Friday, July 31, 2015

A lack of imagination.

Kwame Owino's Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA, argues that alcohol regulation is a health issue and not a law-and-order problem. Setting the provincial administration on the illegal brewers, he argues, misses the point, going for  symbolism instead of effectiveness. He is partly right. Alcohol regulation is not just a law an order matter; it is a standards one, a public health one, a cultural one and, in Kenya, a deeply political one.

Eastern Africa's written history is patchy but we know that alcoholic beverages are a seminal part of the cultures of the peoples of Eastern Africa. With the arrival of the settlers and the colonial government, British sensibilities surrounding alcohol were imported into East Africa - high class and low class varieties; distillation; "modern" brewing; licensed production; offences related to alcohol production, distribution and consumption. These British sensibilities - this British culture - survived Independence because, and I agree with the IEA on this, of a spectacular lack of imagination among Kenya's policy-making classes.

Ironically, it is to a modern imperial power that we are to find our best example of what to do when it comes to our alcohol problem. In 1920 the United States of America ratified the Eighteenth Amendment which imposed a nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. In 1933 the Twenty-third Amendment revoked the ban. In the intervening fourteen years, the United States had cause to learn many lessons on the pernicious effects of prohibition, the most important being that had it not been for prohibition, the rise of organised criminal syndicates may have been slower and less bloody and the corruption of the offices of state, including the Presidency may have been a bit tempered.

In Kenya there is an unofficial prohibition on the production, distribution, sale and consumption of traditional alcoholic beverages, whether they are distilled, like chang'aa, or brewed, like busaa, despite the repeal of the laws that made their production, distribution, sale and consumption illegal. Together with the traditional traditional alcoholic beverages have been lumped the so-called second-generation alcoholic beverages which are, apparently, alcoholic beverages produced on license after Kenya Breweries Limited's near-monopoly was broken some time in the early 2000s and Kuguru Foods nearly went belly up trying to take on the behemoth.

Our version of prohibition is political in nature; it has nothing to do with law and order or the public health. It is a cudgel to keep one political agent in the ascendancy and not another. It is why the President saw nothing strange in placing responsibility for the anti-illegal drinks drive on the rather dubious shoulders of elected representatives. He miscalculated, though; many of the men and women he gave this responsibility to have benefitted greatly from alcohol, either as distributors of the behemoth or as underground distillers and brewers, one step ahead of the forces of law and order. He set the fox to guard the hen-house.

It is only on the maturity of the political institutions that a relatively simple problem like the production, distribution and sale of alcohol will be regulated with the objectives of protecting consumers, increasing revenues and creating employment. The President is not confident that Kenya's political institutions are mature or that they are on their way to maturity. He is therefore relying on institutions that are tried and tested: a statutory and regulatory framework from the colonial era and a provincial administration built to enforce them.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What a terrible Christian.

I am a terrible Christian.

Let me explain. I lie. A lot. To my barman that Ninarudi saa hii. To Jared that Sina dough leo; mwezi haijakata kona vizuri. To my landlady that I was swamped over lunch hour but for sure I'll make the transfer tomorrow. To my mother that kesho nitakuja supper. Okay, that last one is technically not true. See? I lie a lot. Very, very un-Christian.

I absolutely never, ever turn the other cheek. Instead I fester and stew and get all bilious and shit and exact a cold revenge. I don't care the revenge comes immediately or a decade later; you cross me and I will find a way to make your life harder than it needs to be. Motherfuckers can't fuck with me without consequences.

I definitely don't love my neighbours. I think they are asses. Enough said, I think.

In only one area do I think I am a Christian. It's the least important bit of that Christian thing. It is the only thing that I am capable of. It is the one thing that makes me joyous. I am honest with those who deserve my honesty. That's a pretty small number. The Scientist, the Linguist, the Communicator, the Teacher, the Engineer, the Nurse, the New Lawyer. They are all that matters. 

If you're on the list, thank God. If you ain't, don't take it personally. At least I am not pushing you in front of a speeding Citi Hoppa, am I?

Like Monopoly money.

Kenya's national flag carrier, Kenya Airways (KQ), lost 25.7 billion shillings last financial years. The government bailed out Mumias Sugar (MSC) last month with a billion shillings. The Auditor-General reports that 66 billion shillings cannot be accounted for in the 2013/2014 financial year. A billion here. A billion there. It's Monopoly money when the word "billion" is bandied about with such ease. It's always someone elses money.

We bandy these numbers about without considering what they mean any more. A billion is a very large number to a very large number of Kenyans. The majority, in fact. There is a tiny minority that thinks of a billion as the bare minimum. These are these are the men, and an even tinier number of women, who command attention at the highest levels of government. They receive the right attention from the government.

Yet we remain poor. Poor people behave like poor people behave. Charles Onyango-Obbo has a humourous description of a visiting bigwig and new dresses worn in turn to impress the bigwig. He was writing in the context of the primping up of our city for the visiting United States' President, but he could just have easily been talking about Kenyans who struggle to get by living cheek-to-jowl with other equally struggling Kenyans while a tiny elite dreams up new schemes to line their bulging pockets with billions more.

This is the twenty-first century. Except for lifestyle diseases, and a few devastatingly efficient tropical virus, there is little new in the world of diseases. Mumps, measles and rubella used to wipe out infants until infant vaccination became a mandatory requirement. So too did tetanus, polio, diarrhoea and whooping cough. Vaccines and other therapies made childhood mortality rates to plunge. Modern medicine has all but wiped out polio and small pox from the world. Except in Kenya.

The government will find billions to bail out Kenya Airways, just as it found a spare billion to bail out Mumias Sugar. It will, however, rely on "development partners" to "fight" polio, malaria, and tuberculosis. By and large, the tiny elite and the small-ish middle-class will enjoy a measure of security when it comes to their health. The poor will not. The poor who form the vast majority of Kenyans - and the vast majority of the victims of preventable diseases. Those billions that seem to vanish into thin air will not be recovered, and if they are recovered, they will be dedicated to monuments of the pampered elite: "super" highways; technocities; railways; ports; presidential visits; and the harems that "keep them young."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why?

If you hate me and you take steps to murder me, I am under absolutely no obligation to love you and ignore your attempts on my life. I am well within my rights to hate you back - and to hit back with equal or greater force. But that is not what Jesus who was the Christ wanted.

The Gospel according to Matthew reminds us that the Christ said in Chapter 5: 38"You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' 39"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40"If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also."

I am not a good Christian. I do not have the Christ's incredible forbearance. I have no intention of getting murdered without lifting a finger in defence. Because I am a human, a man. I am not a god. Why should I mitigate your hatred because your circumstances are the reason why you would do me harm? Are my circumstances reason enough for you to do me harm?

I will arm myself. I will not sit still while you poke holes in my god-given skin. I will not indulge your lunacy simply because you claim it as a divine obligation. If you strike at me, I shall strike back. When I strike back it shall be to destroy you. We are not friends. For my friends there is the possibility mercy for a betrayal. You are my enemy. For my enemies there is only utter destruction in store. Consider your next act carefully.

Monday, July 27, 2015

It would have been nice.

Someone asked them about homosexuals, and it seems like practice did make perfect because both had their answers down pat. In essence, they agreed to disagree. That is as it should be; it matters not that we still criminalise sexual acts against the order of nature because one day we will stop dying of preventable diseases in large numbers, we will educate our children to the highest standards to the highest level and we will have the luxury to ponder over our own share of First World Problems. That day is not today.

There were many Kenyan reporters who couldn't get over the fact that they saw, with their own eyes, the United States Air Force's VC-25A, or the United States Marine Corps' VH-60Ns and V-22 Ospreys. They were fascinated by the armoured Lincoln limousines, Chevrolet Suburbans and Ford Expeditions. They couldn't get enough of comely and not-so-comely agents of the United States Secret Service, which, apparently is no longer a part of the Department of the Treasury but of the Department of Homeland Security.

Very few of them seemed to have an actual interest in entrepreneurship, generally, or the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that was the reason why the VC-25A landed in Kenya and the V-22s and VH-60Ns were flitting about Nairobi in sinister and menacing fashion. The deals inked between the governments of Kenya and the United States received scant attention compared to the amount of nattering that occurred over the difference a tailor would have on a president's wardrobe.

The President of the United States dwelled on the Big Picture; the specifics were left to his secretaries of commerce and the like and his Special Assistant on National Security Affairs. It is curious that the Kenyan news media chose to largely ignore these questions in favour of aeroplanes, helicopters, limousines and SUVs. The Big Picture still had sufficient detail that had the news media concentrated n that alone,w e wouldn't be left with the feeling that we should know more about the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and whether it will lead to job-creation in Kenya, unemployment reduction, economic growth, political stability, public safety or national security.

Don't get me wrong; I am a guy and guys sure love gadgets. If the gadgets happen to be presidential gadgets, that love remains unrequited but no less passionate and true. But rational people know that there is a time for unrequited pining and a time for hardnosed realpolitik. Kenya's news media is owned by hardnosed businessmen in the business of making money for themselves and their shareholders. The news media houses are populated, by and large, by natterers who resemble small babies, fascinated by shiny toys and incapable of reasoning logically about matters outside the sightlines of shiny things.

For the curious among us, where sober analysis would have been welcome from the minds residing deep in the bowels of the news media houses, we will have to rely on our own faculties to track down every morsel of information from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, 2015, and attempt to make sense of it all without losing the last of our hair. It would have been nice, though, for the news hacks to pry their snotty noses from the portholes of The Beast in order to tell us what we bought, what we sold, what we gained, what we lost and what it all meant at the end of the day, wouldn't it?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Obama and Pan-Africanism.

Dear Barack,

Welcome home. For a Son of the Soil, you have been a bit too casual with your timetables. It took you seven years to come home? We will cut you some slack if you promise that once you stop that nonsense of being the Leader of the Free World you will buy a small shamba near Nyakach and plant sugarcane or keep a few cows.

That isn't why I am writing. I know many people are curious about what you and Uhuru will have to say to each other, but since Uhuru is a bit secretive, I don't really expect I will ever really know - so I don't care about that. I don't care if you and Ruto shake hands. It's not like I know the guy. I don't even care that your Supreme Court said gays can marry in all fifty States. I know Mark Kariuki and the wingnuts in his crew do, but since most of them are crooks, I don't care what they think either.

I want to talk to you about something more important.

You're going to be out of a job in less than two years. What exactly do you plan o to do after that? Bill has already cornered the market on ex-presidential do-gooding and no one does Bill better than Bill. So that job is out. You weren't exactly the sharpest economic thinker of your generation, so the World Bank and IMF are out. Take a lesson from the Paul Wolfowitz fiasco and let those ones go.

We can't give you the United Nations either. That one has always been Africa's consolation prize, though now that we are getting into bed with the Chinese it might seem like a prudent moment to reconsider the whole kit and caboodle anyway. Climate change is out; that would just make the life of the Secret Service harder for nothing because this one won't get solved in your lifetime. Middle East peace is a presidential thing; what Tony Blair is doing there remains a mystery only he can answer.

There is something that you can do that would immeasurably improve the world. I am not kidding. Pan-Africanism has been delayed for a century and I think if there is someone who can give it a shot at success it is you. Even WEB Dubois thought it could be done. Kwame Nkrumah started well, but then he became as perfidious as the British he had helped to drive out of Africa. Every other pan-Africanist who became a head of state started out well and ended up robbing his people blind. Except idealists like Thomas Sankara who were murdered and Nelson Mandela who never had enough time.

You could do it. You are already an African so no one would question why a Hawaiian is promoting pan-Africanism in his spare time. You have the charisma and the connections and the youthfulness that can get it done. Look at the map of Africa and you wonder how it even manages to get from year to year without some serious calamity stopping it in its tracks. Imagine if you could ride the train from Johannesburg to Cairo without having to worry about visas or bandits, Mombasa to Accra without having to worry about a restive DRC. Power from the Gibe III or the Inga might power the whole continent without the need to build under-used plants all over the place.

All those goals you have for Africa - all those dreams - are coming true only if pan-Africanism is a reality. If you were looking for a post-presidential career, that's the one I would recommend. And then you can be the President of the World we all believed you could be when you upended the politics of the United States forever.

Samson.

P.S. I have seen those helicopters of yours flitting around in Nairobi. A word of caution, though; don't let them land anywhere in Githurai 45. Those people don't play. The scrap metal business is just too lucrative, iwinjo?

#GES2015 and Choices.


It seems like a simple concept, taking responsibility, but the ones that seem to duck it most are the ones with the most responsibility for decisions that affect us all. In March 2013, 11 million of us were given a choice. For the most part, we made the right choice. In some key areas, we made catastrophically wrong choices. Those choices have continued to haunt us ever since.

Barack Obama is landing in a few hours and the consequences of our choices will not be papered over by the number of pale faces attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the acres of grass that will magically materialise along Nairobi's main thoroughfares, the total number of deals that are struck between Kenyans and "global investors" or the positive spin that Air Force One will force everyone to do.

Kenya is not a rural backwater; it hasn't been for a very long time now. Uhuru Kenyatta is not some tribal king presiding over semi-literate subjects. County governors, by and large, are not tribal satraps with a penchant for nubile village girls. We are a modern economy with close ties to the global economy. We are a modern political power attuned to the winds of realpolitik. Yet these facts do not reveal that large swathes of Kenya remain in the tight grip of colonial history - and I am not talking just about the forgotten Northern Frontier, the restive Coastal Strip or the almost always sozzled Mt Kenya Region.

It was a staple of NGOism to take potential donors through Kibera as proof that, as that idiot on the 700 Club repeated, death and disease stalks the land without mercy. Since Baba Moi removed himself from the driwver's seat, things have improved, but Kibera, Korogocho, Mathare valley, Mukuru Kayaba, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Kiambio and Mukuru kwa Reuben still exist and are still growing.

It is almost a mantra these days that "Kenya is insecure" which is total bullshit. Many Kenyans have been murdered by the Shabaab, but the days when Kenyans were getting mugged in the streets for their kabambes or mulika mwizis are over. I am no fan of the security agents, but only the incorrigible jaundice-eyed will refuse to admit that security and public safety have improved. Mandera, Garissa and Wajir are not simply because Kenya's security is corrupted; inter-clan rivalries play an even greater role in in the encouragement of the Shabaab to target Kenyans.

I think Nairobi elected the most tin-eared politician in Kenya and because of him we are going to miss out on great opportunities to cement Nairobi as the heartland of innovation in Africa for a generation. I thin Mombasa has been sold a bill of goods by its government; the temporary Obama-bounce in tourism numbers will not hide the fact that Mombasa county is filthy, without potable water, overcrowded and overrun with drug kingpins and their victims. I think Kisumu has been gifted the most poisonous county executive. This will almost certainly guarantee that Kisumu's legacy as a manufacturing hub will not be seeing a revision any time soon.

We made choices and now the #GES15 will only find the well-heeled and well-connected ready to grab the opportunities on offer. We can't turn back time. But we can change our fate. When Air Force One takes off for Addis Ababa, we must ask ourselves whether we are going to be held back any longer by the choices we made or whether we are going to overcome those choices to make something of ourselves despite those choices.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Optimism.

Kenya is optimistic, isn't it, and Kenyans are the eternal optimists. If you have had the ill fortune of witnessing Uncle Kidero's government at work, you will have noticed that some roads are getting the City Hall Heimlich while Mumias South Road continues to fall apart. Uncle Kidero's optimism is to be seen with his pavements policy; in his fevered mind is the fervent hope that grass will grow in four days. In the middle of a winter. So that Obama can be impressed. By grass.

Kenyans live in eternal hope that their politicians will stop treating them like idiots while Kenya's politicians live in eternal hope that Kenyans will continue to be docile, pliable and gullible, letting long cons and swindles to pass. If Uncle Kidero is a keen Twitterati, he will have noticed that there are very few Kenyans, very few Nairobians, very few anyone really, who isn't taking the piss out of his attempts to spruce up the Green City in the Sun.

We are neither fools nor blind. It is time that Uncle Kidero and his people, and all the rest of them realised this. Not all of us might have PhDs or "global" entrepreneurship experience, but we know when we are getting conned. We may not be frothing at the mouths, pitchforks and flaming torches to hand, baying for the City Fathers' blood, but be under no illusion that we have accepted the sorry state of municipal affairs we have been compelled to suffer under this government. We have chosen to bide our time; at least I have, I don't know about you.

The internet is not the infallible fount of knowledge, but it has enough information that helps us to see whether or not we are the victims of perfidy. The City Fathers' may have kept a very tight lid on how much they are spending to plant weeds along Uhuru Highway and how much they are spending to temporarily cover potholes in the CBD, but in the fullness of time, when they think that they have swaggered off into the sunset in victory, the truth will come out. It is the Information Age and slowly but surely we are developing a knack for empowering ourselves with the freely available information.

Kenya's Big People are deaf and blind; they will not hear what is being said about their perfidy and they will not see the suffering their perfidy wroughts on innocent Kenyans. They are interested in "development" and "networking"; they are not interested in whether the potholes their contractors have left behind will consume ever more billions to fill in afterwards, setting back their much-vaunted "development." Let Obama come. But let us not pretend that what is happening in the City is something to be proud of or something to praise the City fathers for.

Monday, July 20, 2015

We gon' go big.

There will be winners. There will be losers. And then there will be me: a blogger.

When Air Force One, in its blue-and-white motif picked out by Jackie Kennedy, touches down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, taxis to the red carpet, idles while the Beast is rolled to the ramp and the President of the United States emerges, waves and bounds down the stairs, Kenya will definitely have won, Kenyan pessimism, which seems on the rise, will have lost, and I will hopefully have a stable internet connection to blog about it shortly afterwards.

Nairobi will be in the spotlight and regardless of the tin-eared City County Government's best efforts at perfidy, the roads will be clean, the lanes will be straight, and, yes Ms Nitpicker, the grass will grow. I don't know about the flowers, though; some Nairobi men of a certain age tend to take their watering responsibilities a little to zealously and now they are about to be joined by some of the female member of Babu Owino's 84,000 furiously intelligent University of Nairobi student body.

Uhuru Kenyatta, too, will be in the spotlight. He has a gift for oratory; Eric Ng'eno and Manoah Esipisu and the gnomes that shuffle along the corridors of Harambee House better strike the right balance. This is not an opportunity to go all I-hate-Raila that seems to make them gleeful like toddlers. This is a moment to remind the President of the United States that fate is a funny old thing and that Kenya was fated to have a Kenyan in the White House. He should point out that while we squabble with our friends, neighbours and among ourselves, we have managed to rub along rather nicely with everyone because we are not the revanchists Boniface Mwangi and John Githongo would have him believe we are.

He should steer well clear of corruption and if he wants to demonstrate that bonds of political fidelity that bind him to William Ruto are strong, he should make it plainly so without being crass. He should plug the African Union, the East African Community and the Community of Eastern and Southern African States as reliable partners in the growing economic bonds being forged by the US in Africa. Then he should invite Barack Obama to Kiambu for a Mugithi Night - keeping the Penis Envy and Simi Guy as far away from the venue as possible. That man is not right in the head.

Kenya's youth will get a special shout out from POTUS. This is incredibly self-affirming. It won't matter what ones background is - rich, poor, educated, semi-literate, employed, tarmacking - Kenya's youth will be exposed to the Great American Gaze and I have no doubt that they are in a position to gaze back - and throw a little fear in the mighty US. Kenya's young people have already demonstrated that they will thrive whether or not they are supported. But a Barack Obama endorsement might be the dollop of goodwill they need to take on the world - and prevail.

Traffic, obviously, will be a mess. I hope Mrs Nzioka doesn't take this the wrong way, but I am unlikely to make to work on Friday at a reasonable hour. Even Uncle Kidero told us that "certain roads will be closed" and I am very sure on that list she will find Mumias South Road, Jogoo Road, Landhies Road, Race Course Road, Temple Road, Ronald Ngala Street, Moi Avenue and City Hall Way. And that is before I have to wade through the wand-waving cohorts of NYS, APs, National Police Service policemen, GSU, US Secret Service and GSU Recce. I will be surprised if I make it in before ten in the morning.

We are going to make a party of it all. When President Obama goes on to Ethiopia and lands far away, he will leave with ringing in his ears because when Kenya parties, we go big. We don't go home.

Imperial USA

Is the United States an empire?

First, the case against. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the United States has been on the winning side of major wars only twice: World War I and World War II. Korea ended in a stalemate when China supported the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK, and crossed the 38th parallel. The no-man's land between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea remains the most land-mined in the world, rivalled only by Afghanistan.

Vietnam ended humiliatingly. Fifty eight thousand dead US servicemen and the US was compelled to negotiate. The US did not win the Afghanistan war; the Soviet Union lost it. It is the US's adventure in Afghanistan that gave rise to al Qaeda, the Chechen insurrection, and the rise of the hard-to-destroy Taliban.

After decades of sanctions, the US is making a political rapprochement with Cuba and Iran. Russia is newly resurgent. China is set to buy up even more US debt in the coming decade. Even simple police actions seem to flummox the US. Somalia became Blackhawk Down. Libya became "leading from behind." It can't decide whether it hates Syria's Assad enough to side with ISIS or vice versa. By the by, if it hadn't screwed up in Iraq, ISIS would not be the force it is now.

Richard Nixon was in charge when the US abandoned the Gold Standard and 35 years later the Great Recession hit and hit hard. US unemployment skyrocketed. Big banks collapsed. Major manufacturers had to be rescued. The BRICS threatened to rise sooner rather than later. The contagion spread and the seeds planted in the US have reaped a bitter harvest in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.

And yet. 

The USA remains a mighty military and economic power. Even when its economy brought it to its knees, it still managed to outspend the ten next pretenders combined. Even when unemployment in the US approached double-digit growth, it still managed to employ more engineers and other professionals than the next five industrialised countries combined.

It remains a cultural powerhouse. The way we speak, talk, walk, act, eat, drink, socialise, educate, innovate, write, pray, love or hate are influenced by the US. There are those still clinging on to the faded dream of Rule Britannia, but they all want greenback and not sterling. We may bitch mightily about ukoloni mambo leo, but like it or not, when we bring out the shiniest silver and give up policing in favour of US Marines' policing us, the US is an empire in all but name.

Think of this way. China may hold the largest chunk of US debt, forgetting the lesson Japan learnt in the lost decade of 1995 to 2005, but the US still commands the greatest chunk of the Special Drawing Rights in the International Monetary Fund. With that alone, never mind the mightiest nuclear arsenal known to history, the US can alter the fortunes of continents. In the past decade alone, it has done so twice. If the hegemon that is the US is not an empire, then what is it?