Tag Archives: Kenya

This won’t make a difference

Kenya’s electoral commission has just launched a new hi-tech voter registration system. Every would-be voter will have their fingerprint scanned and a digital photograph taken. Supposedly this will prevent voter fraud.

Two things:

One. The problems last time had little to do with voter registration. The election was stolen in the count.

Two. Somaliland tried this super-duper foolproof digital photo fingerprint scanner thing back in 2008. The result? The country’s worst case of voter registration fraud ever.

Lessons in Big Man politics

Chris Mullin spent two years as the UK’s Minister for Africa, a role that wasn’t quite as important as it sounds. Any decision worth making was carried out by Mullin’s superiors but he managed to travel a fair bit across the continent.

On one of those trips, to Kenya, he spends a day with Raila Odinga and gets his “first taste of Big Man politics”:

“All day we raced around in a convoy of gleaming Land Cruisers, mobbed by cheering crowds. At every stop a visitors’ book was produced. At first, I duly filled in my name and details across a single line. The Honourable Raila was unimpressed. ‘That’s not how you do it,’ he snorts, ‘you must fill the whole page.’ I flicked back through the book. Everyone else seemed to have made do with a single line, but that apparently is not how Big Men sign their nams.

“Honourable Raila takes the book and scrawls his signature across a full page. ‘There.’ He holds it out for me to admire. Try as I may, I cannot rise to the occasion. By the end of the day I am managing a mere three lines.”

From Mullin’s brilliant diaries, ‘A View from the Foothills’.

No comment

When a politician at the centre of a scandal tells you he or she doesn’t want to comment on a story, reporters in Britain tend to write so-and-so “refused to comment”.

African papers have a different style. Julius Malema, the charismatic and controversial president of the ANC Youth League, is under pressure for allegedly making £11m from state contracts in the last two years.

The Times of South Africa called Malema about the latest allegations and quoted his response verbatim:

“Don’t you know I have a spokesman from the ANC Youth League? Stop calling me about these things, okay?”

It’s not quite as good as my favourite version of ‘no comment’, which was made by Joseph Kinyua, the permanent secretary in Kenya’s Finance ministry, to the Standard newspaper in May 2009:

“Oh no, I’m not talking to you…No! No! No”

Kenya’s pride and shame

I’ve been working on a story this week about Kenya’s digital future. It’s an inspiring tale about smart young people creating new opportunities. The developers, designers and engineers using Nairobi’s new iHub, which opens next month, will all be hoping to create the next M-PESA or Ushahidi, and turn Nairobi into Africa’s technology hub.

I love working on stories like this. It’s not what we expect from Africa. It’s uplifting, it’s positive, and there’s not an aid worker in sight.

And then there are stories which make your heart sink. Five men in Mtwapa, just north of Mombasa, were arrested yesterday for being gay. A rumour had gone round that two men were going to get married. how they were going to do that when gay marriage is illegal is not quite clear. According to the BBC:

District officer George Matandura said two of the men had been found with wedding rings, attempting to get married, in Kikambala beach resort. The other three men were handed to the police by members of the public; two of them had reportedly been beaten.

A human rights lawyer criticised the police, calling the arrest “an offence, an unnatural offence, and also their behaviour is repugnant to the morality of the people.”

Oh, no, sorry. That was the police officer talking about the men he arrested.

People protest against something that has no impact on their lives whatsoever (Photo: Laban Walloga, Daily Nation)

One of the most depressing aspects of the story is the protests. People tend not to go on demonstrations here – partly because the police don’t need much excuse to fire tear gas cannisters and live bullets. But the alleged gay wedding has brought hundreds onto the streets in Mtwapa. In the past week two big corruption scandals have been on the front pages of Kenya’s newspapers. Subsidised maize that was meant to go to some of the poorest, drought-hit parts of the country, has been stolen. So too has money meant to pay for free primary school education.

Guess how many protests there have been about that.

Shooting the messenger, ignoring the message

Another week, another Africa blog row. This one was set off rather innocently by Shashank Bengali who pointed out a poster for the upcoming disaster movie, 2012.


He wrote:

“An American friend saw this poster in the lobby and said: “Hey, a movie about the next Kenyan election!”

I laughed. Our three Kenyan friends didn’t.

The comments started off supportive but quickly degenerated.

Gee wrote:

“The problem with Kenya is that everyone’s an expert, and usually not Kenyan.”

Then Kenyachick added:

“I’m so bored with foreign comments about Africa. Give it a rest.”

And finally The Patriot weighed in with a 300 words tirade which ended:

“So please shut up and enjoy the suburbs and multiplex movie theaters and the 4 X 4.”

None of them are trying to argue about the message. They are effectively saying: “Yes, our country may be in trouble but who the hell are you to point it out?”

In a way it’s understandable. Kenya is a former colony, which gained independence only after fighting a war of liberation. For the past 40-odd years a procession of foreigners have been telling Kenyan leaders what to do – sometimes for good reasons, often for bad. While I don’t mind having an argument with a Kenyan about British politics I might feel differently if Kenya had drawn the UK’s borders, repressed and killed our people and still gave its opinion on our budget.

But just because it’s understandable doesn’t mean it’s right.

There is a strain of African populism that seeks to pin blame on the West whenever possible. Mugabe regularly rails against “imperialists” and “bloody whites”. Moussa Dadis Camara, the leader of Guiena’s junta, did it last week after the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, had called for an international intervention following the slaughter of more than 150 pro-democracy protesters in Conakry:

“Guinea is not a district of France. When the French foreign minister says something like that, this is a way of denigrating the people of Africa.”

Here in Kenya the US ambassador, Michael Ranneberger, has faced criticism from some members of the Kenyan government after threatening 15 politicians and businessmen with visa bans. One assistant minister, Kareke Mbiuki, said:

“We are a sovereign State and the US must stop its arrogance and let us govern ourselves without undue pressure.”

Kenya is in a bad shape. It is ranked number 14 in a list of global failed states, there have been no political reforms since the last election, and militias are allegedly rearming in the Rift Valley.

I fail to see what’s wrong about pointing that out whether you are Caroline Mutoko or Kofi Annan, Mwalimu Mati or Shashank Bengali.

What’s most depressing about this debate is that no one has looked at that poster and said “don’t be ridiculous, that could never happen.”

Politics, protests and pop music

Kenya is welcoming a procession of international visitors this month that indicate both the depths it has fallen to and the heights it could once again reach.

Kofi Annan arrived at the start of the month to gently remind Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki, and prime minister, Raila Odinga, that they still haven’t reformed Kenya’s constitution, electoral system or land disputes.

As Annan left, Wyclef Jean and Akon swept in for last Saturday’s MTV Africa Music Awards, a glitzy event which saw Kenyan artists, Nameless and Amani win two of the top awards.

Bumping into the hip-hop stars on their way out will be Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), who is expected in Nairobi later this week.

From my latest Monocle column: Politics, protests and pop music

The perfect traffic jam

The inevitable consequence of refusing to follow the rules of the road.

jam1As frustrating as traffic jams are, you have to admire the beauty of the ‘Nairobi special’.

“You are my bushman”

Xpat Link, as the name suggests, is a Kenyan magazine that provides ex-pats with links. Links to houses, holiday homes and restaurants. Oh, and to other ex-pats.

Here are a few of my favourites:

“Married, horsey and just a little bit naughty. Looking for flirtations. No strings attached.”

“I had a dream of Africa and you were in that dream. I am 25 years old, blonde hair, ripped shirt and looking for white mischief. If you have it – get in touch.”

“You are tall, strong, dark-skinned, know how to change a tyre and can show me the wilder parts of the bush.”

“Sharp claws, financially independent and surgically enhanced. I’m on the prowl for a youthful king of the wild, only lions with night vision need apply. I am waiting for you. You are my bushman.”

A blessing at a Kenyan wedding

David and Juliet got married on Saturday. It was a sweltering hot Nairobi afternoon and the doors of the church were flung open to keep people cool.

Several months have passed since it last rained properly here and the city is gasping. Writing in last week’s Guardian, Xan Rice wrote about the consequences of the drought sweeping across the country:

“In Nairobi, the sight of Masai herders grazing their cows in upmarket suburbs or blocking the highway as their cattle amble across no longer raises eyebrows.”

The reception was under a marquee in the grounds of  the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. As the speeches began the clouds above turned an ominous shade of dark grey. Moments later the rains began.

“Oh dear,” I thought. “That’s a bad omen.” In the West rain on your wedding day – particularly if it has been dry for several months – would be seen as an ominous sign. Some would even call it ironic*.

Not here.

Women uluated. Speeches were peppered with references to the “blessings” which the wedding had brought. It was a happy day.

*They’d be wrong.

Hillary’s never-ending Africa trip

It’s Wednesday, so it must be Nigeria. Hillary Clinton is still in Africa. (Seriously, who decided it would be a great idea to visit seven countries in 11 days?)

The trip was supposed to be about good governance, democracy and trade. But judging by some of the coverage so far it’s instead been about Hillary’s hair, a weird marriage proposal, and why you really shouldn’t ask the US Secretary of State what her husband thinks.

Maybe she’s lucky that no-one’s paying attention to the serious stuff, because little of it seems to have gone well. In Kenya, her attempts to threaten and cajole the leaders of the “government of impunity” to clean up their act fell on deaf ears. Even Raila Odinga, a man who owes much of his success in becoming Prime Minister to the “interference” of western diplomats, felt the urge to warn Hillary that Kenyans “don’t need lectures on how to govern ourselves”.

Her meeting with Somalia’s president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, appears to have given fresh ammunition (of the verbal kind) to his opponents, while the fresh ammunition (of the lethal kind) that the US gave to Sharif’s government is rumoured to have made it’s way to Al Shabaab.

Angola’s autocratic and corrupt regime got the positive publicity of a Hillary visit and in return had to give only a vague promise to hold elections of some sort at some time in the future, probably.

The Bill incident aside, her trip to Congo mainly focused on combating sexual violence. Texas in Africa laid out a few ideas for proper reform here although the chances of 100,000 peacekeepers being sent anywhere, let alone Congo, are almost nil. The package Clinton announced yesterday included training for doctors and police officers, as well as an offer of camcorders to help document evidence. Wronging Rights points out some of the absurdities, while Shashank thinks it might work. Either way, none of this is going to make a radical difference.

So now it’s Nigeria,where according to Jeff Gettleman in the New York Times, Clinton’s message on corruption was “muted”:

“We strongly support and encourage the government of Nigeria’s efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption,”

Tomorrow it’s Liberia where Clinton will shower praise on Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf while probably ignoring the ongoing corruption and the recent truth and reconciliation report, and finally onto Cape Verde where… Frankly, God knows. Cape Verde? Does anyone even know where that is?

Which is probably a question running through the minds of many an African leader who hasn’t been blessed by a Hillary visit. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, in particular, must be wondering why they didn’t get the chance to dance awkwardly with the US secretary of state.