The Great Transition in Kenya and Bad times

Written By Michael Maunda on Monday, July 9, 2012 | 1:19 AM

On June 10, a helicopter carrying the minister for Internal Security Prof George Saitoti and his assistant minister Orwa Ojode crashed in Ngong killing both ministers, their aides and police chopper crew. The Kibaki tenure has been a particularly tragic one when one counts the number of senior officials and politicians who have died around the Head of State. This time things are different, however, and point to a mood that will set the tone for the intense political period we are about to enter.

On January 24, 2003, a plane full of government officials and their supporters crashed in Busia. Three died – including the pilot, one other crew member and the Minister for Labour, Ahmed Khalif. Eleven were injured including Dr Wanjiru Kihoro, the wife of seasoned politician and democracy activist Wanyiri Kihoro. Dr Wanjiru Kihoro passed away after almost four years in a coma in 2006. Back then, no conspiracy theories or rumours of assassination gained any traction. The helicopter crash last month was different. Almost immediately, foul play was suspected. On Twitter, Facebook and by SMS, countless theories were advanced, with most insinuating that someone may have killed the ministers.

To start with, fingers were quietly pointed at top officials in the regime. Then a conspiracy theory in part born out of one of the saddest and damaging legacies of the Kibaki era – a dramatic laissez-faire criminalisation of our politics and society despite undeniable economic achievements – began to gain traction. All this while proper investigations were just kicking off. This theory held that the ministers had been assassinated by elements of the regime involved in the illicit drug trade. For me, what was important was that Kenyans were willing to believe this: that at the top of our government are politicians so deeply embroiled in the drug business which is transforming our politics starting at the Coast, that they had no qualms about killing the minister of Internal Security and his deputy. The conspiracy theory gained momentum when Members of Parliament alleged the same on the floor of the house. Perceptions were, in my opinion, irrevocably worsened when the family of Prof Saitoti reportedly hired their own investigators to look into the crash, alleging a cover-up by officers of the very government that the minister and his deputy had led.
This demonstrated a total lack of faith and confidence in the investigation process initiated by the very regime Prof Saitoti had served so close to the very top.

It should trouble us that so many of us are willing to believe that elements within our own government are willing to kill their colleagues in this way at this time. Indeed, one young but hardened cynic observed to me, “If the Government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, had immediately come out to deny the rumours in anyway, that would have been confirmation that there was some truth in them.” This extreme low trust environment has implications. It most certainly complicates life for the IEBC which now cannot afford to put a foot wrong; even genuine mistakes are likely to be read with a political lens in a highly ethnically polarised environment.

Kenya is about to hold the world’s most expensive election at $20 (Sh1,680) per vote if, say, we had 10 million voters. Politicians are also due to spend a totally unprecedented amounts of money. A Nairobi-based think tank, the Coalition for Accountable Political Financing, recently estimated that that the top presidential candidates will spend between US$100 million (Sh8.4bn) and US$150 million (Sh12.6bn) each. The presidential campaigns alone could cost US$500 million (Sh42bn). These figures are Nigeriaesque and Nigeria has oil money to spend and misspend on these things. So where will the money come from? While serious fortunes exist among members of the elite, accumulated largely via graft and the abuse of public office over the last 49 years, it is also becoming clear that there is a considerable amount of money sloshing about this economy from more opaque sources.

There is a consistency to reports of mainly Coastal-based drug barons and up-country money launderers injecting huge sums into the campaign kitties of some leading contenders. Traditionally, the period after the reading of the last budget before an election is the start of shakedown season. Aspirants start by hitting up members of the private sector, then investors who are still in a fragile contractual condition, before moving on to squeeze as much out of the public purse as possible via kickbacks, skimming off procurement contracts and the like. The unenthusiastic can find themselves ‘encouraged’ by visits from the taxman or even police. Businessmen dish out the cash to all sides to hedge their bets. It is thus that giant public works projects seemingly hurriedly cooked up in the year prior to polls have a habit of becoming white elephants whose utility declines once they have finished serving as vehicles to mobilise election finances. In my opinion, however, these tried and tested tactics simply don’t begin to explain the kind of resources already being splashed about by some of the leading contenders.

In the 1980s, before full liberalisation of the economy, the capture of regulatory agencies was enough to mobilise resources for political activity. After the reintroduction of political pluralism, specifically designed scams to extract resources from the Consolidated Fund kicked in. Goldenberg cost us roughly 10 percent of GDP. At the same time with liberalisation graft moved from the weakened regulatory agencies to revenue collection bodies; it moved, in a sense, from the capital to the Coast. Giant sugar and maize importation scams for example were all the rage from the mid-1990s and to an extent to this day as well. Throughout the 1990s, land allocations by the head of state, especially in urban areas, also became a strong feature of corruption by public officials facing elections.

By 2003, internal and external pressure increased media scrutiny and political fragmentation among the elite had forced large scale graft to retreat into ‘national security’. The looting of police and other agencies in the sector turned national security into the last refuge of the corrupt. It partly explains why so many of our police helicopters are unserviceable or fall from the sky. From around 2005, however, it also became clear that drugs and money laundering had become important sources of political resources. It would also seem that a chunk of the resources fiddled from the oil revenues of the South Sudan government found their way to Kenya much in the same way as some of the ransoms associated with piracy. Remember, Nairobi, for now, remains the commercial capital of Somalia.

While an open-door policy with regard to drug money and the involvement of top officials (and their wives and other relatives) in part explains where the flood of cash for siasa is coming from, elite political fragmentation has increased the currency of intimidation and assassination as tools of political management. Assassination has always been a feature of Kenyan politics.

Shoot-to-kill policies with regard to the so-called Mungiki menace started in earnest around 2007. A culture of extrajudicial killings was normalised. Though in truth a similar condition had held sway in much of Northern Kenya for decades. Anyway, the new situation was most dramatically exemplified by the murder in broad daylight of Oscar Kamau King’ara and John Paul Oulu in March 2009. There in particular seems to be a systematic pattern of these killings that went into high gear once it became clear that the ICC process the elite had thought would take decades would move did so more quickly than they had anticipated.

Since the ICC named its key suspects in December 2010 we have witnessed an intensification of these trends. A number of witnesses and potential witnesses for the ICC have been assassinated or simply disappeared without a trace since. Then earlier this year the body of the Mombasa-based Samir Khan – previously arrested as a terror suspect together with Mohammed Kassim - was found in the middle of Tsavo National Park.

In May, it was reported in the media that the President and the head of the National Security Intelligence Service had met to discuss the risk of chaos before and after the elections. What was curious about this was that it was not reported in the media at all! Presumably the NSIS boss briefs the President regularly about the ‘risk of chaos’ without there being the need to tell the world that this is happening. Similarly, the media has carried regular reports about Mungiki ‘regrouping’ and ‘reorganising’ in a manner so consistent that it has led some to question whether Kenyans are being prepared for a crackdown of some sort.

Maina Njenga, former head of Mungiki, has since late last year - uncharacteristically for someone who has been through his share of scraps with individuals and institutions that want him dead - publicly raised the alarm that his life is in danger, even reporting the matter to the police. Njenga joins the growing number of those who have gone to the police to report receiving death threats, including a government minister and several politicians. This has been accompanied by consistent rumours of a list of "meigwa (Gikuyu for thorns) that need to be removed”; on it are the names of top state officials with reformist credentials, politicians and civil society activists. Add to this a most bizarre and brazen open threat meted out directly against an editor at The Star among other incidents and one may be left wondering whether all these events are a throwback to the period just before President Kenyatta died when a ‘Ngoroko’ plot to assassinate leaders to manage the transition was exposed.

One cannot tell for sure except that anti-reformist elements would seem to have retreated into a dark space in this period in the run-up to the next elections. It reminds us that the explosion of violence in 2008 was an aberration that the elite lost control over. It was this loss of control that led to the bizarre situation where presidential candidates today also face trials for crimes against humanity at the ICC. Throughout the 1990s, election-related violence was state directed, or directed by elements of the state. We are back in that space today. A bungling transition seems to be guaranteed by the absence of any form of central management of this critical process. Add to this a host of internal contradictions amplified by the on-going constitutional reform process, the ICC, al Shabaab, the inexorable rise and apparent consolidation of power by drug dealers and money launderers at the heart of the elite and intimidation and assassination have gained a new and potentially destabilising currency.

Source: The Star