Cheza na Nare

Michael Onsando
12 March ,2019

“New position, new position, new position every time I come in…”

There’s something about this song by Ethic Entertainment that encapsulates everything I like about urban nairobi music. The group – Reckless, Swat, Zilla and Seska – rose to fame with lamba lolo, a term that spread almost as fast as their music. Maybe it’s the simple rhythm on the synthetic instruments or the kapuka style drums genre but it’s impossible to listen to this song without at least bopping your head – and maybe even be tempted to ape the odi dance that you saw once in that video that time.

“Hizo miaka zote nimekuwa missing lakini iko kitu hamjaniambia/

Kaa ningebaki bado ungekuwa na taki ya kuskia nikiwaimbia/

Ama by saa hii mngekuwa mnanifanya vile mnafanya ma pioneer (…)

It’s not that serious rap ni hobby/

Bila mziki bado namanga/

Ingekuwa career si ningekuwa nalia kuskia ati Naija Night Nairobi!”

The story of our ability to celebrate that which is not ours has been told so many times that it rings hollow. It is also the story that makes invisible the people behind 3 million views cheza na nare gathered online. Still the story of music is often a story of elsewhere. Experienced and loved elsewhere before home catches up.

“nobody is going to pay you $100,000 in Nigeria to do a show, or even $60k to come and jump on stage for a set. But you can easily get that money by walking into Kenya or walking into Gambia.”

In this quote, for example, Kenya is the elsewhere that Mr Eazi has created for himself while home – Nigeria- still struggles with the concept of paying the man what he believes he should make. These are commons struggles that artists meet as they grow in their career. In the same way our largest artists have worked hard to create and craft with nuances that leave space for international sales between lines. We, in the same way, fit well into the space created by artists from elsewhere – hence why we would pay substantially more for Mr Eazi than for Fena.

 “The size of the global market for creative goods has expanded substantially, more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015, data by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) shows (…) But even with the potential of the creatives industry, Kenya and other developing countries are yet to tap into this lucrative global market.”

We see it in all the statistics – the “global” market is imperative to artisanal success. Which is why when I hear “na tuko tu pacho, kwani boss iko nini?” I am reminded of the choices that we make when we decide to identify ourselves as who we are – and what this means for our perceived value, not just as artists. And I see a choice made to insist on the existence of a “we.” An us who gather around the fires of pacho and calif. Creating a space where we are centered, contexualised and (mis)understood. It is also a belief in our ability to lift ourselves – to satisfy our own ambitions. “I trust that I can make music – and they will pay for it” despite all the insistence on “global” facing work – this music is designed to face one direction only – inwards, unapologetically.

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen”

And that we continue to remember that we exist is important. That we center ourselves whoever “we” wholly are is important because that is the fire that keeps us going. So, today, I want to tip my hat to all our musicians who consistently hold up a mirror and remind us that we exist. May you continue to feed our flames. And, by any chance, ikizima…  

Considering the Public in Policy

Michael Onsando
5 March ,2019

A friend of mine recently quit their job in policy lamenting that it was a waste of time. Not because policy is a waste of time but because “policies in Kenya are not guided by anything other than the whims of the people in power.” Recently, reading about the idea to have Kenya Airways take over JKIA, I see their point.

“The PIC(Public Investments Committee) says it is concerned the country would lose Sh8 billion in revenue annually if it allows KQ to run the airport — KAA’s main revenue-generating asset which also contributes 5.1 per cent of the country’s GDP.”

Inside Kenya Airways – KAA Partnership Deal – The star

The struggles that Kenya airways is undergoing are not new to any passing observer of the country. Plagued with strikes, falling stock prices and an ex-CFO who just wouldn’t go away, the company has been bailed out by the government twice already. This deal is said to be the only thing that will keep KQ from completely falling through. If we choose to go deeper we find that the national carrier had made dubious decisions when it comes to financial longevity that range from fuel hedging (a practice it might start again) to which aircrafts to buy and when. 

“To generate this kind of surplus, the railway would have to have a turnover of at least Sh120 billion. Assuming that it charges the prevailing tariff of US$1,000 per container, it would need to carry 1.4 million 20-foot containers a year, 4,000 a day. That would take about 48 very long trains every 24 hours. The busiest single line railways in the US, for instance, run 20 trains a day.”

The SGR is a great example of a megaproject that, despite numerous warnings, was pushed through anyway. Now we’re straddled with a contract that states (in part) “Neither the borrower (Kenya) nor any of its assets is entitled to any right of immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise from arbitration, suit, execution or any other legal process with respect to it’s obligations under this agreement.” It’s this loophole that had people wondering about how vulnerable we had left the port, especially after China had already taken over one port in Sri Lanka.

What’s going on?

The system isn’t broken, it was built this way

  • Anon

I don’t like statements that assume people in power are stupid/unthinking. Rather, I prefer thinking about what it would mean if the things that are happening are deliberate  and, maybe not planned, but a reaction/proaction towards or away from something. In this sense perhaps the mistake we have made is that assuming the state is an egalitarian democratic space (yaani, that Kenya cares about us all – and all equally). Within this framing our decisions seems sporadic and reactionary at best, leaving us assuming that we must be working with idiots. However, if we begin to see the space as what it is  evidenced as, a whole other picture begins to show itself. As a gathering of a few powerful people who hold and control the spaces resources (mainly to their own benefit) Kenya makes a lot of sense. Whether it is from large populist projects to create a space for the siphoning of public funds to (allegedly) insisting that Kenya Airways takes over KAA to ensure that the 4 billion in debt owed to CBA (which you own) is paid. 

The burdens and benefits of the use of resources and public borrowing shall be shared equitably between present and future generations.

A good state snowballs into growth. With previous generations gathering momentum from previous decisions to continue to push the mantra of progress (whatever it has been imagined as). This works because the people in power are tasked with imagining projects that would catapult their society into the future. However, a group of people clinging to legacy will find themselves caught in the past, making decisions that promise to bring back something that was. Restoring past glory, compounding bad decisions into an eventual clusterfuck that forces them to act. This is because the decision making process is not guided by research or even stable projections, rather they are made to serve the egos and needs of the people who hold public resource either creating a conduit for siphoning or to fulfill an impossible promise so no one “looks stupid.” After all, we really needed to spend 25 billion shillings on student laptops so we could know that the project wouldn’t work and finally kill it – no one could have seen that one coming.

Another Essay on Poverty

Michael Onsando
26 February ,2019

There’s a story about three blind men trying to identify an unknown animal. Having no sight for their benefit they had to use touch. One man, touching the animal’s trunk, decided it must be a thick snake. The second man touched the animal’s legs and decided it must be a tree trunk. The third touched the animal’s side and said it must be a wall of some kind. The story goes on with several variations to the ending (as fables tend to grow and change over time). The animal was an elephant.

“After all, physics does not diminish the value of chemistry; it cannot take its place and on the other hand, cannot be replaced by it. Psycho-analysis is certainly quite particularly one-sided, as being the science of the mental unconscious.”

  • The question of lay analysis, Sigmund Freud

This piece is not about Freud. However, in a series of essays on lay analysis we see Freud painstakingly try to make a case for psycho-analysis as an independent field from medicine. He talks about how the attitudes of medicine are affecting the reception of analysis and, for pages, talks about the importance of psycho-analysis as a practice. Reading the essays one can almost see his frustration, whether it is through his long windedness or how he states his case you can clearly see he is watching three bling men argue over the nature of something while trying to make it very clear that the thing is an elephant – and an elephant has different sides.

Today we hail Freud as the father of a profession. We see the importance of psycho-analysis and definitely wouldn’t go to a heart doctor for therapy. We understand that the trunk is only part of a larger elephant and not evidence of a long snake.

“In Kenya, let me be clear. You are ‘At risk poor’. There is no middle class. There is no planning. One illness or one partner losing a job any misfortune and you will be poor. Stop that your rich dad poor dad, I saved 200k on 52 week challenge so I am smart analysis”

The reactions to a 22 year old father “stealing” his child out of hospital have been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, we see the good Samaritans people who came in, paid the bill, donated legal council, gave supporting online messaging and so forth. On another hand we have the poverty shamers – how dare he not have enough, not be ready, not have a plan and so on. We, the blind, continue to touch different parts of the elephant and based on the decisions (and accidents) that we have made – relate differently to it and admonish each other for its existence.

The elephant here being poverty.

Before you continue, let me say that nothing I am going to write is new. There is little that can be said about the violence of poverty that hasn’t been said before. However, like Freud, we find ourselves trying to make something that is true apparent in an unseeing world. We touch the trunk of a father stealing his baby and we call it irresponsibility. We touch the tail of structures being rebuilt after a fire in Kangemi and we call it resilience. We touch the body of unemployment and we call it laziness. No matter how many ways you look at it – we seem to be unable to identify poverty for what it is – a systemic problem in the country, particularly driven by the absence of adequate social securities or services.

Why, for example, didn’t the young father have access to cheaper medical services? Or some insurance of some kind? Despite our first lady beyond-zeroing for years for maternal healthcare and Sonko’s various hospital raids? Or how come we can have people building in a way that is an extreme fire hazard without any intervention? And, in event of a fire, what are our emergency evacuation plans? Where are the firetrucks? And what even is job creation? And how come this environment is never really ripe for it?

As I said, old and dull questions. Questions that I am as bored of writing as we should be of reading. Questions that arise time and time again as we watch our members of parliament fight over whether they need to tell the central bank every time they move over a million bob.

Jameni.

Faith Based Censorship – the cliche. (Or, a case for free expression)

Guest Writer
19 February ,2019

by Njoroge Mugo

In the battle against censorship, men like Mr. Mutua ought to be fought only through the means they fear: Reason and law: rebukes, petitions, activism and advocacy, of humanism and liberty.

One phenomenon that you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter while attempting to convince a decidedly conservative Kenyan as to the merits of tolerance, of a democracy fully-realised, and of rationalising perceived maladies, is the inevitable prospect of running into any one of a number of possible thought-terminating clichés:

It is foreign. It is not within our cultural/national/moral values. It is immoral. It is repulsive. It is offensive to the majority of Kenyans.

In the latter half of this decade, the legal arena has been awash with battles between the moral whims of some people and the force of the bill of rights – a document to which every Kenyan is entitled. And it is nothing short of amazing just how much of this is actually a failure to reconcile individualism with the need to preserve societal values. All of these appear to beg a re-evaluation of our idea of democracy, and what entails its bare minimums. It is not enough for us to simply say of ourselves that we are a democracy and pat ourselves on the back simply because some paper says so. We must be willing to agree on essential attributes of it, attributes without which we could no longer claim ourselves to be a democratic state. What’s more, we must be willing to hold the people who break these attributes to a standard of legal action.

I am, personally, a free-expression fundamentalist, which is a self-nomer I assert with the full caution and knowledge that there can be, and are, unworthy forms of fundamentalism. Unfortunately for such like me, political breakthrough and approval from the masses are not depandably guaranteed by a lobbying for democratic tenets, nor are they guaranteed by an unflinching respect for human rights. As such, the case I attempt to represent here is that we need to protect people’s rights to hold and express ideas more than we need to protect the wellbeing of ideas.

Ezekiel Mutua—himself a walking thought-terminating cliché—does not believe in this. And it can be argued that his job quite literally requires it of him. His mandate charges him with the responsibilty of disbursing licenses to filmmakers, producers and exhibitors. The rational behind this is that we – Kenyans – need to protect ourselves from on-screen unpleasantness. A reasonable measure if we speak exclusively of children, but an indefensibly undemocratic one when we consider that KFCB ipso facto retains the authority to decide what sorts of films are made. That is, what sorts of opinions are stated.

The suitability of KFCB, Ezekiel Mutua’s state vehicle, as a manifestation of this faith-based conservativism seeps into state mandate manifests just how the premise of “opinion regulation” is at complete loggerheads with free expression. Appealing exclusively to the devout and reactionary, Mr. Mutua’s main agenda as KFCB CEO has been a campaign to purge the creative space of all unpleasantness, vulgarity, and any and all attempts to normalize anything his board might consider, at its own discretion, “offensive” to “decency” and “public interest”. A majoritarian propagandist through and through, Mr. Mutua has time and again proven himself capable of using the inordinate powers afforded to him by his state office to asphyxiate dissenting views (Shall we forget his endorsement of the suspension of press during the 2018 Raila-oath-taking when he said, “The media must regulate themselves or the Government will”?)

At the top of KFCB’s list of depravities, it needn’t be said, remains also that anthropomorphic evil proudly brought to us by the unscrupulous, foreign NGOs: the gay agenda. Last year, they banned Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki for glorifying homosexual behaviour. Again, their objections to its existence are not any we haven’t heard before: Homosexuality is—take your pick—unkenyan/unafrican/unnatural/unsightly/ungodly/of the devil. Our very own deputy president William Ruto, an excellent rhetorician but a man without a single trustworthy bone in his body, has openly and repeatedly said between walls of congregation that “homosexuals will have no room in Kenya”, among other variations of such. With every comment from the conservative faction comes a familiar echo consistently premised on an amalgam of unspecified denial and self-bestowed authority, and it appears there can be no limit to the possible permutations that can appropriately express this divine repugnance. But, avoiding for a moment the unavoidable question of quo warranto (i.e., by what right do these self-coronated moralists think themselves worthy interpreters of what is sufficiently Kenyan/African?), one is implored to assess the dangerous packaging of statements like “Homosexuals will have no room in Kenya” and their retention of an implicit okaying of dehumanization. 

It is not merely the fact that Ezekiel Mutua or anyone else finds the gay existence to be a disgusting one in society—everyone reserves the right to find and express disgust in whatever they wish—more than it is the fact that he is willing, and able, to impetrate public disgust into a currency for justified acts of intolerance, abetting, thereby, a society in which certain people are acceptably deemed, by virtue of the way they identify themselves, as undeserving of dignity, livelihood, and citizenship. Unpersons. (Think Hans Landa’s monologue: “You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.” Or Aboud Rogo’s: “Ukitaka kumuua mbwa mwite mbwa koko”.)

In the exercise of such a phenomenon, we discover an ungoverned extent to which a conservative society is willing to go to “conserve” whatever it is that’s preached conservable by faith-based statesmen. Granted, it may not be obvious to a devout person, brought up in strict religion to be against all forms of sexual deviance, how this ubiquitous narrative of those repugnant others can be harmful. But it is certainly obvious, I would hope, to anyone who has heard or read of the recent legal regressions in Nigeria and Uganda, or of the awful devaluations in the Gambia—the ascent into law of bills that allow for the stoning to death of convicted gays; and the open solicitation by president Jammeh for the on-sight decapitation of “homosexual vermin,” both known and suspected. (This in a country that has consistently failed to get its GDP-pc past $500.)

But all this would be to assume a reasonable discussion on the role of ‘repugnant wisdom’ in morality.

On the matter of free expression, however, a firmer rebuke must be made to meet horribly casuistic statements like, ‘Kenyan films must reflect dominant moral values of the country.’ This statement, and many others made by Mr. Mutua, essentially compels painters, musicians, cartoonists, writers, actors, filmmakers to create only the art that pacifies “national moral values”, and stems from the authoritarian idea that:

1. There exists persons and groups that possess a monopoly on free expression, and that these same persons and groups have a special right not to be offended.

2. Extrapolations can be made from the beliefs of a majority to be used to dictate the extents to which the rights and freedoms of individuals are exercisable. 

3. The right to free expression is granted by the state, and is subject to a supposed “moral consensus” and will of majority.

Much as it definitely was a valid objection that was raised against the New York Times’s distasteful decision to print images of fallen Kenyans in their publication, Patrick Gathara is right to fear that:

[…] It does have rather toxic implications for press freedom in Kenya. Not only does it make it easier for the state to isolate and target the foreign press corps, something it has previously done, but giving the government a taste of the power to decide what content media can carry could whet its appetite for more.

I’ll close with Hitchens, who – in his exploration of axis-of evil-states – talks about an assignement he was sent on in the 1980s, in the-then communist Czechoslavakia, in which he was compelled to invoke the mention of Franz Kafka as a way to free himself of arrest, much to his chagrin since he regards such invocations as tired and clichéd. But in his own defense, he summarises that:

Totalitarianism is a cliché; dictatorship is based on clichéd thinking, on very tried-and-tested uniform stuff. They don’t mind that they’re boring, they don’t mind that they’re obvious, their point is made.

And utimately he urges that:

The urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.

Perhaps in line with this we should remember that freedom of expression is not the same as freedom to express things that I agree with. And especially not take it as a hard line when forming policies.

Njoroge Mugo, is a 22 year old man living in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an actuarial science student in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. He loves to read, write, listen to music, play chess, engage in spirited, topical debates with friends, re-watch old Leonardo Dicarpio movie scenes where his eyes are red and he is shouting at the top of his lungs. In his idle time he bitterly contemplates the ugly and seemingly unsolvable problems of his country. 

Icarus tales: Power and Proximity in Kenya: Part 2

Guest Writer
12 February ,2019
“In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.”

by Joash Onsando

Read part 1 here.

“Power is like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards.

In part one, I spoke about Interior CS Dr. Fred Matiangi’s meteoric rise to power in the Jubilee administration. Today, few would question the “property value” of the man who many now refer to as “Chief Minister”. I picked him, the subject of this article to illustrate the precarious nature of proximity to power in Kenyan politics.

If the history of Kenyan politics has taught us anything then that lesson would be that smart power is exercised indirectly, through trusted aides. Any politician of note will tell you that highly risky political maneuvers are best carried out by an agent. That way the principal can walk away without egg on their face in case things don’t go according to plan.

Our political past is littered with several examples of such agents. Typically, the agent is a highly effective, zealous and fiercely loyal individual. The principal will normally pick them and elevate them over their peers with resultant perks and trappings of power. The agent is normally a means to an end and as such is quickly disposed of as soon as the end is met. The fierce loyalty of the agent is hardly reciprocated by the principal.

The agent must know their place. They must not let newly acquired power get to their head. They must always remember that they serve at the whims of the principal, and therefore must always remain subservient and accountable.

By virtue of their position, the agent normally attracts envy and admiration in equal nature. Because of the high risk nature of the political maneuvers tasked to them, the agent inevitably makes many enemies, some very powerful enemies in the course of carrying out their assigned duties. It is these factors that make the position of agent, a blessing and a curse.

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards

No politician in history used this agency relationship as cunningly and effectively as former President Daniel Arap Moi. The August 1 1982 coup attempt transformed Moi from a soft spoken, amiable character whom some had described as a passing cloud to a seemingly intolerant political chess master who demanded unquestioning loyalty from the rank and file of KANU – the only party then.

It therefore came to pass that on December 17, 1986, after a series of provincial KANU conferences and a national conference at the Kenya Institute of Administration in Kabete, Moi unveiled the KANU Disciplinary Committee, KDC, chaired by one David Okiki Amayo to purge any dissent and disloyalty from within the party.

The committee’s formal brief was to grill members on discipline issues and punish those found to have flouted the party’s code of conduct or brought it to disrepute.

The KDC would quickly gain notoriety as a platform through which political scores were settled with little or no regard to due process. Its grilling sessions began with those summoned stating their name, occupation and whether they had pledged loyalty to the government, the party, the president and the ‘Nyayo Philosophy’. What would follow thereafter would be a charade of trumped up, comical and sometimes childish charges against respondents who were almost always found guilty. For many the best outcome of appearing before it would be writing an apology letter to the party with the worst case scenario being expulsion from the party. With Kenya being a one party state at the time, said expulsion was a death knell for many political careers.

The Amayo led committee was a law unto itself, paying no regard even to the constitutional protections accorded to sitting members of parliament. In 1987, the then Labour minister, Peter Okondo , himself a victim of the committee described Amayo’s conduct of party affairs as “boisterous, bloated and so bombastic as to make utter nonsense of reality and the truth”. Such was the notoriety of the KDC that a cabinet minister would have no recourse but to lament of its excesses in parliament.

On September 10th 1987, upon returning from a trip to Finland and Romania, President Moi unceremoniously disbanded the KDC at JKIA with a few terse words; “I want to dissolve the KANU Disciplinary Committee and it is hereby stamped out. I want wananchi to live without fear!”

And thus ended David Okiki Amayo’s reign of terror. Whilst he had served his purpose, he had also allowed power to get to his head. He had become too big for his breeches, punched way above his station and effectively become a thorn in Moi’s flesh. His political fortunes would slowly dwindle after that having more enemies that he could count. His loss to Phoebe Asiyo in the Karachuonyo Parliamentary race in 1992 ultimately dispatched him to political oblivion.

“For those of us climbing to the top there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards

If I were to pick a historical figure with whom to draw parallels with CS, then it would be Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya. Like Matiangi, Mboya was intelligent, focused, intense and arrogant to boot. Mboya had a way about him, he got things done by employing charm and his exemplary oratory skills. With little effort he managed to cut himself a niche above his peers at the Lancaster House independence negotiations and thereafter. His unique set of skills did not go unnoticed by founding President Jomo Kenyatta who appointed him in his cabinet, first as Minister for Labour and later on as minister for Economic Planning where he is credited to have authored, alongside others, the Sessional Paper Number Ten which defined the country’s economic policies.

Mboya’s first rather overt show of loyalty to Kenyatta, came in response to a report written, ‘Who Rules Kenya’, written by Nigerian journalist Zeeky Rukari. Rukari wrote: “Kenyatta is today one of the biggest land owners. He possesses 6000 acres of choice land”. This statement angered the Kenyatta administration and Mboya, leveraging on his international connections, volunteered to reach out to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to avoid similar embarrassment in the future.

After independence, Kenyatta and Odinga, his Vice President, clashed on many issues, key among them being land and the East- West divide, an ideological rift. This was a far cry from a few years back when Odinga had declared Kenyatta his “next God” whilst demanding for his release before independence! Tables had now turned and Kenyatta needed to neutralize Odinga. He knew Mboya was just the man for the job.

In a genius move, Mboya – then KANU’s Secretary – proposed amending the party’s constitution splitting Odinga’s party vice chair position to eight positions, one from each of the provinces. The rhetoric accompanying the changes was that KANU needed a more inclusive, national face and not seem like a Luo-Kikuyu affair. After long drawn political intrigue expertly managed by the young Secretary General, Odinga’s fate was sealed on March 9th 1966 at the Limuru KANU conference. The eight Vice Chairmen were elected with Odinga, who was absent, missing from the lineup.

Odinga then resigned as Vice President and formed his own party, the Kenya Peoples Union. Not one to take things lying down he planned a motion of no confidence in President Kenyatta in parliament. This was after a slow yet deliberate defection of MPs to the opposition benches in parliament. To forestall the vote, Kenyatta once again turned to his fixer in chief, Mboya. AG Charles Njonjo had crafted a legislation requiring any defecting MP to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate.

The house was called from recess and Mboya was tasked with ensuring that the legislation passed. From the dispatch box, Mboya managed to defend the legislation with such charisma and charm that it passed. The defections from KANU stopped as quietly as they had begun. Faced with the prospect of having to spend resources in fresh campaigns, many MPs simply stay put. In a master stroke Mboya had helped forestall the no confidence vote and significantly weakened the KPU and Odinga.

Unfortunately however, with Odinga out of KANU, Mboya was now more vulnerable to the political intrigue within the party. For being such an effective fixer and by extension a frontrunner in the Kenyatta succession race, he had managed to paint a bright red target on his back, so to speak. Mboya would fall to an assassin’s bullet outside Chhanni’s pharmacy, along the then Government Road (now Moi Avenue) on 5th July 1969.

Whilst it is unlikely that Jomo Kenyatta sanctioned Mboya’s death, it would be foolhardy to assume that he did everything in his power to protect his dear fixer.

The cases of Amayo and Mboya illustrate that proximity to power is a cup containing sweet yet perilous wine.

Granted the consequences of drinking from it could mean a step up to higher political office, an exception to the rule (at least according to history), but are more likely to result in political oblivion or worse!

This is the cup that Dr. Fred Matiangi holds today. He has no choice but to continue sipping on the wine, once you hold the cup, it is difficult to let go. If indeed President Uhuru has elected to neutralize his deputy, William Ruto, as his father elected to neutralize Odinga, and if indeed Uhuru has chosen him as his ‘Mboya’, then the peril increases several fold.

For Matiangi, this cup is a high risk, low return affair. He must develop eyes at the back of his ears, he must build bridges in the most unlikely quarters across the political landscape. He must understand that because perception matters, sometimes more than reality, DP Ruto’s friends are now his foes, and his foes are now his enemies. He must always be stoic even in the most challenging times. More importantly it would be helpful to derive lessons from the late Nicholas Biwott. He should never come too close to the fire as to get burnt, at the same time; he must not go too far from it as to freeze.

In conclusion, if nothing else, those close to power, the agents, must realize one thing, that the power derives from elsewhere. It is akin to the wings Daedalus crafted for himself and his son Icarus. They are wings made from feathers and wax. As they navigate the political scene, from such a precarious position, they must remember not to fly too high, lest the sun melts their wax, nor too low, lest their wings get weighed down by the spray of the water. Ultimately, it seems they are doomed to strive relentlessly until either happens.

Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.

Icarus tales: Power and Proximity in Kenya: Part 1

Guest Writer
5 February ,2019

by Joash Onsando

CS Dr. Fred Matiangi

On 21st January 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued his first executive order in 2019. The purpose of the order is  to realign the manner in which government projects would be carried out. In the order, he established The National Development Implementation and Communication Cabinet Committee. The committee, tasked with five major functions, chief among them being supervising government projects, will be chaired by Interior CS Dr Fred Matiangi, who will be deputized by his Treasury and Planning counterpart, Henry Rotich.

No other Executive ordered by the President has received as much attention or raised as much controversy as order number 1 of 2019. However, the attention had little to do with its probity, either in law or otherwise (as has been the case with other controversial orders) but rather what it portends to the relationship between the President and his Deputy. There could be two reasons for this.

Firstly, the order explicitly states the Matiangi led committee’s reporting obligations as ‘’to His Excellency the President”. Before this, jubilee formal and informal communication has always made reference to “the Presidency” as though Uhuru and Ruto are attached at the hip. By breaking away from this norm, the President seemed to suggest said attachment was an inconvenience to him.

Secondly, the order seemed to have given the committee the exclusive mandate to do two things: i) Monitor and evaluate the progress of national projects, and ii) Provide coordinated strategic communication to the public and other stakeholders on the progress of national projects.

These two, seem to be the very functions the Deputy President purports to be carrying out in his whirlwind tours across the country (now aptly christened tanga tanga). On multiple occasions, the DP has dismissed critics who claim he is engaged in a premature campaign for the 2022 general elections. Together with his allies, the DP claims to be making his forays around the country strictly for development purposes. He has often stated that, as the President’s Principal Assistant, it is his job to communicate (read launch), supervise, and evaluate the status of Jubilee development projects. So to many pundits, the executive order seems to usurp roles and responsibilities assumed by the DP and handing them over to the Interior CS. If indeed this is the case then it is no accident that the President picked the CS as his hatchet man.

Fred Okenyo Matiangi is no stranger to controversy.  However, little was known about the former university don, before his appointment to the cabinet as ICT CS in 2013.

Since then, none of his cabinet colleagues have had to encounter and overcome as many challenges as he has. Further, none has accumulated as much notoriety as he has, in the execution of their duties. Dr Matiangi is also the only CS during Uhuru’s tenure to have held substantive and acting cabinet positions on two separate occasions, having acted in the lands ministry whilst at ICT and acted in the interior ministry whilst at Education.

His meteoric rise in public service began with a baptism of fire at the ICT ministry in 2015. He was tasked to oversee the migration of the broadcast industry from analogue to digital platforms. This move would prove to be particularly unpopular amongst many industry stakeholders, particularly media owners.

According to the MOA, the media owners lobby group, the migration exercise needed more time and consideration. Many observers saw their hesitation as being informed by the need to protect their business interests rather than the greater good they purported to be their motivation. The government position was a polar opposite. According to Matiangi, change was inevitable, and had to happen immediately. Both sides dug in, spoiling for a fight, a long protracted battle or at least it seemed so.

Kenyans had become accustomed to private corporate interest, holding sway over government policy positions that were in conflict with their own. Given how powerful the MOA lobby is, the expectation was that the CS would ultimately buckle under pressure and give in. Surprisingly however, Matiangi held his own and successfully oversaw the migration process. This was the first feather in his cap!

In December 2015, Matiangi was appointed CS for Education, Science and Technology. At the time, instances of leakages and cheating in national examinations had become so rampant that some education stakeholders openly expressed a complete lack of trust in the examination process and ultimately, the integrity of its results. The phenomenon of cheating in exam results had grown to what was then described as a cartel involving KNEC (the examinations council) officials, teachers, parents and students.

Upon assuming office and in his characteristic, bullish style, Dr. Matiangi moved to disband the Kenya National examination Council. Alongside reconstituting it under the leadership of a hardnosed, kindred spirit, Prof. George Magoha, the CS also instituted radical reforms to the process of administering and marking national examinations. Security measures during examinations were the most stringent ever seen. The marking process was also significantly expedited. The ultimate outcome was the announcement of KCSE results two months early and its results being hailed by many, as the closest reflection of the candidates’ performance the country had seen in a long time. Popular opinion was that the CS had taken on a powerful cartel and prevailed.

On July 8, 2017, Kenya awoke to the sad news of the demise of the then Interior CS Joseph Nkaiserry. The interior docket is not one to be left vacant for long. The president needed to find a replacement, fast! Matiangi was an obvious choice. He had proved himself many times over! However, one political consideration stood in the way; for some inexplicable reason, the internal security mandate seemed to have become a reserve of the Maasai community. From Prof George Saitoti and Katoo Ole Metito under the Kibaki regime to Joseph ole Lenku and Maj Gen Nkaiserry under Uhuru there seemed to be an unwritten rule or tradition that the docket was a preserve of Maa speakers.

With the general election only a few weeks away, it remained to be seen if the President was willing to antagonize the Maasai community by givin away ‘their seat’., therefore risking the loss of an important swing vote. A few days later the president took the gamble and appointed Matiangi, albeit in an acting capacity. Surprisingly, there wasn’t an iota of grumbling from the Maasai community. Seemingly, the CS was such a formidable pick that it wasn’t politically expedient for the Maa to grumble. Such is the position that Matiangi had horned for himself in the Jubilee administration. He had, over time, managed to establish himself as the poster boy for fighting cartels and corruption networks, at least in the eyes of the president’s support base.

Matiangi was, however not done endearing himself to the administration and its supporters. With the Commander in Chief being rather destructed by a strenuous campaign and the prospect of a general election too close to call, he was able to depend on him to hold fort, on matters security.  And that is exactly what he did.

With the Supreme Court ordering a rerun of the presidential election, the Jubilee administration was thrown into a tail spin. Its hitherto unchallengeable grasp on power hang on a thin thread and a firm hand was needed to restore the status quo. It was because of controversial and highly unpopular decisions such as proscribing the NRM as an illegal organization that allowed the president the kind of leverage he needed to prevail past the Jan 30th swearing in of the president and ultimately the handshake.

In the post handshake era, the CS has managed to widen his approval base beyond Jubilee supporters, particularly by his oversight of the clamp down on counterfeited goods and his ability to step into the gaps in the Transport ministry’s role with regards to reducing road carnage. This was further buttressed by his commitment to purge the country of not only illegal immigrants but also of undeserving holders of work permits.

When it is all said and done, one thing remains undoubtable; Matiangi has established himself as President Uhuru’s fixer in chief. His critics might disagree with his intentions and methods but even they would agree that he gets things done for his boss! There could be many factors that could have led to this. After all, no phenomenon is mono factorial in nature. He fondly refers to the President as ‘commander in chief’ as opposed to the more commonly used ‘his excellency’. This betrays a man whose unity of purpiose to drive the president’s agenda is to be carried out unquestioningly and with military precision!

  Dr. Matiangi was born in Borabu, Nyamira County. His academic journey culminated with him being conferred a doctorate degree from the University of Nairobi. His career before cabinet was illustrious to say the least. Hehas more than 12 years’ experience in democracy development including a six year stint at the Kenya Parliamentary Strengthening Project, rising through the ranks to the position of Chief of Party. He also has extensive experience in governance related research, civil society advocacy as well as donor funded democracy and government projects. Clearly his past roles served to prepare him well to understand government bureaucracy as well as the vagaries of navigating public sector environments while getting things done.

The CS has enjoyed the mentorship and patronage of former Gusii political supremo, Mzee Simeon Nyachae, who is rumoured to have influenced his appointment to cabinet. Mzee Nyachae will be remembered for having risen through the ranks of provincial administration faster than his counterparts. In fact, after being appointed as the PC for Rift Valley, a Senior Chief Titi quipped that Mzee Kenyatta had appointed a child as PC.

The 1975 assasination of Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki happened whilst Nyachae was the Central Province PC.  The general belief in the region was that government machinery eas behind the popular MP’s assassination. So great was the bitterness in the region that a song, ‘Maai ni maruru’ (water is bitter) was composed to condemn the killing. Realizing the need to contain a potentially volatile situation, Nyachae invoked the then Chief’s Act to ban the song! As if that was not enough, the PC stood up to be the only senior government official to have attended JM’s funeral. In fact he ended up reading the Jomo Kenyatta’s speech, a task that a number of senoir officials, including cabinet ministers Jeremiah Nyagah and Dr. Julius Kiano had turned down.

This is the kind of dedication and unquestioning loyalty to the powers that be that the CS inherited from his mentor and political Godfather.

CS Matiangi is  also an ardent member of the SDA Church. His public pronouncements betray a person who derives a lot of strength and resolve from his spiritual faith and doctrine. He seems to justify his zeal and bulldozer approach to issues by a firm held belief that his work is part of a wider divine agenda and plan to which he is only accountable to the God he serves.

He might be a man of many firsts but Matiangi is definitely not the first ‘fixer in chief’ we have seen in our history as a country. This position has and will remain to be a precarious one for any person to hold. Almost without exception, previous holders of this position have fallen from grace quite pitifully. George Santayana said ‘’those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. If nothing at all, the good CS must pay heed to these famous words even as he soars close to the sun, on borrowed wings.

Joash is a Kenyan thinker and budding policy analyst, with a passion for public sector governance and democracy. Find more of his work on medium.

Aint nothing but a hair thing

Michael Onsando
29 January ,2019


The 15 year old teenage girl who was allegedly kicked out of Olympic secondary school in Kibra for having dreadlocks will continue to stay out of school after the court failed to issue orders for her unconditional return to school.

High Court Declines to Order Dreadlocked girl back to school

The things we hold onto are the things that will eventually become the things that define us. And when we hold on to definitions  like “proper” and “neat” as defined through the colonial lens, then we continue to ensure that the world doesn’t change. That we remain in the past, controlled by the same things that we claim to be leaving behind.

When CS Amina Mohammed asked that the Rastafarian girl be allowed back to school there was a refusal to hang on to things that should not matter.

“The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 24, however, reversed the decision by the Appellate court stating that each school had liberty to determine their students’ dress code. “

Supreme court reverses order allowing muslim girls to wear hijabis to school

“The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”

Recognising Strangers, Ahmed.

 I keep going back to this definition of the stranger whenever I think of identity. Ahmed does a great job of breaking down the image of the stranger and further of stranger danger.  I like going back to her work because it’s easier to see how this position of stranger can be created as a phenomenon and how no amount of explaining, unmaking and remaking of oneself can turn them from being a stranger.

What’s worse is we are socialized to fear what we don’t understand or, to frame it better, what we recognize as outside our frames of understanding.

“It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.”

How does it end?

And, in knowing the stranger as well as we do – we know the shape of our fears exactly. Wagalla becomes Mpeketoni becomes Kasarani becomes Garissa becomes El Adde. We cry, one Kenya and ask ourselves how it stops, but do little work to untangle the mess that is created by the idea of a core identity and fringe identities.

Which brings me back to the debate on schools and hair. I find it interesting that the two questions surround identities with complicated history. The dreadlocked rastafari spelled nothing but fear to the colonial administration – ripple of which continue to  be seen today. The hijabi, on the other hand, has been used to symbolize islam, which our fear has problematically interlinked with terrorism.

In this way, I’ve been wondering about the value of the heavily Judeo-Christian values that we insist on espousing as a society. Whether it is through Mutua’s consistent banning of films, through our militant and persistent homophobia or just the looks that one gets after admitting they don’t believe in god, how does it help us?

How does it help when the courts have to step in over a debate on how a girl should wear her hair to school? What anarchy will be born of accepting that the choices we make with our bodies are our own? How does it look when we are allowed to grow within our own parameters and towards our own goals, rather than holding ourselves back because who we are might step on the toes of something that we have been afraid of for so long that we only recognize it’s presence through our own fear?

And let’s not act like we don’t know what fear can do. Remember that a pervasive culture of fear in white America contributed largely to the voting in of Trump – a disaster whose results we are yet to fully experience.

“The Garissa Township legislator said Kenyans of all faiths have the right to hold true to their religious edicts and Muslims are no exception.”

Duale trashes Supreme Court ruling on hijabs

Identity runs deep. People are more likely to follow their god than any court ruling and to enforce the court ruling further leads to religious persecution which is not only wrong but continues to perpetuate the same fear that we are working so hard to get past. And in our fear, we lash out and in their pain they retaliate. And yesterday becomes today becomes tomorrow – again.  

How does it end?

Michael Onsando
22 January ,2019


Since 1975 there have been about 350 attacks on Kenyan soil.

1998 was the first time knew of a thing called a terror. My mother, my sister, my aunt and I were heading home along Haile Selassie Avenue when there was an explosion behind us. I don’t remember much after that. My aunt held our heads down as my mum sped away. A few minutes later there was a second blast.

There was no social media at the time. If the New York Times published photos we knew little of it – or at least, sheltered from the adult world, I knew little of it. Prayer meetings, gossip, locker rooms and other informal gatherings were the main way we heard.  Teachers announced sudden absences that brought grief to our attention “Marube won’t be in class today, we would like to keep him and his family in our prayers.”

I remember the days that followed the attack – things that don’t make the news. I remember the alertness to loud sounds that followed. I remember rash “you can’t sit with us”. I remember the way fear, anxiety, anger and confusion hang in the air – emotional debris left behind long after blast dust had been cleaned up. 

Terrorism (noun)

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

The death toll for the attack last week at Dusit D2 now stands at 21 and the country is in mourning. There is little to say that hasn’t already been said. Already we have seen multiple calls for accountability. Already we have seen posts calling out against xenophobia. Already we have seen collective anger wielded and focused on the New York Times – ungrievable bodies continue to be ungrieved by the Western world. Already we have seen the posts about the “resilience of the Kenyan spirit” urging us to be unafraid, to be resilient.

“I am almost selling my house and anybody interested should contact me. Having undergone 11 main surgeries and an unknown number of surgeries remaining, I need more than KES200,000 for tissue grafting in my leg alone. I don’t know what the other operations will cost.”

There is nothing romantic about death and less in survival when it comes to these things. To die is to be dead and to live is to ask why. Years later, the pain remains in tangible and intangible ways. Perhaps this is why it is called terrorism. It doesn’t exist in the moment itself but in the days that follow. In the decisions that we refuse to make and in the memories that are tainted. The terror that grips and controls us when we come face to face with our vulnerability causes us to question our every step. Reminds us that we, too, are subject to the whims and wills of warmongerers.

And that feeling is not comfortable. We don’t like it. We lash out at people we shouldn’t. We look for answers where they don’t exist. But, most of all, we are lost. We wander and wonder – where will they hit next?

“All of us are paying already for this bout of blood-thirst. We will go on paying, for many years to come. We will pay with our taxes, our un-built schools and hospitals, our unpaid teachers, our still-jobless youth, our rapidly deteriorating security situation, our shattered relationship with our neighbours.”

On 15th January 2016 Al-Shabaab militants launched an attack on a Kenyan-run AMISOM army base in the town of El Adde, Somalia – it remains one of the largest defeats the KDF has ever suffered with the death toll estimated to be around 200. This date shows up again with more casualties, this time in 2019 in Nairobi. We know, because we know, that in war there are no coincidences. Just as we know that this death and killing has been going on for years and even before the late Saitoti declared war on Al Shabaab in 2011 we had been fiddling with ideas of war, invasion and destruction. All this to say, that this too is a boomerang of cause and effect that goes way beyond our lifetimes into the past.

How far back should we go?

It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.

Wars with their noise affright us: when they cease,

We are worse in peace:

What then remains, but that we still should cry,

Not to be born, or being born, to die.  

There is no hope in this piece.

As stated earlier, there’s little to be said that hasn’t been said. There’s little to be felt that hasn’t been felt. Instead we bury our dead, tend to our wounded, hide our fears, wander and wonder – is it possible to bring the cycle of violence to a close? Are the people in charge even trying? Or are they more preoccupied with figuring out 2022 elections?

Anything’s Possible. The Millenial Conundrum

Michael Onsando
15 January ,2019

“Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform.”

― Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

It’s hard to be a millennial and not navel-gaze on the state of millenials. Perhaps the proliferation of social media has made us more self indulgent. Or maybe the number of think pieces written on millenials has us thinking there really is a problem. Are millenials really the first generation to be obsessed by avocados?

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

– Nina Simone

It’s impossible to detangle dreams from the fears and insecurities that birthed them. In order to know what a generation was collectively dreaming we need to know what they are running away from. When it comes to “the dream” as is consistently shifting and changing, it is impossible to disentangle it from the society at large with major happenings changing the course of our desire.

My grandfather was a member of the independence generation. For this generation freedom was important. Having lived through a rapid period of political change and witnessing several major structural changes they knew that change was possible. That the permanence of things was an illusion and it could be changed through repeated action and sacrifice – they respected what this sacrifice meant. Sacrifices whose consequences my father’s generation had learned to live with. Soon a generation came about that consistently made decisions toward stability. And the environment was perfect for this. The market that was hungry for skilled labour due to expanding infrastructure and a new government eager to lay the foundations for a new country.

This all came crashing sometime before or after ‘82. I can’t say it with much accuracy – I wasn’t born yet – but there seems to be a consensus that  the generally psyche was not the same after the attempted coup. With his trust betrayed, Moi became more Moi than he had ever been. Conservative decision making was further enforced. Perform your role, stay silent and stay out of the way was the mantra.

So where did the loud, disrespectful millenials with their Kanga hoodies, Sauti Sol and natural hair blogs come from? And what purpose do they serve? (Besides perpetuating a love for casual clothing)

It is two decades now since Beijing began prioritising its relations with Africa, recognising the continent’s value as a source of minerals and other raw commodities and its potential as a market for Chinese goods produced at low cost. The relationship has grown at a staggering pace since, encouraging other emerging nations in turn to look at Africa with different eyes. On the heels of the Chinese, Brazilians, Indians, Russians and Turks, among others, have all intensified their courtship.

The 21st Century Great Game is Africa’s to lose

To be a millennial is to be poised on promise.

We were brought up to follow our dreams because anything is possible. We are unsatisfied with the current state of affairs (especially when the person telling you it’s impossible can’t rotate a PDF). And the Internet has fueled this desire; suddenly things seem within reach.

In this way, I believe, we share certain optimism with the independence generation. Too young to remember Moi (some of us even claim to miss him) we are more aware to the idea of a Kenya that is changing – that can change. We have seen the fall of Moi and the construction of bypasses. We have also seen political violence, monarchial politics and terrorism. We know that anything – good or bad – is possible given enough willpower.

“We had become our parents, silenced, cynical of everything political, distrustful of those who did share our story and uncertain about what the future held for our children. It might be 2018, yet 36 years later Moi’s protégés continue playing by the same rule book of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, political assassinations, electoral theft and violent suppression of dissent. The uncertainty that defined the 80s is still here but the unbwogable generation that came of age in 2002, is invested in personal cultivated bubbles of security, no longer willing to rattle the status quo.”

“To acknowledge that the ideals that make up the society should not erase or ignore certain people whose existence are in/within/revolve around the same society. It does not mean I am ignorant of the moral fabric of the society, but it allows me to believe in recalibration or readjustments of the society and to re-evaluate what works to include the largest number – as many as everyone – into this society.”

And maybe then to be poised on the promise that anything is possible is to hope and work towards ensuring that the possibilities we evoke are beautiful, because they will definitely be ours.  

Whither Culture?

Michael Onsando
8 January ,2019

“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.

Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”

Rusinga Festival Rowers
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.

The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.

I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.

Tug of war at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.

The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”

It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”

“Except today it is fashionable to scream

of pride and beauty as though it were not known that

‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “

Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.

It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.

But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?

Dancer at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth.

We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.

Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.