The Africanists

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John Githongo

Tanzania: Is Magafuli the new anticorruption fighter on the block?

Dr. John Pombe Magufuli’s election in Tanzania in October has sent an electric current through the entire region’s body politick. He was elected as the long serving ruling party’s – Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s – candidate. He promised to get down to kazi (work) immediately. The primary job at hand was as it is for the entire region this week when the world ‘celebrated’ anti-corruption day – graft. He hit the ground running and in a style that has the chattering classes impressed not only in East Africa but around the world.

 Elected in the middle of a cholera outbreak an early move was to cancel the independence day celebrations last week and instruct that part of the funds be used to buy more beds for the main hospital in Dar es Salaam and completing a road. Instead of lavish spending on the celebrations he asked Tanzanians to get out and clean up the country. He led from the front, marching out of State House last Wednesday and mucking in with ordinary wananchi cleaning up enthusiastically with his own hands. “Let us work together to keep our country, cities, homes and workplaces clean, safe and healthy,” he was reported to have told the crowd of surprised onlookers as he picked up rubbish off the street. “Tanzania has changed – this is a new Tanzania,” one resident told AFP, on a break from cleaning up the city’s public beach.

 He moved to quickly dismiss and replace the entire leadership of the ports authority – usually dens of corruption in many developing countries. His rapid-fire actions and humility in approach captured the imagination of Kenyans on Twitter first before the fever spread around the world. The Twitter hash tag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? was trending in Kenya for days and retains momentum still. It includes a large variety of clever quips of common sense solutions to everyday problems that reflected what the Twitterati at least thought of President Magufuli thus far. He was the subject of admiration and inspiration.

 The question in a region of jaded cynics who’ve seen many anti-corruption drives, programmes, strategies, movements started by presidents making big promises in smooth speeches was whether President Magufuli’s undoubtedly populist approach was sustainable. Indeed, the regular battery of legal types who’ve hogged the anti-corruption space for decades questioned the legality of some of his actions. In my opinion they are all missing the point.

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Kenyan soccer run by thugs

One of the enduring curiosities of Kenya’s sporting scene has been the inability of our national soccer team Harambee Stars to make a mark on the world stage, despite the country’s sporting prowess in other fields from athletics, to rugby, swimming, rallying, volleyball and lately even some field sports. Clearly the country has the talent to be a multi-disciplinary sports world-beater.

This is not a unique contradiction. The top African club football team is undoubtedly TP Mazambe of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s city of Lubumbashi. Tout Puissant Mazambe (the Almighty Mazembe) was founded in 1939 by Benedictine monks. In 1967 and 1968 they won the African Cup of Champions and took the African Champions Cup in 2003 and 2004. In 2009 they won the CAF Champions League qualifying for the 2009 World Cup. The next year they became the first African club team in history to contest the final of the Fifa World Cup. They won the CAF Champions League again this year.

Coming out of what has historically been one of the most volatile African countries the incredible success of this little but mighty Lubumbashi team has been a tiny indicator of what is possible on the African continent sportswise with good leadership, management and dedication. In the case of the TP Mazembe the businessman Governor of the Province, Moise Katumbi took the team under his wing personally.

Ostensibly ‘more developed’ Kenya has had no such luck. Football in the country has been ran by politicians and thugs for so long that the ability of our national team Harambee Stars to punch anywhere near its weight has been truncated. Kenyans have taken to supporting British Premier League teams while our tribal politics afflicts the ability of genuinely impressive teams like AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia to inspire a reverberating national following. Meanwhile, a slum-based team like Mathare United has been the incubator for some of the outstanding soccer talent Kenya has exported to the rest of the world.

In an episode typifying the incompetence and thuggery that bedevils the management of our national team, they almost missed a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier against Cape Verde earlier this week. We had beaten them at home in the first leg. While in our typical Kenyan exceptionalism some were asking, “Who is Cape Verde?!”, soccer lovers from the small islands were saying, “Here come the Kenyans. A slam dunk!” It emerged that apparently a disagreement between the Ministry of Sports and Football Kenya Federation almost cost them the return match through bungling.

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Oboma, welcome to Kenya, but be aware

Dear President Obama: Karibu! Welcome! Asante for dropping in on us, the country of your father, before you depart the White House. There are those who called you all manner of names when you visited in 2006. I apologise on their behalf. The idea that you’d go ahead and win a presidential election two years later was unthinkable.

But many all over the world got caught out on that one. Asante sana too, because confirmation of your arrival has caused the most rapid road repair programme in the history of our capital city.

You are visiting the country that has consistently been the USA’s closest diplomatic, political and military ally in the region for half a century. This goes way back to when President JF Kennedy’s “airlift” saw your father and others travel to the US for further education. America’s extraordinary soft power – from Hollywood to KFC to Apple – sets global trends. We are no exception in being influenced by the USA in many ways.

We have taken some blows for it too, as your enemies have picked on us for terrorist attacks. Still, we are a resilient lot. We pride ourselves as exemplifying in East Africa the spirit of enterprise and capitalism that we share with the USA. (As I write, you can be sure there are even some hustlers selling tickets to those who want to shake your hand or share a meal with you.) The USA continues to need a stable, democratic friend in East Africa and its best bet continues to be Kenya.

Still, in this part of the world, new realities are serving to transform the relationship between Kenya and the USA. There is a democratic recession underway across the world. It’s playing out here in our region too. This is partly driven by old partnerships, now renewed.

China is now Kenya’s fastest growing and most significant trading partner. It has transformed our roads, skylines and national debt. Dollar for dollar, China’s impact competes with that of the USA – we see its infrastructure even when we choose to ignore some of the less salubrious accompanying aspects.

The discerning amongst us know that China’s attitudes to corruption and democracy are very different to those expressed in our constitution. Externally, the Chinese tend to be permissive towards the first and opposed to the second. China also offers a governance model that the elite finds seductive. Indeed, it’s no longer politically incorrect to hear regime apologists argue ‘we have too much democracy’. This is nonsense of course. In fact devolving – and thus deepening – our democracy saved Kenya from the crisis of a presidency won back-to-back via the dodgiest means possible.

When you visited in 2006, you spoke on corruption and tribalism. As a former Senator from Illinois you will know something about corruption, since Illinois governors are as likely as not to retire to jail. Your recent remarks on systemic racism in the USA demonstrate how well you understand that nations cannot be at peace within themselves as long as their foundations privilege some citizens on the basis on their genetic origins. Here too, we’re still fighting to overcome these two cancers, even though some argue that economic growth should be where we focus our energies as Kenyans.

You will also know that this battle is not new. In the 1990s, Kenyans, led by a coalition of civil society, the church and media, and supported by sympathetic sections of the international community, agitated for multiparty democracy as a conducive environment to fight against these and other ills. The gains of that era are now being rolled back ever so gently.

We lost the Church as an ally along the way while media and civil society chug along in an increasingly hostile environment replete with extrajudicial methods of sanction, intimidation and elimination. Our allies in the international community sometimes seem to have lost their confidence. This has led to a disconcerting ambivalence amongst Kenyans themselves about values and principles that once seemed so crystal clear.

There are concerns in particular that the so-called war on terror has taken precedence over the democracy and anti-corruption agenda. And yet, corruption in Kenya feeds both domestic and jihadist insecurity in very direct ways. Authoritarian extrajudicial reactions too have served to alienate Muslims and radicalise youth.

Sliding back into a Cold War posture where developing world leaders use the war on terror as an excuse to roll back democratic freedoms will backfire. The struggle against communism was once used as an excuse to keep the historical aberration of apartheid going way longer than simple decency demanded.

As we welcome you to the country your ancestors call home, let not your visit be used to rubber-stamp the most far-reaching reversals in the hard-won freedoms enjoyed by media, civil society and Kenyans in general in the past two decades. Thank you. Enjoy the visit and – once again – thanks for the refurbished roads and freshly planted grass!

This article was first published in the (Kenyan) Star on 24-7-2015

Kenya shoots itself in the foot with new security law

THE STORY IS told of how on September 11th 2001 (9/11), somewhere in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden, and the elusive leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar, sat around a television with their closest aides. Even though the Taliban had banned television this was a special occasion. They had gathered in a hideout to watch al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers, Pentagon and other American symbols of power and global influence. The success of this most spectacular terrorist attack ever changed the world.


In short order, America and her allies invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban. This campaign enjoyed sympathy across the globe. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a more dubiously justified one. However, it soon became clear that the real motive behind Osama bin Laden’s attack – first tested successfully on us and the Tanzanians when the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar were bombed in August 1998 – was to drag the US and ‘the West’ into a quagmire in Afghanistan. Iraq was a tremendous bonus. The quagmire transpired. Indeed, the Middle East continues to convulse today.

 However, as al Qaeda evolved, bin Laden and his team seemed to conjure up a more malevolent strategic objective – to force the West into a type of conflict that would cause the US to abandon some of the core values that make America the unique superpower it is. America prides itself on building a society whose core values are based around the principle of the freedom of the individual. However, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, collateral damage from drone attacks, the CIA’s systematic use of torture, and corruption in these war zones on a massive scale did much to undermine the moral standing of the US in the world. It is as an idea that extremist intolerant Islam has proven itself globally most potent and dangerous. It is heavily reliant on provoking the leadership of fear-gripped countries to respond against their own people along brittle fault-lines that may already exist, such as that between Christian and Muslim.

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A recession in democracy in Kenya and beyond

 In truth across Africa and many other parts of the world the situation vis-à-vis basic human rights has been in decline. A democratic recession has gripped entire parts of the African continent even as we celebrate the narrative of ‘Africa Rising’ that is driven by consistently high levels of economic growth over the last two decades; a growing vibrant middle class; a massive bulge of educated energetic, healthy and globalized youth with the potential to power our economies to unprecedented levels. Africa’s tremendous wealth in natural resources and the world’s huge hunger for them has been a major factor in creating potential confluence of positive factors. Add to this the fact that most of Africa democratized in the early 1990s then on paper the conditions are beginning to come together that would create for a situation of countries that are stable and governed via systems of that have the principles of social justice embedded in them.

Unfortunately over the last two years we have endured the reversals in human rights in some areas and the current Kenyan government has often made it clear that some of the rights Kenyans have come to take for granted are at best an inconvenience and at worst a risk to national security. While the messages are often mixed and confusing it would seem that there are those within the regime – a minority it would seem – determined to craft Kenya into a militarized authoritarian state wrapped in the national flag and all the rituals and propagandised narratives of a kind of a kind of proto fascism.

 And so there are specific reasons why we should be concerned about the general environment with regard to rights and freedoms in Kenya.

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Instability in Kenya: The Perfect Storm

After just over one year in government, it is becoming clear that the Jubilee regime would seem to be imploding in slow motion. It is one thing for a regime to be hated and feared, as Moi’s was in large parts of the country; both are very defining emotions. Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime faces the particular ignominy of becoming the laughing stock of its own people and the subject of sneering derision, as was seen on social media in response to his “digital government” insisting in this day and age on the “airlifting of presidential speeches” on the pretext of ensuring their security. A regime doesn’t have to ‘fall’ to implode; it merely needs to be perceived as becoming increasingly irrelevant or, at worst, having become its own enemy in the prosecution of its core functions as a state.

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The war against terror in Kenya could turn into a success for al Shabaab


THE PAST COUPLE of weeks have seen the government implement the most dramatic combination of an anti-terror operation and a crackdown against illegal immigrants in decades – Operation Linda Usalama.

Broadly it seems aimed at responding the security meltdown underway across the country and more specifically at the threat posed by ‘Islamic extremism’.

This operation has been accompanied by a series of massive sweeps in Nairobi and other towns seeking out illegal immigrants and terrorists supposedly associated with the originally Somali al Shabaab terror group.

Initially, these sweeps were aimed mainly at members of the Somali community and other Muslims in the context of a steadily and intensifying number of terrorist attacks over the past couple of years. By last week security forces were going house-to-house in an invasive (and for many expensive) graduation of the operation.

From grenades being thrown into churches, eateries and matatus killing and wounding a rapidly growing number of innocents; to the discovery of sophisticated improvised explosive devices (one of them in a car parked in a police station after being driven thousands of kilometres from Kismayo to the Coast) – its clear Kenya is under attack. Fear and anger have grown with every attack.

The most shocking was the brazen violent strike on the high-end Westgate Mall in Nairobi last September that resulted in 67 deaths and over 170 injuries. Most of the victims were middle class that lent events a resonance far more profound than would otherwise have been the case.

All this has been accompanied by the extra judicial assassination of some of the more outspoken Coast-based radical Muslim preachers over the same period.

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Is Someone Trying To Kill Devolution?

I am one of those who insist that Kenyans did not choose to adopt a devolved system of government because they had thought it through rationally, weighed all the options at hand, before deciding on it as the most efficient and desirable governance system given our circumstances. Rather, decades of centralised, ethnicised, authoritarian, corrupt, deeply discriminatory and unequal development as a result of the national government policies favouring Nairobi and the elites that dominate it, forced the hand of the majority who voted for it.

The attitude was, “We’ve tried everything else –political pluralism, successful agitation for basic freedoms and rights etc – and those who have controlled the center of power in Nairobi since independence continue to make off with a hugely disproportionate chunk of national cake.” On the ground, this developed into a powerful narrative that has in turn been ethnicised and politicised to the extent that it has helped define the outcome of elections in the multi-party era; the only policy pillar that stood out in ODM’s 2007 campaign, for example, was ugatuzi.

As a slogan, this was read by many Kenyans as essentially a political instrument to correct ethnic discrimination in development, especially as regards access to justice and economic opportunity. Devolution remains, in effect, the biggest rungu in the arsenal of those communities who aren’t, and probably will never be, part of the so-called “tyranny of numbers”.

A similar underlying rationale informed the ‘District Focus for Rural Development’ initiative of the Moi administration that kicked off in October 1982. In essence, this was in actual fact Kenya’s first real attempt at an affirmative action programme to more equitably distribute resources and opportunities to parts of the country that had historically been economically and politically marginalized. However, a mixture of incompetence, graft and the politics of patronage scuttled the potential of the initiative.

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Kenya celebrated its 50th anniversary as an independent country in december. I was struck by how low-key it was considering the scale of the milestone.

This was partly because of Nelson Mandela’s death and subsequent funeral. It isn’t in the best of taste to throw too big a party when the continent is mourning its most respected and beloved son.

However, it is also the case that the past nine months since the Jubilee coalition controversially won the election have been challenging ones.

The swagger and hubris of May to September has been somewhat tempered. One simple reason for this is that it is easier to run a campaign than a government; especially a government that you know contains within it a massive bloc of officials whose resentment of you is virulent and seethes below the surface.

Thus it is that those who were thumping their chests in May today plead to be given time to deliver; for the public to cut them some slack as they grapple with multiple governance challenges.

That has not, however, tempered the hubris of commercial types unable to smell the political coffee, who continue to believe that Kenya can grow its way out of its unresolved fundamental political contradictions.

This administration has emerged to be an alliance between the Gikuyu and Kalenjin elites, their followers and the corporate sector narrowly defined.

The youthful Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, has been persistent in warning Deputy President William Ruto essentially that ‘the Gikuyu are out to use and dump’ the Kalenjin in the political alliance that is Jubilee.

While there are some observers who have dismissed this as the mere posturing of coalition partners grumbling that they aren’t being allowed to ‘eat’ enough (partly true), others have argued its indicative of a deeper malaise among the Kalenjin vis-à-vis their already totally unlikely and deeply uncomfortable political marriage. I tend towards the former view.

The alliance’s durability is heavily dependent on impunity with regard to grand corruption. The more the pigs can gorge themselves at the trough, the less whining one will hear out of this regime.

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Westgate: “our turn eat” costs national security

During my brief tenure in government I clashed with senior colleagues who insisted that ‘eating’ from security contracts in particular was okay because the money was essential to pay for democracy that we all know is messy and expensive.

‘National security’ became the final refuge of the corrupt. My repost then and now was: when you eat from procurement deals meant for the police, military, customs, immigration at the top, then bureaucrats below watch and learn.

Like termites munching at the wooden foundations of the house of State everything soon becomes porous. Driving along a pretty rough road deep in a rural part of Pwani we once turned a corner to find ourselves staring at a magnificent palace of a residence in an area where the next best nearby house was the one that had corrugated iron on the roof.

When I asked whom the first house belonged to, I was told: “Oh, he works for Customs at the port of Mombasa”. And the house owner was a relatively junior civil servant.

That beautiful house was a bricks and mortar illustration of how systemic graft in Kenya makes a mockery of national security. Additionally, the networks used by money launderers, drug traffickers, modern day slavers and participants in grand corruption in the 21st Century are increasingly the same.


Then on September 21 terrorists linked to al Shabaab and possibly al Qaeda too attacked the Westgate Mall in the high-end suburb of Westlands in our capital.

Their stand-off with our security services lasted four days that were collectively infuriating, traumatising, saddening and utterly confusing to us Kenyans. At least 67 were killed, more than 170 injured and it remains unclear how many bodies remain under the rubble.

The truth was quickly the first victim of the attack. Today, most people I speak to treat government statements related to these key facts with scepticism. Many are in fact more inclined to believe the international press and even Twitter!

It’s embarrassing that the Guardian in the UK has emerged as the paper of record on Westgate and international broadcast platforms are now considered by many Kenyans as more reliable than the local press.

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