies exhumed from land belonging to Mackenzie had crossed the 100 mark after detectives found 11 more in mass graves. Other reports indicate that some of his victims sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to him.

Most outstanding has been the renewed pressure on the government to enact tougher laws to rein in rogue preachers; Mackenzie’s arrest was followed on Thursday 27th April by that of Ezekiel Odero of the New Life Prayer Centre, allegedly an associate and/or accomplice of his. The police arrested Odera over the alleged mass killing of his followers and closed his New Life Prayer Centre and Church. Regarding Odero, the Nation writes: “To his followers, Ezekiel Ombok Odero is a gifted spiritual leader who can cure HIV with ‘holy water.’ To his detractors, he is little more than a sophisticated conman preying on Kenya’s poor.” He is reported to have a 40,000-capacity auditorium south of the coastal town of Malindi. In December 2022, he told NTV: “People crowd my church because I am God’s chosen one.” According to the Nation, Odero claims that “holy” scraps of cloth and water sold at his mega-rallies for Sh100 can heal any disease, including HIV; but there is a rider: these remedies will only work on people “with strong faith”.

Religious leaders have been some of the loudest in condemning the happenings in Shakahola, keen to convince the public that the likes of Mackenzie and Odero are but part of a very few rotten fish among them. Nevertheless, the Shakahola outrage is just the latest in a series of exploitation scandals linked to religion going back several decades, including the “Stop Suffering” fad, the infamous “miracle babies” saga, and the “Panda Mbegu” (Kiswahili for “Sow a Seed”) teachings, among others. There have been incidents where some religious conman/woman is exposed, a public outcry ensues, the government talks tough, then things cool down and the country moves on, perhaps unconsciously awaiting the next outrage from religious quarters to be exposed.

In response to accusations from the executive that it has frustrated efforts to tame Mackenzie, the judiciary released a press statement on 27th April providing the status of all the Mackenzie-related cases that have been heard and/or those whose hearing continues. According to the press statement, Mackenzie was first charged in Malindi on 17th October 2017 “with radicalisation, for promoting extreme beliefs, offering education in unregistered institutions, failing to take his children to compulsory primary and secondary education and failing to provide the children with education”.

Psychologists, sociologists, historians, religious scholars, and journalists, among others, have offered all manner of explanations for Mackenzie’s and Odero’s nefarious doings. Yet, in the wake of the Shakahola horrors, at least three vital questions remain unanswered: How, in the first place, do rogue preachers thrive in their deception? Is there an essential difference between religious fanaticism and political fanaticism? What is the correct balance between respect for freedom of worship as enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 and the warranted limitations to that freedom through subsidiary legislation necessitated by rogue preachers?

Three catalysts of religious deception

While society usually rises in anger and distress when something as shocking as the Shakahola horror is exposed, many are really not keen to delve into how such happenings come about. Yet there are at least three causes that readily present themselves.

First, it is a well-known fact that religion flourishes most among the poor, for it often gives them hope of reprieve from their misery beyond this world, and often even in it. It is no wonder that houses of religious worship are scarce in the leafy suburbs of our cities and towns yet numerous in poor neighbourhoods. Thus Karl Marx famously described religion as the “opiate of the people”: like opium, it falsely lifts them to realms of pleasure and power unimaginable in the material want and emotional distress in which they live. What is less well known is that Marx explained that religion is part of the false consciousness that arises from situations in which the few own the means of production and shape the material realm (the “sub-structure”) and the conceptual realm (“the super-structure”) to perpetuate the exploitative state of affairs. Indeed, Marx believed that once the capitalist order is swept away by the workers’ revolution and the workers themselves become the owners of capital, religion would be a thing of the past. Thus, as long as society remains grossly unequal, with a few captains of industries and the political clique wining and dining while only talking about lowering the price of maize meal instead of working to secure decent pay for decent work, there will sadly be many other outrages following in the wake of the Shakahola horror.

It is a well-known fact that religion flourishes most among the poor, for it often gives them hope of reprieve from their misery beyond this world, and often even in it.

Second, we human beings have a hunger for the spiritual. As one thinker put it, there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. It is this vacuum that many preachers exploit to get a following from both the rich and the poor, much as they do not fill it. How else can one explain the willingness of so many to sell their property and give away their life savings to preachers, many of whom have accomplished almost nothing in their professions, in business or in their farms? This fact confirms that Marx’s observance, much as it offers useful insight, does not tell the whole story; for if it did, the wealthy would never be among the deceived.

Third, the Shakahola victims did not invest in studying the Holy Bible to which they claimed to pay allegiance. As I often say, partly in gest, the most popular version of the Bible is the PDV—Preachers’ Distorted Version. If only they had studied the Holy Bible, they would have seen through the fraud, because numerous passages in it warn against deception and exploitation by false prophets and false teachers. Many of those passages identify the characteristics of false prophets and false teachers—the very kinds we regularly see around us. For example, the victims of the Shakahola fraud would have read the words of Christ just before he was executed:

“… false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance (Matthew 24:24-25).

They would also have read the words of Peter, again just before his demise:

“… false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Besides, Paul’s words to the elders in Ephesus would have been of great use to them:

“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts.20:29-30).

Religious fanaticism and political fanaticism: Any difference?

While both religious leaders and politicians holding public office are scrambling to display their zeal to crush religious fanaticism of the Shakahola variety, it should be noted that there is a close connection between religion and politics. The numerous prayer rallies, prayer breakfasts, and Sunday morning services attended by highly influential politicians—with the frequency of their attendance rising exponentially just before elections—is highly instructive. Such gatherings have been central to politicians’ strategies to build their following. There were thus massive prayer rallies prior to the referendum that ratified the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, prayer rallies that watered, and perhaps even fertilized the Jubilee tree in the run-up to the 2013 elections, and prayer rallies associated with both major parties before and after the 2022 elections, among others.

Besides, politicians are sure to be there when key leaders of religious movements (such as arch-bishops) are being installed in office, knowing very well that such religious leaders can sway political opinion. Yet, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch: the politicians offer political and legal protection and even financial rewards to religious leaders in return. Religious leaders also often land plum jobs through politicians, such as being appointed to key roles in the process of constituting the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, as well as in public institutions tasked with fighting corruption. Apparently, despite the string of religion-based scandals, the belief, genuine or otherwise, still holds firm that religious leaders are the bastion of integrity. All this must surely explain how religious leaders at the centre of past scandals have often enjoyed soft landings.

Furthermore, quite often when politicians attend religious gatherings, they reiterate that the “church” is in partnership with the government in the endeavour to catalyse “development”, despite the fact that both religious leaders and politicians live large on the sweat of the masses (whether in the form of taxes or “tithes and offerings”), while the masses they claim to deeply care for continue to languish in abject poverty. No wonder Karl Marx thought that politics would eventually fade away alongside religion once the exploitative structure that sustains both is swept away.

Despite the string of religion-based scandals, the belief, genuine or otherwise, still holds firm that religious leaders are the bastion of integrity.

Thus it is evident that politicians have learnt well from Niccolò Machiavelli, who, in The Prince, advises those who seek to acquire and retain power to appear to be deeply religious while at the same time being adequately able to do whatever is considered unethical (such as murder and deception) in pursuit of their goal. Indeed, the cocktail of politics and religion renders many people even more susceptible to deception, further validating the words of Machiavelli: “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

Yet most sobering is the fact that both religious fanaticism and political fanaticism are grossly destructive and often deadly.

Religious fanaticism has caused many deaths in our country and beyond, the Shakahola horror being only the latest outrage. On 18th November 1978, Jim Jones, self-proclaimed messiah of the Peoples Temple, who had promised his followers a utopia in the jungles of South America, ordered his followers in the Jonestown commune in Guyana to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink, resulting in the deaths of more than 900 people in an event that is commonly referred to as the Jonestown Massacre. On 20th March 1995, there was a coordinated multiple-point attack in Tokyo, Japan, in which the odourless, colourless, and highly toxic nerve gas sarin was released in the city’s subway system, resulting in the deaths of 13 people, with some 5,500 others injured. Members of the Japan-based Aum Shinrikyo (called Aleph since 2000), were soon identified as the perpetrators of the attack.

“Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

Nevertheless, both at home and abroad, much greater numbers of deaths have been caused by political fanaticism than have been caused by religious fanaticism. Approximately 1,500 Kenyans were killed, over 400,000 displaced, and an unknown number of women raped following the disputed 2007 Kenyan elections. Lives were lost and property destroyed in election-based violence in Kenya from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s as well as during the 2013, 2017 and 2022 polls. Further afield, there are the 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded during the 1914-1918 European inter-ethnic war commonly referred to as the First World War, the 35,000,000 to 60,000,000 who perished during the so-called Second World War, the more than 800,000 civilians who perished in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, and the bloodbaths in Sudan and South Sudan. All of these are politically rather than religiously motivated. Yet quite often it is difficult to distinguish between wars instigated by religion and those instigated by politics because, as earlier pointed out, religion and politics are frequent bedfellows.

Thus, fanaticism is destructive whether it be labelled religious or political, or whatever else. Yet politicians frequently wag their fingers at religious leaders for instigating religious fanaticism, while religious leaders wag theirs at politicians for instigating political fanaticism, in both cases with noticeable vigour. Yet in either case, as the saying goes, one finger points at the other party while four point at the party wagging it.

Stopping Shakahola without causing new horrors

As we agonise about how to ensure that the horrors of Shakahola do not recur, we must be guided by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 which is categorical that “There shall be no State religion” (Article 8), thereby departing from the tradition of Kenya’s colonizer, Britain, where the Anglican Church is the state religion, with the monarch as both Head of State and Head of the Church. The purpose of this more enlightened provision in our constitution is to ensure that Article 27 (4), which proscribes discrimination on a number of grounds including religion, is respected; for a state religion would enjoy a privileged position in comparison to other religions. Besides, Article 32 of the constitution upholds “freedom of conscience, religion, belief and opinion”. This right includes the freedom to believe or not believe, which means that the constitution even contemplates the possibility of some of the citizens having no religious affiliation whatsoever.

Thus, according to our constitution, the government has no mandate to determine which religious organisations and doctrines are acceptable and which are not. If it were to do so, it would have formed some kind of state religion, however rudimentary, contrary to Article 8, and would thereby be discriminating against the other religions contrary to article 27 (4). What the government can do, and is indeed obligated to do, is to enforce the law by restraining any group, religious or otherwise, which, by word or deed, encourages its followers to destroy life and/or property.

Religious fanaticism has caused many deaths in our country and beyond, the Shakahola horror being only the latest outrage.

For most of Kenya’s history, most religious organisations have been registered under the Society’s Act, but more recently some have been registered as foundations, non-governmental organisations, or companies limited by guarantee, thereby obligating them to conduct their business in line with the legislation under which they are registered, including the requirement to hold annual general meetings and regular elections. The requirement for such registration is reminiscent of the talk in the Roman Empire during the first century about the distinction between religio lecita (“permitted religion”) and religio Illicita (“unpermitted religion”). A religion typically acquired the status of religio licita by showing its willingness to worship the emperor as one of its gods; the Christians refused to comply and so were persecuted, burned at the stake, and thrown to ravenous beasts. This was reminiscent of the record of the Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar who required that everyone in his kingdom worship the golden image that he had made or else be cast into a furnace (Daniel 2).

Similarly, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in the late 1940s, it sought to have all the religions in the country pay allegiance to it. For example, it worked with compliant Protestant leaders to establish the Three-Self Patriotic Movement which advocates for self-government, self-propagation and self-support. Those believers who were unwilling to join it had to operate underground at the risk of long prison sentences or even death. The movement remains China’s preferred version of Christianity.

One of the corollary discussions around tougher measures to reign in rogue preachers is the requirement that anyone setting up a religious organisation go through theological training. Such a requirement presumes that there is a universal, high-quality theological training that religious leaders who operate within acceptable parameters undergo. However, theological training is as diverse as the doctrines that the numerous religious organisations profess. Besides, the government is not suited to judge the quality of theological training because such training focuses on the spiritual realm while state power operates on the physical one. For example, how would the government determine the acceptable way of dealing with doctrines about angels, demons, curses or forgiveness of sin? Various groups teach highly divergent views about all these matters, and Article 32 of the constitution acknowledges their right to do so. Furthermore, even religious leaders with theological training have been engaged in some of the past scandals, including sexual impropriety and embezzlement of funds. Moreover, some theological trends taught in theological institutions are repugnant to some religious organisations, as is Higher Criticism which purports to analyse not only the Bible’s primal literary sources, but also the assumptions of the biblical writers themselves, and endeavours to “demythologise” the Scriptures by attempting to explain the supernatural elements in them in natural terms.

When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in the late 1940s, it sought to have all the religions in the country pay allegiance to it.

Some religious leaders have already sensed the dangers of the unfettered state control of religion, and are seeking to pre-empt it. Thus, on Saturday 29th April, the Mombasa Church Forum, while condemning the happenings in Shakahola, called for a framework within which all religious organisations would be required to join clusters in which they would engage in self-regulation.

In sum, we must walk the tight rope of restoring sanity in the religious sector without handing the state unfettered powers that politicians could use in the future to silence opponents. What is needed is for both government and religion to each stick to its own realm as much as possible without causing disruption in the realm of the other. We must stop Shakahola without causing new horrors of state high-handedness in the guise of preventing religious fanaticism. In the words of Odili’s father in Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, “… the hawk should perch and the eagle perch, whichever says to the other don’t, may its own wing break.”

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In Tech We Trust?

It is the soft yet intractable matter of governance that determines if technologies can deliver efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democratic dividends, and uphold values such as trust in society. Yet, overlooked in tech discourses is the governance of these technologies themselves, and how that affects governance with them.



In Tech We Trust?

“Our world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”. 
 People are feeling troubled and insecure.
 Trust is at a breaking point.  Trust in national institutions.  Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order.
 Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.
 Among countries, cooperation is less certain and more difficult […] 
Trust in global governance is also fragile, as 21st-century challenges outpace 20th-century institutions and mindsets […]

We face a set of paradoxes.
The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented […]

Let me now turn to new technologies and what we can do to uphold their promise but to keep their perils at bay.

With technology outracing institutions, cooperation between countries and among stakeholders will be crucial, including Member States, the private sector, research centres, civil society, and academia […]
There are many mutually beneficial solutions for digital challenges. We need urgently to find the way to apply them.” ~ Excerpts from UN Secretary General’s speech to the UN General Assembly, 2018

When Antonio Guterres delivered this speech, he had just constituted a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, of which I was a member. We were tasked with raising awareness on the transformative power of digital technologies to economies and societies. More importantly, we were to put together a reportafter a nine month “around the world” consultative processon how to advance global “digital cooperation”, a term we defined as “the ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.”

To me, this invitation marked an acknowledgement that digital technologies were finally being appreciated as capable of influencing and being influenced by the societies in which they are developed and deployed. It was a refreshing departure from the erstwhile prevailing mindset of a “tech revolution” that was often described in utopian rather than pragmatic terms, including in public policy domains, and one that was already causing more harm that went unacknowledged as much as, if not more, than the good that it was evangelized to offer.

Techsolutionismthe hype and hope placed in and on digital technologies to address societies’ challengeshad not been limited to the world of startups and their “disruption” ecosystems. In the name of development, digital technologies have been proposed, experimented with, and deployed under different umbrellas, with early days creating movements such as “ICT4D” and “m4d” that homed in on the developmental potential of the mobile phone. With new and emerging technologies, the nomenclature continues to evolve; today, we also have “blockchain4d”, “AI for development”, and so on. In this realm, governments and non-governmental organizations are heralded as primary drivers of tech-mediated development, thus crystallizing a particular thinking and approach to digital technologies in governancethat is, decision-making and implementing processes. But there was also something in the techsolutionism hype for other governance actors, including ordinary citizens. Furthermore, private sector players have also been presented as players deserving a prominent seat at the governance table, given their role in steering tech innovation. And through “multi-stakeholderism”the engagement between and among governments, citizens through respective associations and organisations, plus the private sectorwe would be able to see technology work its magic, from upholding democracies to solving world problems in all their complexities.

The typical arc of the hype narrative has been that, given the ubiquity of the internet and  connecting devicessmartphones in particularamong the populace, political revolutions  through social media can birth democracies, developmental outcomes can be reached by tying (public) service provision to these technologies, and the private sectorthrough their innovationscan keep churning out what we need to achieve all these lofty goals. This reached a fever pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic, where digital technologies were relied upon to sustain communication and connection, work, learning and much more. In 2020 and 2021 especially, we were treated, the world over, to fascinating and foolhardy attempts to cement a primacy of digital technologies. This was coupled with the pronouncements that “government/the state is back”, given how governments had to step up and drive the mitigation efforts against the unprecedented harms meted out by the pandemic and its aftershocks. Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates, from public health to addressing increasingly pressing issues such as climate change. Governance, in this dispensation, is with and through digital technologies. “Govtech” is perhaps the latest label for the concerted push for governments to modernize public sectors through technologies to improve citizens’ lives. To do so, governments are encouraged to take on a “citizen-centric approach”, and a “whole of government approach” in embracing digital transformation to enhance transparency and efficiency.

Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates.

Before govtech, the push for governments to embrace ICTs in their operations and service provision was dubbed “e-government/e-governance”. Kenya has experimented with e-government since the early 2000s. One of the main deployments from the Kenya e-Government strategy of 2004 was the Integrated Financial Management (IFMIS) that was first deployed in 2003 to ministries, five years after it was initially conceived. In an IFMIS effectiveness audit report for July 2010 to June 2014, the Office of the Auditor General notes that in so far as initiating and sustaining IFMIS, the government had demonstrated commitment that facilitated the automating and integrating of public financial management systems at ministry, departmental and county levels, as well as with the Central Bank of Kenya. In project management and governance, however, IFMIS operations were found wanting on a number of fronts. For instance, the participation of key accountability stakeholders was minimal, notably the Auditor General, Accountant General and Controller of Budget. Furthermore, the system had been operating without a risk management policy; no risk assessment had been conducted, exposing the system to the prospect of reengineering, and operating in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act, 2012.

The IFMIS ICT infrastructure review in the same audit was just as damning: lack of network architecture and bandwidth assessment; no end-user needs assessments guided the procurement of computers, printers, power supply units, printers and other equipment that were deployed to all counties, which at the time, cost KSh200.66 million. Perhaps most interesting and consequential was that the IFMIS asset register was incomplete, in that it only listed network equipment, servers, desktops and laptops connected, and not any information on who was accessing the system or any asset IDs, location of equipment, nor even warranty periods. There were other notable security and IT governance issues too, including inadequate securities and standards, no data encryption, a poor approval process for new system IDs, no password expiry set, duplicate users and inadequate remote management control procedures.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government, where up to KSh1.4b was lost. Stories of how IFMIS was manipulated to plunder public coffers dominated news headlines over the years, and even as recently as last year, senate hearings on IFMIS’ vulnerabilities and “persistent system failure” continued to be tabled. Yet another lingering impact of IFMIS that is often overlooked is the cumulative damage and harm meted out to citizens and especially the legitimate suppliersoverwhelmingly micro, small and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs)who continue to await their dues to this day. The scandal was orchestrated off the back of revamping the NYS to “catalyse transformative youth empowerment” in the country, turning it into a slap in the face to the youth who are always touted as the future. In mainstream media, the focus shifted to the amounts plundered (including subsequent NYS and IFMIS scandals), and to the theatre of nabbing the culprits. In my view, the NYS scandalfacilitated on the back of a technology system introduced to foster trust in how public finance management is reformedin particular, shuttered the youth psyche in Kenya, and especially the trust in our government to deliver on its promises to a generation. This manifested, in my view, in the “youth apathy” that was registered in the lead-up to the 2022 general election.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government.

In the Kenya e-Government Strategy 2004where IFMIS and a host of other e-gov plans were laid outthe drafters rightfully acknowledge that achieving the stated objectives is contingent on having people with the right skills and the right attitudes across government. This is resolved as a matter of conducting “change management” trainings. Yet the intrinsic human motivation that determines the “right skills and attitudes” was and continues to be overlooked in how the government of Kenya (and arguably other peer governments) continue to approach technologies for governance. The choice, procuring, financing, and sustaining of technological systems in our governments often eludes popular frames and analyses, often coming up in the event of a scandal or breach. In Kenya, we have been treated to several key moments in the journey to digitize the national and county governments. The complications around how the e-Citizen portal is managed, the non-starter that has been Huduma Namba and the quest for biometric IDs as a “single source of truth”, as well as the high drama of tech used in our electoral cycles, are other cases in point.

In parallel, Kenya has also experienced its unique version of the “internet revolution”. The landing and switching on of the first fibre optic cable in the country, back in 2009, coincided with the “revolution” of mobile telephony that had gifted us M-PESA in 2007. Combined, these twin forces facilitated a rapid diffusion of these technologies into our society. Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive. Community formations powered by technology emerged, and others came of age. Also, the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, with its guarantees of our fundamental rights and freedoms, rejuvenated our political and civic space. The opportunities to embody and exercise them were facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a significant if unrepresentative way, and aggregated the voices of younger generations as formidable civic actors, no longer spoken for or merely tokenised. The organic development and proliferation of the Ushahidi platform; the setting up of tech co-working spaces along Ngong Road in Nairobi and a tech entrepreneurial vim overall, begat the “Silicon Savannah” moniker.

Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive.

What was remarkable about these shifts among us ordinary citizens were the creative ways with which the “internet revolution” was embraced. Blogging took off, and in a big way. In fact, many early Twitter adopters in Kenya were avid bloggers on a diverse range of topics. This brought us together in an exciting manner, with Twitter as a baraza for debate and engagement. In 2011, a group of bloggers and tweeps came together and established the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE). We took our online existence and loose network formation and formalised it offline. Individually and as a collective, we blogged our visions, observations, frustrations, hopes and more. As the 2013 election approached, even politicos recognized the potency of bloggers and would occasionally engage us online and offline. We represented what, at the time, was billed as the promise of the internet age: citizen participation, citizen journalism and more broadly, civic tech.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers. Inherently, there was a trust that we assigned to the technologies availed to us, to facilitate not only the exercising of our expression, but also to drive demand for engagement in and on political, social, economic, creative, financial and many other forms of discourse.

The state of social media today is markedly different. As these platforms have evolved, so too have the ways they are governed. The use of algorithms to mediate what is rendered visible and to whom, coupled with varied motivations by different actors to inject into online public discourse, has resulted in largely unaccountable and toxic online spheres. Many who leaned into the promise of social media also ushered in new career trajectories, especially among a youth increasingly urged to be entrepreneurs and not wait for formal jobs. Content creation, influencing, social media marketing, gig economy work are income pathways, just as the “traditional” avenues are.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers.

All of this has rested on the assumption that these platforms are “neutral”, and all one has to do is generate engaging material, target it to desired audiences, if for a fee to boost posts, and impact metrics would flow. The algorithmic governance of social media platforms has jeopardised these alternative paths to prosperity carved out in the digital age. When an algorithm is tweaked on a platform used for livelihoods, and the company cannot be held to account or is not answerable to the laws of your country, when instead we are expected to rely on private forms of self-governance by companies that do not “see us”, the trust we placed on these erstwhile “revolutionary” spaces is severely undermined.

Often overlooked in tech discourses is the governance of these technologies themselves, and how that affects governance with them. Despite “stellar” tech (often dubbed high-tech, world class, etc.), it is the soft yet intractable matter of governance that determines if technologies can deliver efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democratic dividends, and uphold values such as trust in society. In Kenya today, our government continues down the “e-government” path; the current regime plans to digitize up to 5,000 services by June 2023. On the surface, this is a welcome development. But can we trust that these systems will be secure, that our data will be protected, that the loopholes in the platforms powering e-government are sealed to eradicate pilfering? It seems that the government is still operating under a techsolutionism ideology to also serve its political goals of widening the tax base by “knowing more Kenyans by serving them via digital platforms”. Meanwhile, citizens’ use of social media in Kenya seems more measured now, especially for civic engagement and holding the government to account. Those who hold power have learned that they can conduct influence operations to “poison the well”. Over the years, our policymakers have also tried to “tame” the use of these platforms by introducing controversial legislation.

In tech we trust? Unfortunately, the most optimistic response would be, “It depends”. For tech to deliver on any promises, and especially to minimise and not introduce new harms, is wholly dependent on the human processes that generate it, and that order our co-existence. For technologies to warrant trustworthiness, we have to have governance regimes that engender trust within our communities, and in our governments to deliver on the promises and demands of the electorate. Technology, also, is a double-edged sword. For every intended goodsuch as easing public service provisionthere is a bad and an ugly. As IFMIS and election tech over the past two decades have shown us, those good intentions can be fantastically sacrificed at the altar of the motivation to loot and usurp power. No technology, however well designed, can bypass that. Thus, to fully unleash the potential of the digital age in our country, and indeed across the globe, we must fix how governance delivers on transparency and accountability, both for public and private actors.

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