Kenya’s Politics of Poverty



Kenya’s Politics of Poverty

By Blamuel Njururi, Editor in Chief, Kenya Confidential – Nairobi, August 26, 2016

This is the first article in a series, which delve into the depths of irresponsible and corrupt politics, which have stunted and reversed development in Kenya since independence in 1963 as political leaders drag the country through Politics of Poverty

Poverty is not natural; it is created or facilitated to grow. It is also relative and not absolute. Poverty has different levels and dimensions which, when compared and, or contrasted, can give rise to varied impressions, some misleading. Within the fabric and notion of poverty and wealth are linkages of material and spiritual as well as cultural attributes.

The key import of the wealth-poverty index—however perceived and in whichever moral-cultural milieu across the world—is people’s ability to afford decent and dignified livelihoods. The absence of the means to meet basic needs is what essentially constitutes poverty. It follows then that if people are meeting their needs, material, social, spiritual, political, and cultural, they cannot be said to be poor. When, however, this ability is undermined, then, a process of poverty creation starts in deadly earnest.

Poverty creation is a contrived process that has deep historical roots. As a contrived process, it is deliberate and manipulated by some people in political power for the purposes of favouring or victimizing a person or particular group of people. Those who believe that they are victimized become resentful and believe that their perceived poverty is due to those in authority.

A jigger eradication campaign launched by concerned individuals, not the government into which Kenyans plough billions of shillings in taxes every day, has shown how rural and urban families are ravaged by a small insect whose easiest remedy is hygienic living with clean water supply for regular washing of feet and wearing of shoes. Over half a Century since independence and trillions of shillings in taxes and donor assistance, millions of Kenyans languish as victims of jiggers while a few hundred families of politicians and top civil servants pride themselves as millionaires and billionaires – many of them rooted to the colonial British government and subsequent Kanu government.

Simply put, millions of Kenyans languish in poverty to finance the opulence and impunity of an elite class of politicians and civil servants whose wealth is founded on the plunder of public coffers filled by jigger-invested families who pay the indiscriminate Value Added Tax (VAT) on all tax-laden goods and services, whether they are landless, jobless or hopeless. The politicians, whose wealth is founded on jiggers do not, for a moment, think or care about the suffering of fellow Kenyans when they clamour and legislate for their higher salaries, allowances and foreign trips.

Worse, Kenya politicians are the only special class of public officers, who have to be induced with “sitting allowance” to attend Parliament, the Senate and County Assemblies to which they are elected in order to perform their core legislative duties. Until a few years ago MPs and Senators paid no tax on their salaries and when pressure was brought to bear, they increased their salaries to bridge the gap created by the taxation. Why anyone should be paid to go to the office he is employed to earn a living from has never been explained to Kenyan taxpayers.

1. Leaders riches founded on jiggers. Kenyan leaders luxury founded on jiggers

When former Dictator Daniel Toroitich arap Moi declared, siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya (the quality of politics determines the quality of life), he left no doubt that the politics he had in mind were loyalist one-party supremacy politics, not pluralism. It did not occur to many that he was telling those against his rule that they would languish in poverty in perpetuity. The socio-economic damage inflicted upon Kenya by Moi will take several decades to rectify if ever.

At independence, the British colonial settlers let go a Kenyan colony, which they developed into a comparative industrial, agricultural and commercial giant within East Africa and far beyond. The Kenyan capital Nairobi hosted an industrial area modeled on its own Birmingham and unsurpassed in East and Central Africa. Agriculture had, within then White Highlands, been mechanized to European standards. The country was ready for take off like the Far East Tigers. But that was not to be as the African leadership engaged a reverse gear.

Thirty years later in 1994 Kenyans interviewed in a World Bank study on poverty believed that it was a comparatively recent occurrence. “Ten years ago,” Kitui people responded, “we were rich; you could see it in the local markets, which were functioning. Today there is nothing to sell. There are no markets anymore”.

From Bomet, respondents traced their poverty to 1979 (one year after Moi took over from President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta), or thereabouts and claimed, “Fifteen years ago, we had animals, granaries and land. Today the animals are gone, the granaries are empty, and the land is subdivided. And our clothes are in tatters”.

Six years later on a Tuesday, August 22, 2000, at the Holy Family Minor Basilica Cathedral in Nairobi, during a Mass commemorating the 22 years since the death of Jomo Kenyatta, and attended by then President Moi, Father Dominic wa Kimani Wamugunda and many others, the clergyman addressed himself to the deteriorating political and economic situation in Kenya.

Using Kenyatta as the yardstick, the outspoken cleric accused Moi’s government of having destroyed the country. Kenyatta, he said, had left a vibrant economy, roads were operational, farmers were getting the benefits of their sweat, there were no organized tribal killings, or a despicable parliament that swept away the List of Shame (of massive corruption in the government and multi-billion-shilling indebtedness to the National Bank of Kenya).

The cleric wondered whether, if Kenyatta were to rise from the grave (some 500 metres from the Basilica) would he identify with cows by the herd in the streets of Nairobi (whose herders were desperately searching for pasture and water at the height of a devastating drought), tribal clashes, impassable roads, and the List of Shame? Moi, as far as Father Wamugunda was concerned, had created the poverty in Kenya.

Sixteen years later at the same venue during a Mass commemorating 38 years since the death of Mzee Kenyatta, and attended by his son President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, former Prime Minister Raila Amolo Odinga of the infamous 2008 Mass Action bloodbath in Kenya vowed “never again will Kenyans kill one another in pursuit of political power”. But the statement was not worth the breath it was uttered in because five days later he was telling the warlike Turkana that Jubilee government comprises “killers” who had killed his friend Jacob Juma, among other inciting utterances. How will Turkana ODM members relate to Jubilee members during election campaigns next year whom they are told are killers?

Raila, who has extensive petroleum interests through Pan African Petroleum Company and Kisumu Molasses extravagantly praised oil-rich Turkana County Governor Josephat Nanok describing his political opponents as agents hired by Jubilee government whose one top leader had bought a plane for their joy rides. The former Prime Minister did not mention any development project he initiated or revived in Turkana while in office for five years or what the ODM governor had achieved in the poverty-ridden Country where residents share drinking water with domestic and wild animals.

Raila announced no plans that the devolved ODM County government had to tap into huge deposits of underground water in the County. Instead he blamed the central government for not extracting it. Nobody has stopped Nanok or Raila from mobilizing resources locally or internationally to extract, treat and distribute the water and show Kenyans what ODM County government can achieve.

Raila aged 71, and politician since the tender age of 16, is fully aware of the sacred political law of divide and rule. United communities will demand accountability of their taxes from leaders, which divided and intimidated communities inflamed with hate against each other, cannot. Ethnic hate creates conducive environment for political exploitation and serves as nutritious fodder upon which politicians thrive.

Raila at Turkana festifal copy

Raila is not alone in politics of self-aggrandizement and impoverishing Kenyan masses. Among trade deals discusses by Uhuru with president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni last year was one of milk sales to Uganda, which raised uproar in Kenya with critics fingering Kenyatta’s family Brookside dairy firm as targeted beneficiary. Poverty-plagued Western Kenya sugar growers were also up in arms against a proposal that Kenya, that has a sugar deficit, would export the commodity to Uganda. They argued sugar barons in Kenya, many of them politicians or their cronies, would import duty free sugar to plug shortages pushing disadvantaged sugar growers deeper into poverty.

Powerful instruments used in Kenya over the years to induce poverty include corruption that no leader is able to eradicate as it is deeply embedded within the civil service, politics and private sector. Corruption is aided by impunity and lethargic bureaucracy that frustrates the wheels of criminal justice and fuels social deprivation. Not surprising no single minister or top civil servant has ever been jailed for corruption in Kenya’s 53 years of independence yet corruption erodes a third of the national budget annually. That explains how paupers on appointment transform into millionaires in the first year as ministers or permanent secretaries and chief executive officers of parastatal organisations.

To the Kenyan people, therefore, poverty is not a natural order, it comes within a specified period and under specific imposed circumstances. The feeling is that livelihoods have been taken away and people have been made poor by local and international forces. This feeling fits well with the arguments that poverty is derived from certain activities that are man-made for the purpose of depriving a person of the rights of certain material, social, political and even intellectual commodities that then make it difficult for them to enjoy the good life in peace if not exactly plenty.

Social deprivation is not accidental, it is contrived to create a client-patron relationship in which one group would dominate another and that domination cannot be felt to be effective unless the dominated group is made poor. By being made poor, people are then beholden to the rulers or the dominant class and are then easy to control. In the process, people are denied the self-motivation, development and social independence, critical for the construction of democracy. The process of poverty creation is therefore anti-democratic. It is anti-people.

To argue that the international community was involved in creating poverty in Africa is not to excuse African governments and their leaders, particularly not after February 3, 1960, a Wednesday, when Harold Macmillan, the then British Prime Minister, addressing the South African Parliament in Cape Town, a nest of racist vipers if ever there was one. This was the day and the venue at which Macmillan declared:

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact”.

With that realization, the British government lifted the State of Emergency in Kenya that had been clamped in 1952 in a futile effort to suppress Mau Mau liberation struggle. Even in those days of stringent control over information dissemination by imperialists Mau Mau uprising had opened a global self-determination drive for independence in Africa, Asia and South America.

There was, at the time of Independence in Kenya, high expectations that governments led by Africans would not deliberately impoverish the people. One of Kenya’s most resonant and forward-looking slogans at Independence, for instance, was the eradication of the three related evils of Poverty, Ignorance and Disease. It was the same in other newly-independent African states as people expected that opportunities previously denied to them would be opened up in their lifetimes and those of their offspring; and some indeed were.

Kenya corruption cover-ups

What the Moi experience shows, however, was that poverty creation was political and those who were groomed by colonial authorities to take power had learned that lesson very well, a life-long lesson carried like a grudge across decades if need be. It was, therefore, this political nature of long-haul poverty creation that too many African post-colonial rulers inherited and generally embraced and imposed, despite their rhetoric of eradicating poverty. They also inherited a machine for making people poor – the bureaucracy that was swiftly manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling class.

They had learnt that the bureaucracy can be used to serve political ends and to deprive certain segments of society of services that they are entitled to by virtue of being citizens and taxpayers. The Moi system perfected bureaucratic exclusion at all levels, from the simple lowly-paid sub-chief to the permanent secretary, who became his regime’s gatekeepers for bribe collections in the name of the Harambee self-help fund-raising movement.

After inheriting a clockwork-efficient Civil Service from Kenyatta, the Moi regime manipulated its bureaucracy to the extent that it was grinding to a halt by the time he was forced out of State House, a good 24 years later in 2002, having exhausted his constitutional term limits and with Kenyans’ patience at the very end of its tether. The Civil Service bureaucracy had been reduced to a quagmire of inefficiency.

Where the colonial regime had striven to project a veneer of superiority, pretense at a civilizing and catechizing mission, however spurious, the Nyayo regime did not bother with subscribing to any superlatives, whether of personality, ability or achievement. Older Kenyans who had made the transition from colonialism to Independence and the one-and-a-half decades of Kenyatta’s founding administration were dismayed by this backsliding to conditions of nationwide poverty.

Even such elementary factors as the national discourse suffered major reversals of quality. Where political speeches, press conferences and contributions in Parliament had been made by such eloquent, even erudite speakers as Mzee himself, Joseph Murumbi, Tom Mboya, Ronald Ngala and others, the Moi system was headed by an inarticulate man of guttural voice surrounded by such diehard supporters as Kariuki Chotara of Naivasha, Ezekiel Barngetuny of Nakuru, Mulu Mutisya of Kitui and Shariff Nassir of Mombasa.

Chotara once famously issued an advisory to the police to arrest “this Karl Marx” who was confusing and radicalizing university students, and he was referring not to a leftist student leader who had adopted that name as a nom de guerre, but to the writer of Das Kapital himself, a 19th Century figure who, of course, never saw the 20th, having been dead for much more than 100 years.