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Friday, January 19, 2018

Why Trump's "Shithole" Comments Are Nothing New


Eric Kiraithe, must really be well paid. Being the official spokesman of the Kenyan Government, is, in the words of Jerry Maguire, “an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” that I’m sure he will never fully tell us about. We got a glimpse of what the job entails when the government sent him out this week to defend the indefensible: US President Donald Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” and his declared preference for immigrants from Northern Europe.

The mental gymnastics Kiraithe had to engage in were a spectacle to behold. No doubt trying to curry favor with the famously petty and vengeful Trump, he declared that Kenya had no problems with African countries being called “shitholes” but nonetheless supported the African Union in condemning the comments whose context, he claimed, the government was still studying “to see whether it is worth the attention”, even though it had already determined that they were not directed at Kenya.

Still, there perhaps was an easier, and perhaps less humiliating, way for Kiraithe and his minders to extricate themselves from the bind. Trump may be an ignorant, racist, pathetic excuse for a human being but if we are honest, his sentiments are not dissimilar to attitudes held by many of the “respectable” people lining up to condemn him in the West and even here in Africa.

As any African applying for visa will tell you, the indignities visited upon us in the process make it plain that we are not exactly welcome. It is humiliating to have to demonstrate to strangers that one is not about to abandon one’s family and nation to live on the streets of Europe or America, to have them stand in judgment over your acceptability as human being. And that is just how the system treats those seeking a legal route for a temporary visit.

The reaction to the so-called European migrant crisis which saw more than a million unwanted migrants and refugees from the middle east and Africa cross into Europe in 2015, shows the extremes that will be considered in order to turn them back. “Europe has decided to cooperate with Libyan authorities, knowing the kind of torture, abuses, detention that migrants and refugees are exposed to in Libya,” Amnesty International’s Maria Serrano told Voice of America last month.
Of course, the idea of a crisis is not extended to the nearly 12.5 million Europeans who are resident in a country not their own within the European Union, even when 95 percent of these are hosted in just six countries. It is only a crisis when they come from “shithole countries”.

And it is not just Europeans. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Kenya in November declaring how he loves Africans, seems to only love them when they stay at home. Back in Israel, he has taken to branding African asylum seekers “infiltrators” is deporting thousands of them. In Libya, slave markets have re-opened with many of the same Africans Europe is turning away being treated as commodities.

But African citizens do not even need to try to leave the continent in order to experience the dehumanization associated with immigration. Kenya’s abysmal treatment of refugees from Somalia -who are crammed into crowded camps, forbidden from seeking work, regularly demonized as terrorists and even illegally forced back into the war zone across the border – is no less humiliating. Neither are the hoops Kenyans themselves – as well as other Africans - are forced to jump through when attempting to visit South Africa, formerly the continent’s largest economy, are no less humiliating.

In fact, Africans don’t even need to try to go outside their countries’ borders to be insulted or have heir humanity questioned. Hollywood as well as Western aid agencies and media regularly does it right in the comfort of our homes with their portrayal of Africa as a troubled, exotic paradise peopled by childishly simple, na├»ve beings unable to deal with the challenges of life and who need white saviors to rescue them from other white devils or from themselves.

Rounding out the parade of insulters are African elites, especially in the media and in politics, who have become our very own Uncle Toms, loyally regurgitating and fleshing out the worst stereotypes that the West has of us. Having opted not to reform the racist, extractive colonial states they inherited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these elites have trouble seeing the humanity of the masses of citizens they prey on. So, like the Europeans before them, rather than fix dehumanizing political and economic systems, they try to beat and shame the natives into compliance with them, into accepting the space that the world has allocated to them at the back of the bus - which is the reason so many try to leave in the first place.

This brings us back to Trump and his comments. So should Kenyans be offended by them? You bet they should. But no more so than by the treatment and representations Africans have to endure every day from a world that has decided that they come from “shithole countries” and so must be shitty people.

And the supreme irony of it is, up till less than a century ago, Africans were quite content to stay on the continent. It was shitty people from other places who came here and forced them out.  It was shitty people who took them to places like Haiti, where, after they fought for and won their freedom, more shitty people blockaded and invaded them and created the very conditions today that a shitty American President, blissfully unaware of this, today disparages.

However, it is an irony that is completely lost on Kiraithe and the folks he speaks for.

Friday, January 12, 2018

SportPesa: Kenya Should Stop Betting On Devils

In his piece in the Daily Nation, Roy Gachuhi speaks of how the failure to build strong institutions in Kenyan sport has left even the most successful teams vulnerable to the financial shocks caused by the withdrawal of a major sponsor. He is referencing the troubles caused by sports betting firm SportPesa’s pulling all its sponsorship of local and national teams following the failure of its legal challenge against the government’s move to raise taxes on betting profits.  It is a move that may ground a large number of the country’s favorite sports brands.

“Fifty years down the line, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia should be evaluating the suitability of the many organizations lining up to associate their brand with them,” Gachuhi says. He also reminds us that “Kenya’s sports politics closely mirror our national politics”. One obvious similarity is the dependence on the dirty money that is generated by selling false dreams to poor people.

According to Moses Kemibaro, a digital marketing professional based in Nairobi, SportPesa, the largest of them all, rakes in over Sh300 million a month. A GeoPoll survey of youth between the ages of 17-35 in sub-Saharan Africa found Kenya had the highest number of youth who were frequently gambling and that they spent Sh5000 a month on the habit, the highest on the continent. This in a country where, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, three-quarters of those in formal employment earn under Sh50,000 a month.

So the sponsorships whose loss many are bemoaning are a small fraction of the billions being taken from millions of poor people who are fed the illusion that sports betting is, as SportPesa’s slogan goes, “Made of Winners”. Only the betting companies make money when bets are lost, not when they are won.

But what they make is a pittance, and the suffering they cause is negligible, when compared to the outrageous fortunes and misery generated by the, to borrow Hilary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables” to whom we’ve mortgaged our national political life.  They have taken to a whole new level the art of throwing around a relatively tiny bit of cash in exchange for the chance to make gazillions. Presidential election campaigns spend an estimated Sh5 billion which, including all the other races down the order, could add up to Sh36 billion. This is undoubtedly a lot of money. But considering that the country is estimated to lose Sh600 billion from corruption each year and that a large chunk of that is pocketed by the politicians in power, you can see how it works out to be a good deal.

Why must we feed the baser natures within society in order to be allowed a few crumbs for its better sides? Why is it necessary to procure resources for our sport from industries that sacrifice millions of youthful futures? Or to offer up our sovereignty, wealth and even lives to scoundrels in return for patronage posing as “development”?

I think it is actually a good thing that SportPesa has pulled the sponsorship. A deal with the Devil is not how we should seek to support our sportspeople. And maybe once the band aid is removed, we can we will be able to see and deal with the real, festering source of our public woes. The money that companies like SportPesa pump into sport tends to paper over the state’s under-investment in sport as well as its preying on athletes as was graphically illustrated during the 2016 Olympics.

But there again, our deals with devils, this time within government, stand in the way. Sadly, we won’t be exorcising the demons in Parliament or in State House anytime soon. And even if we did, there are others pretending to be angels of light waiting to take their place. Like with SportPesa, we need to change the terms of the deal and radically raise the bar for what is acceptable in terms of governance. 

No more false promises. We must demand tangible action, whether it is to improve the lot of the sports fraternity of to reform the electoral system or to implement the report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Report. To do this, we must be willing to risk the political class withdrawing the few parochial benefits it offers just as SportPesa has done. But if we are firm and refuse to succumb to the blackmail, the rewards would be much greater than what we have become accustomed to settling for.

Now that’s a gamble worth taking.


Friday, January 05, 2018

Kenya's Road Deaths: It's The System, Stupid.

Kenyans can be amazing in their self-contradictions. Take matters death, for example. When our politicians pass on, they are immediately raptured, in the popular imagination, into a heavenly pantheon and cleansed of all earthly sin. Not so regular folk.

Following the spike in road crashes in December which have claimed over 200 lives, many have not been shy about placing the blame on those who have perished, either labeling drivers drunk, undisciplined or careless, or branding passengers as silent lambs willingly going to the slaughter.

I have often wondered about this seeming compulsion to blame ourselves for the misfortunes we endure, even when it is manifest that their fundamental causes lie elsewhere. When the politicians in government steal from us, we blame ourselves for electing them in the first place, as if the act of voting then justifies stealing. When the same politicians use the police or militia for violence to secure their positions on the bargaining table, we blame ourselves for our tribalism and bloodthirst.

Similarly, when the state designs and maintains a murderous road transport system, we blame ourselves for its very predictable consequences. It is our failure to obey its dictates that is to blame, we are told, even though we know that following the rules still gets you killed.

TV presenter and columnist, Larry Madowo, ably demonstrates this confusion in his latest offering on the dangers of using public transport for long-distance travel at night. After acknowledging that he is one of a privileged minority that does not need to do this he adds that “for millions of Kenyans for whom that is not an option, they are unknowingly putting themselves in danger every time they board a bus or a matatu and hope they get to their destination in one piece.”

Sounds reasonable, no? Then a few lines later, he hits us with this: “Taking any public transport in Kenya is to knowingly put yourself in danger.” Huh?

He proceeds to reel off a list the usual suspects, from tired, drunk and unqualified drivers trying to meet impossible targets to matatu crews colluding with gangsters to rob passengers, to mechanically defective vehicles and their owners - the very cops turning a blind eye. He notes that there are no regularly enforced “minimum standards for crew discipline, vehicle maintenance and roadworthiness” and few consequences for anyone failing to play their part. It is as close a description of a shattered system as you are likely to get.

Yet despite this, Larry still seems to believe that the system is fundamentally sound. “All this carnage can be eliminated without introducing a single new law but simply enforcing the existing ones and shutting down all the avenues for bribery.” Once again, the problem, as he sees it, is the failure to beat the native out of the Kenyan, to force him to comply with a broken system.

This kind of thinking has very colonial roots. The British proclaimed that they came on a civilizing mission and used extreme brutality to try to beat the natives into shape. For example, in his book Kenya: A History Since Independence, Charles Hornsby describes the European settler view of roots of the Mau Mau war as “unrelated to economic or political oppression … they lay in the Kikuyu’s inability to adapt to the demands of modernization”.

Lawyer Pheroze Norwojee says "tyranny is very unoriginal". Those who inherited the colonial state after them, retained the same view of the sanctity of even oppressive rules and of Africans as the problem. As Jomo Kenyatta asked Kenyans in the lead up to independence, “if you cannot obey the present [colonial] laws, how will you be able to obey our own laws when we have them?” Thus, instead of reforming the oppressive regime, they tried to force the people to comply with it. As quoted by Hornsby, the late Masinde Muliro described it thus in 1967: "Today we have a black man's Government, and the black man's Government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do." 

It is this approach that has created the predictable consequences and contradictions evident in our political system today, for our humanity will not simply fade away quietly. Similarly, the attempt to force road users to comply with a horrendous road system will continue to generate seemingly chaotic and suicidal, but always very rational, behavior. In the end blaming Kenyans, rather than the system, will always lead to oppressive responses that try to fix Kenyans rather than policy fixes to the system.

Yet the fact is we need comprehensive change, both in the institutional design of how we manage road transport as well as in the rules those institutions are tasked with implementing and enforcing. That will require new thinking, new systems, and yes, Larry, new laws.

New laws on who can own matatus, for example. New laws on how we respond to road crashes, perhaps a requirement that they all be investigated and lessons learnt. New laws to prevent the National Transport and Safety Authority understating the extent of the carnage on our roads, which they do by nearly 80 percent. Most importantly, new laws on whom we hold accountable for the failures on our roads. Simply blaming the dead and dying victims on our roads will not do.