Friday, February 24, 2017

Monkey + AK-47. What could go wrong?

Who among you remember that day when the agents of a company that had a contract with the Government of Nairobi City County dumped a tipper-load of stinking-to-high-heaven garbage in front of the main gate to the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation on Harry Thuku Road, because the parastatal had failed to settle its dues with the county government? I do. 

The incident came to mind when the managing director of an energy-sector company that distributes the fuel products of a global oil company went, in person, to the repossession of the physical facilities at a petrol station which was at the heart of a commercial (and, some say, political) dispute between the company and the operator of the petrol station.

The reason I see parallels between the two events is that in Kenya, business activities are sometimes an extension of political activities. The KBC is a parastatal, a state-owned broadcaster, which enjoys a certain measure of protection from the application of some rules, especially because it is located in the Capital City, a county that is under the political administration of the Minority Party. The governor of Nairobi has singularly confirmed that what academic and professional credentials are provided on a piece of paper are irrelevant to the management of a county government if the candidate is a shameless self-promoter with the common touch of a leper, but also that when it comes to the management of political conflicts between him, his party and the Majority Party, he lacks any kind of touch.

Rather than find a political solution that gave both his government and the information ministry, which is nominally responsible for the KBC, a win/win solutioon, the Governor went went to DefCon 4 and dumped stinking rubbish in front of KBC's premises. How an act of vandalism was meant to compel either the KBC or the ministry to pay what it owed the county government  remains a mystery only the pin-heads in the executive suite at City Hall can explain.

The same is true of the business-cum-political dispute between the oil company MD and his tenant, a senator representing the county. The senator had demonstrated a certain political independent streak that rubbed his business partner the wrong way and regardless of the terms of the contract between the two men, the MD was determined to make an example of the "disloyal" senator. When an opportunity presented itself to turf out the senator from the petrol station, the MD took it and ran.

Both sides to the dispute hired gangsters to protect their interests. Both gangs confronted each other at the petrol station ending up in a classic Mexican Standoff, except the other-bodied senator was in a chair wielding a pistol while the MD was on his feet rallying his troops. The incensed senator was not letting the contract voided without a fight; when the MD casually and dismissively turned his back on the senator, the senator fired off a round past the MD's ear, sending bystanders and gangsters fleeing in all directions. It remains a mystery why both the MD and the senator were both on site. The mystery is cleared up when one remembers that the MD's failed political ambitions are on a lifeline held by the leader of the majority Party, leaders who are unhappy with the mule-headed independence of the senator and who are unwilling to separate business from loyalty.

A win-win scenario was possible between the MD and the senator. If the senator kept it quiet that he was the MD's senator, his independence wouldn't have caused the MD to have to prove his loyalty to the Majority Party by throwing off his petrol station. Neither party comes out of this smelling of roses: the senator comes off as a trigger-happy madman; the MD comes off as the king of brown-nosers willing to put his life in danger to keep himself in the good graces of the party leadership.

Politics is a zero-sum game in Kenya. There are never any win-win scenarios. As a result, close shaves such as vandalism and shots-across-bows (literally), tend to escalate into blood feuds that rope in entire families, communities and ethnicities. The line between mass bloodshed and political live-and-let-live is wafer-thin. More often we are on the wrong side of that line. Governors, senators, parastatals and business tycoons are proof that we are monkeys-with-AK-47s when it comes to politics.

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