Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The fire has turned to ash

When I was a child, my congregation used to worship in a social hall in Nairobi's Eastlands. It grew too big to use the place comfortably but there was no sense of urgency to shift bases. Our congregation owned a piece of and nearby but had procrastinated about raising funds to build a sanctuary, so the land just sat there unused while attracting the attentions of the city's land sharks. One day, and I don't know why, we were ejected from the social hall and forced to "make alternative arrangements" while the higher ups in the clergy made arrangements to put up a sanctuary on our plot of land.

What I remember of the new place is that it wasn't fenced and we didn't even have a watchman to guard the place overnight. My memory may be faulty; it was, after all, almost thirty years ago. Our congregation, like many others, didn't invite the attentions of the politicians, aspiring or elected. We kept to ourselves and tended to our spiritual and social needs in peace. Then Mwai Kibaki was elected as the third president of the republic and everything turned to shit.

One of the worst outcomes of the supposed end of the Kanu era was the insidious co-option of civil society, including faith-based organisations, by the Kibaki regime. In incremental steps, the Kenyan Christian church became a "partner" in Government, lending its legitimacy to the fledgling Kibaki kleptocracy. By the time of the 2005 referendum, the Church was, in Kiswahili parlance, chanda na pete with the Kibaki government - and the opposition. By the time things were going tits up in 2007, the Church in Kenya, in its various guises, had picked sides and been rend asunder in the bargain. Some of the decisions made by Church leaders revolved around their need to either protect ill-acquired real estate properties or, as became commonplace, to illegally acquire real estate in Nairobi's cities and towns. Whereas my small congregation had jumped through numerous hoops to be allocated the plot we eventually built our sanctuary on, some congregations owned more than what they could legitimately claim as necessary for their faith-based activities and charitable works.

And as Kenya's politics turned to shit so too did "motivated" schisms in congregations widen between the members and the clergy. Much of what converted congregations into political footballs revolved around land - and real estate holdings. Land, in Kenya, is the true fuel of political activity, and the church - and other religious communities - has become a self-interested political institution because of it, camouflaging its political biases in the traditional rhetoric of the church such as family values, abortion, "Kadhis' courts" and homosexuality.

During the second liberation struggle, the church was deeply compromised, playing handmaid to Kenyatta's and Moi's authoritarianisms. However, there were individual clergymen who went against the grain and spoke against their congregations' interests. Henry Okullu, Alexander Muge, David Gitari, Timothy Njoya, Ndingi Mwana'a Nzeki and John Anthony Kaizer paid heavy prices for their stances. They upheld the deeply patriarchal foundations of their congregations even as they challenged the political compromises of the 1980s and 1990s. They faced violence and intimidation for their political activities; their sermons were monitored and they were frequently placed under surveillance by state agents. Though no one was ever prosecuted for it, it is commonly believed that Bishop Muge and Father Kaizer were assassinated for their politics.

In 2021, it is difficult to state with confidence that there is a minister of faith who commands the same legitimacy as the "firebrand" clergymen of the 1990s. Their organisations have become so entangled with the politicians that sometimes it s difficult to separate the two. While an individual clergyman may declare that his pulpit will never be used by a politician or for political purposes, his organisation is busily "lobbying" the lands minister for favourable treatment regarding its numerous holdings and the finance minister to ensure that its vast incomes are not taxed. Many faith-based organisations rival Mammon in their avarice and material chicanery. Many members of the congregations are happy to go along; few of them are free of the corruption then has infested every sphere of modern life.

Many congregations have little in common with the communities where their sanctuaries are located. The sanctuaries are not places for the local community to find help - or solace - but for-profit shops designed to maximise returns on investment for the congregations - or, as is more likely these days, the clergy. It is why many have seven-feet high fences topped with razor wire and guarded 24/7 by armed watchmen. Sunday service is accessible only after running the gantlet of security theatre, beeping wands and all. Spiritual nourishment used to be a core function of the sanctuary back in the day but nowadays, "investment opportunities" for the members is the primary motivator for church service. We now attend church for its "networking" opportunities - other than the gauche fronting and preening that has become a must-do. Among the clergy we don't have modern-day Gitaris or Okullus or Muges. If a clergyman is murdered it is almost certain that it will be because of a "deal gone bad". Or, as is becoming commonplace, the clergyman has killed someone.

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Whose 24 hours is it?

We don't all have the same twenty-four hours. Some of us have a little bit more. The is not to deprecate the good fortune of those who have a bit more on that front. It is to acknowledge that in the letter of life, there are winners, there are non-winners and there are losers and that many of those holding the short end of the stick do so through no fault of their own. It isn't strictly "what it is" but an acknowledgment that the structures that make up the daily are not known to be fairly distributed or fairly accessible.

Many of us are happy enough to make do. Our ambitions are to survive childhood traumas, enter into successful loving relationships, build a house huko ushago, and squirrel away a tidy sum for our old age which, if you are of the masculine persuasion if not gender, will be spent ogling nubile secondary school headmistresses and making naughty jokes with your bar-mates.

The majority though, especially in light of the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, live a live of a great many challenges, challenges exacerbated by selfish public policies designed to keep them in penury despite the blood and sweat they pour into their personal industry. Industriousness never seems to turn into a leg up. Instead, it invites acute and unabashedly shameless attentions from the forces of law and order - the number of them that are accosted by the blue-frocked forces of law and order as they bring home the bacon is simply staggering. The taxman is never far behind - Pay As You Earn schemes for many of my industrious-but-benighted brethren is nothing short of daylight robbery.

So it sticks in the craw to watch as senior members of the establishment take the privileges we allow them for grated in the reckless way they do nowadays. Take for example the madness surrounding the gauche former governor of the capital city. Despite a youthful record of staggering disqualification, he has variously been a member of the National Assembly and the senate and an extremely popularly elected governor of the county. But despite it all, despite apparently amassing a great fortune, he has determinedly shat on the people he was supposed to lead to better days. He epitomises, in the most extreme sense, the disgraceful way his peers and former parliamentary colleagues treat the rest of us. But despite it all, he is no match for the crude way more senior political officials treat us. The contempt they have for the rest of us is only matched by the recklessness with which they make decisions. Whether or not we are harmed in the bargain is no skin off of their noses.

I humbly put it to you that the reason why things are the way there are is the utter fecklessness of the thinking classes. I have borne witness to the pusillanimity of some of these that sit in ivory towers. One has taken to singing the praises of men determined to law to waste the Kenyan academy that if we were to attempt to put daylight between his lips and his benefactors' arses, I fear we would come to a violently bad end. It is that bad. Those of us with the temerity to point out that the emperor is swanning about in the air version of the finest finery that the House of Gucci can produce are treated like the unwanted crud that sticks to the bottom of your shoes when you walk through a badly-tended pig sty. We are more likely to attract the attention for acronym agencies on one false pretext and another.

If proof were needed that we really don't have the same twenty-four hours, just witness the panic in millions of homes as the realisation falls on parents that the children they have been preparing to take the national exams were ill-served by the ten months they were at home and that only the children of parents with the additional time-saving ten thousand shillings or so per week for internet and other academic resources will sit for the exams and pass. While many of my neighbours' children had to contend with curriculum delivery that involved kabambe mobiles, their counterparts in the leafy bits of the city often enjoyed personalised tuition services. The poisoned fruits of the poisoned post-pandemic age will be borne for years to come and, I fear, the poison will soon kill us all.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Whom do you know and how do you know them?

On 27 January 2021, the Business Registration Service notified its stakeholders that it had extended the deadline for registered companies to notify the Service of companies' beneficial owners. One of my favourite interlocutors on Twitter wondered if there was a registry in Kenya that doesn't have issues. This gave me pause. The rule regarding beneficial owners of registered companies was imposed as part of the reforms designed to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism through registered companies whose ultimate beneficial owners (and controllers) remained hidden behind very thick and intricate corporate veils.

Broadly speaking, the Government has taken several steps to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism by digitising different kinds of registers including the register of births and deaths, the register of persons, the immigration register, the driving licence register, the land register and the tax register. The Government's efforts have been undermined by the two-tier law enforcement system that we have in this country: the great unwashed will have the book thrown at them while the high and mighty can thumb their noses at the forces of law and order (so long as they don't run afoul of the itchy-trigger-fingered political bosses).

A Senator highlighted this two-tier justice system at a political rally on the weekend of the 23rd/24th January. He has recently come under the scrutiny of the tax and anti-corruption authorities regarding some of the income he earned from professional services he rendered to the Government of Nairobi City County. He alleged, without advancing any proof, that the recent attention of the authorities in his financial affairs was because he had decided to campaign against the building bridges initiative, including the proposed constitutional amendments, in the president's backyard - the Mt Kenya region. Presumably, if he had backed the BBI process and he had engaged in financial chicanery, he would have been given a free pass.

This is, of course, a problem that prevails the world over. Kenya is not unique. In the USA, quite recently, the former president pardoned dozens of scofflaws who had backed his unfounded (so far, wink wink) allegations about elections fraud. They had committed serious crimes. Some had even been imprisoned for their crimes. But because they backed the former president's play, they pardoned and allowed to go scot-free. In Kenya, quite frequently, those who have the president's favour never even get to be accused, charged, arraigned, tried, convicted or sentenced. One way that they get around the pesky rules and regulations of the Government is by subverting Government processes and procedures, including the process and procedures governing public registers.

We can all recall the "scandal" regarding the voter registration of the daughter of one of the former Ministers of Education. She was hard-pressed to explain how (a) she had been registered when she was out of the country and (b) how she had been registered in the same register book as President Mwai Kibaki which had (presumably) been closed after he had been issued with his voter's card. Who can forget the big-toothed spectre of the pomaded deep-voiced TV and radio presenter who was issued with a "digital" driving license without the bother of applying for it only so that the transport authorities could influence the uptake of the new document by Kenya's reckless motorists. We are painfully aware of the abortive attempts to issue Kenyans with a Huduma Namba or a "digital" passport, whose deadlines have been pushed back more than once.

But nothing reveals the two-tier system than the way the Covid-19 rules and regulations are enforced. Public health officials have extolled the virtues of wearing masks, social distancing and hand sanitisation for at least a year. Many Kenyans have been assaulted by police authorities all in the name of enforcing the rules. At least three have been killed by police on allegations that they were violating the rules. Yet those who support the BBI process have been given great leeway when violating the rules: they have held super spreader political rallies where masks or hand-washing stations have been conspicuously absent. Those who do not support the process and have attempted to hold their own anti-BBI super spreader political rallies have been arrested, jailed, and charged in court.

The chickens of our two-tier legal system are coming home to roost. In order to create the impression that its stakeholders have faced great hardship with making the necessary filings, the companies' registration authorities have extended the deadline for the filings. It is almost certain that even though the business registration process has been digitised, the traditional Big Man syndrome afflicting old analogue registers has afflicted the business name register as well, and it is becoming apparent that certain Big Men have no intention of revealing whether or not they are beneficial owners of companies that they have used to thumb their noses at a myriad of laws, rules and regulations. In the patois of The West Wing, a liberal fantasy of a functional and functioning US federal government, six to five and pick 'em, but this deadline will be extended a second time - or, as we are won't to do, the beneficial owners' rule shall not be enforced with any sort of seriousness when it comes to those Who Know People.

Friday, January 29, 2021

How much money are you willing to burn?

Politics is a retail business and as some of you have discovered in your endeavours as private business people, some vendors engage in chicanery as you play it straight. First, let me digress a bit. When you walk into your Quickmart 24/7 (which is not open 24/7 anymore on account of the asinine night curfew policy being enforced by the headmaster-in-chief) in search of a six-pack of eggs, you will be confronted by a shelf that has seven different brands on offer - each displayed at different heights and with different degrees of prominence. I have heard told that some egg vendors will approach the franchisee and offer him a sweetener (a massive bribe to the clueless) to place their brands at the most advantageous space on the shelves so as to attract maximum sales from the gullible shopper.

I don't know if this is true - I am not an eggs' vendor. But the same rule applies when it comes to selling your political ambitions to the great unwashed. Some politicians play it straight and approach voters and potential voters with nothing but their silver tongues. Others piss on such "honour" and let rip with their wallets - hence the remarkably predictable supply of t-shirts, hats, umbrellas and shukas on offer whenever political realignments take place. The more ambitious burn their fingers supplying various kinds of foodstuffs - unga ugali, unga ngano, cooking oil and rice are very popular during the general election, all festooned with the smiling faces of the men and women who intend to rule you.

But even big-money spending on elections is not without a measure of planning or network-building. You can't just pitch tent in Harambee Ward, Makadara Constituency with a Canter-full of Jogoo No. 1, Elianto and t-shirts without having seeded the ground first unless you want to lose not just your deposit but your shirt in the bargain. Because many of us are on the receiving end of the political hard sell, few of us have taken the time to see how broken the political system is and labour under the mistaken belief that this system can only be salvaged by a few "good" politicians banding together to establish a political party that will lay siege to the existing scrotal corruption and put the country to rights.

In political combat, it is preferable to wage war with the army that you have - not the army you hope to get. The armies that are available today consist almost entirely of paid mercenaries - some are paid more than others but the vast majority are paid, one way or the other. True believers are few and far between - quite often are figures of pity and derision. If you want to effect any kind of change, then you must play the game that is being played not the one that you imagine should be played. It is not a fair world and anyone whingeing about how "some intellectuals are whores" are playing with their hands tied behind their backs in a game where the opposite side is wearing steel-toed boots and is not averse to career-ending two-foot tackles. Chobo ua is usually the rule, not the exception.

First of all, you must organise. It isn't enough to write long-winded twitter-threads or fatuous blog posts (such as this one). You must find the money to pay voters and potential voters to choose you over your rivals. If you wish to spend your money, then your foolishness is the reason why you will lose. If you can sucker the people you wish to rule to pay for your political ambitions, then you are halfway to changing the world.

Secondly, play the game that's being played. If the other side abides by the rules, so should you. But the moment they step one millimetre over the line, you should abandon all thought of a "free and fair" process and bring all your skullduggery and cunning to bear. If this makes you queasy, please withdraw from the field of play and engage in spirited games of online scrabble or something.

Third, you must learn to lie. Ninety-nine per cent of the voters don't really want to be told that the economy is in the toilet; they want someone who can delude them that tomorrow will be a better day. Political truth-tellers are renown for losing elections, again and again. Radical honesty is for bearded white nationalist millennials living in California and New York who believe that the United States is the Greatest Country In The World.

I have seen with wonder grown adults trying to shame Dr David Ndii for his political combat and I wonder whether these people are really Kenyans. That they will not acknowledge that in politics there are no saints is an indictment of them and all they stand for. These are the sorts of people to drone on and on about "implementing the constitution" without putting their money where their mouths are. Those who understand the game know that "constitutional implementation" requires moral compromises more familiar to mafia assassins than to infant sucklings. Even the ministers of religion know this to be true - if you want to achieve political nirvana, fuck the rules and fuck your precious honour.

You identify like-minded people and organise. You watch the field of play and give as good as you get. As Sean Connery drolled in The Untouchables, "You want to get Capone? Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife? You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital? You send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!" Third, if you're the one paying for the whole kit and caboodle, you're a fool. We will take your money and piss on your dreams.

In my opinion, so long as you think setting up new political parties is the way to win, you will always lose. The last fifteen years has been a study in losing by the political naifs: Thirdway Alliance is one among dozens of loser political outfits that go back to the Little General Election of 1969 that tried to infuse truth, justice and honour in a cesspit of black mambas, snake-oil salesman, witchdoctors and murderers. A new party only wins if it bribes and bribes well. The other alternative is if it builds a national grassroots network (through bribery and tedious back-breaking political organising). Dr Ndii has chosen his path and whether his side prevails depends on how hard his side tackles its rivals - and how much money they are willing to burn to prove their point.