This is a bad-natured, angry, political column. The state of Nairobi makes me unhappy because it points to the kind of vaporous politics we have in the country. The Kibra by-election makes me even more unhappy because it exposes the flimsy, shabby, fatuous, fallacious, misguided process by which we elect the wrong leaders.
Two weeks ago, when air pollution reached dangerous levels in New Delhi, the Indian Supreme Court hammered the state authorities, accusing them of “gimmickry” and only being interested in elections. It was outraged that the state government was not doing more to tame the air pollution — at its peak comparable to smoking an astounding 50 cigarettes a day — to which the authorities had responded by allowing driving, on alternate days, odd and even.
The air quality question in Delhi is a complex issue, relating not just to the internal combustion engine, Indians’ love for motor cars — which are driven badly and noisily — and the ubiquitous bajaj is gloriously manifest, but also to geography, topography and a teeming population burning up stuff in their gardens. The bajaj are fitted with LPG engines, which helps a little. The Indian city also has a better mass transit system than Nairobi, but is a huge city with lots of folks and it takes a lot to move them around.
I imagine a situation where Chief Justice David Maraga or one of his judges tries to hold our governor, Mr Mike Sonko, to account for air quality, demanding that he provides scientific proof that his policies have a chance of keeping residents healthy and safe. First, he would have to find the governor who would have either repaired to his castle in Mua Hills to escape his political enemies or engaged in the merry and generally puzzling exercise of counting tram cars — possibly dreaming of building such a system in the misty future — in Montpellier, a French resort city on the Mediterranean.
Our political system is not designed to give Kenyans capable and honest leaders but to favour a nascent plutocracy, whose wealth is coveted and admired on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. There is no stigma associated with stolen wealth; Kenyans will love you if you are wealthy, irrespective of how you got that way.
The magic of America — before Donald J. Trump — is its ability to find and promote incredibly talented and committed leaders and put them in charge of its affairs. The military, even in the midst of all the corruption and tribalism, is one of Kenya’s strongest institutions because of its attempts to institute a merit-based system.
What am I driving at? In the Kibra by-election, it appears that no one was interested in the relative leadership qualities, or lack thereof, of Mr McDonald Mariga, Mr Eliud Owalo or Mr Bernard Imran Okoth. Even those of us in the media treated that aspect of the electoral contest as somewhat uninteresting.
Mr Owalo is politically experienced, having gravitated around the Raila Odinga orbit. I remember Mr Mariga because of his promise to have bhang legalised and Mr Okoth as Ken Okoth’s brother. As to what they brought to the table, only their masters know.
This really was not a contest between the candidates, but between their puppet masters: Mr Odinga, the opposition leader now in cooperation with the government, and Deputy President William Ruto, who is in government but might as well be in the opposition, given the level of rivalry within Jubilee between his faction and the one around President Kenyatta.
How is a matchup between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto of any benefit to the people of Kibra, who are in deep economic, social and medical trouble because of their environment?
The political class is going to present proposals to amend the Constitution at some point. Left to them, they will make proposals that are to the benefit of their class, principally by creating more jobs for more plutocrats. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it stops them from inciting their tribesmen to burn the country. But I think we should reject these amendments unless they respond to our needs as ordinary people who pay all the taxes that our dear leaders use to buy T-shirts that cost tens of thousands of shillings.
First, educating the people about democracy and government should be mandatory. We’re trying to be a democracy in a country where even the leaders don’t get the concept. Secondly, money should be set aside for civil society and the right of the people to mobilise against the government better protected. It should be a crime to interfere with civil society.
Thirdly, Parliament should be properly set up with an upper and lower House, each working as a check on the other. Fourthly, the Constitution should be cleaned up to give life to the integrity chapter. Fifthly, some clever person should find a way of making the Judiciary accountable.
I don’t have the space to list all the mostly half-baked ideas flooding my mind. But any amendments that do not address the cause of our problems — corruption, tribalism and disregard for patriotism and sacrifice — should be rejected out of hand and the plutocracy advised to continue using the Constitution as it is.
After all, this is really the Constitution they wanted, not the one we dreamed of.
Covid toll on Africa has been more than lives; we have lost great talent
On June 9, at the writing of this column, the total number of reported Covid-19 cases in Africa since the pandemic began stood at 4,946,536. The total deaths were 132,983.
That was a smidgen of the cumulative 174,136,688 cases reported globally on the same day, with a horrific 3,750,423 deaths.
Second and third waves of the virus have broken out in at least nine African countries, and Africa’s vaccination score is nothing to write home about (of the nearly 2.3 billion doses administered globally by Tuesday, just over 30 million of them had been given in Africa), so the worst might just lie, but the gods have not yet deserted us.
The deaths of all the 132,983 people killed by Covid-19 in Africa — and the nearly 3.8 million in the world — are tragic. Yet there is an added blow to Africa. We are a continent where many countries have talented people across many fields, and therefore, compared to others, we are the continent that can least afford to lose them. However, we have lost many.
My labour of love is the development of a digital museum of great figures and unsung heroes of African history called The Wall of Great Africans. We just posted a profile of Linah Kelebogile Mohohlo, a Botswana economist who was Governor of the Bank of Botswana from 1999 to 2016. She succumbed to Covid-19.
Going back to March 24, 2020 with the death of the iconic Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango, the Covid toll on our finest, has been high:
- Dorah Sitole was a renowned South African chef, food writer and editor.
- Lungile Pepeta one of the most inspirational South African doctors of recent times.
- Mohamed Melehi, a Moroccan painter who helped spur an artistic renaissance in his country.
- Ahmed Ismail Hussein, Somali musician and an important figure in the country’s independence movement.
- Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa, a leading Ugandan and African agricultural economist, academic and politician.
- Béchir Ben Yahmed, the Tunisian journalist who founded the influential weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique.
- Étienne Flaubert Batangu Mpesa, perhaps the most renowned Congolese pharmacist and science researcher.
- Abdul Hakim Al-Taher, Sudanese director and actor, considered the pioneer of the idea of theatre for the deaf in the country.
- Cosmas Magaya, a virtuoso of the mbira and giant of the craft in Zimbabwe.
- Charles Bukeko (Papa Shirandula) a hugely popular comedian and actor who helped transform the acting profession in Kenya.
- Djibril Tamsir Niane a Guinean historian, playwright and short story writer noted for introducing the Epic of Sundiata.
- Mababa “Pape” Diouf, a Senegalese journalist and football agent who was the president of French football club Olympique de Marseille between 2005 and 2009. He was the first black president of a top flight football club in any of Europe’s top six leagues.
- Leïla Menchari, a leading Tunisian designer and decorator who worked for Hermès as a decorator for over 50 years.
These are a handful of the more than 200 we have recorded and/or profiled. In 2023/2024, or possibly even 2026, when we reckon with what else Africa lost other than their lives, there could be a lot of red.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]
AU and UN, can’t you see Africa’s looming meltdown?
The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, has left tens of people dead. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled their homes into neighbouring Rwanda.
This latest crisis comes on top of decades-old conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced equal numbers. Thousands in this region need food aid every year. Periodic eruptions of Ebola, cholera and other diseases, including Covid-19, compound an already impossible situation.
In the wake of the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the eruption, the Norwegian Refugee Council declared “DR Congo is the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century’’. In an interview with a DRC minister, CNN’s Becky Anderson asked a point blank question: How did DR Congo, with most of the world’s mineral deposits, get to be the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century?
The minister lived up to the reputation of an African official when confronted with evidence of his own or his government’s monumental and criminal negligence. He gave circumlocutory excuses, stone-walled , then gave a master class in the art of subterfuge.
We cannot stop volcanoes from erupting, but we can minimise, if not totally avoid, the humanitarian crises that follow. In 2002 , another eruption of Nyiragongo killed 250 people and displaced thousands of others. You would expect that the DR Congo government learned some lessons from that catastrophe. But the fat cats who run that country, always busy lining their pockets, had learned nothing. The Goma Volcano Observatory had not been functioning optimally due to corruption. It was even unable to pay for internet connection to remote monitors or transport staff to observation points.
DRC is not the only country in Africa in which negligence and theft have led to great humanitarian crises. In Nigeria, an oil rich country, security forces — undisciplined and starved of funds — are overwhelmed by ragtag Islamic insurgents and criminal gangs. Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Sahel countries of Niger, Mali and Mauritania have been so weakened by decades of negligence and theft, they, too, are incapable of holding off jihadists. The truth is that without French military support, the Sahel countries would fall to the terrorists in a few months.
We have monumental humanitarian crises in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique and South Sudan, and others waiting to happen in Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea and Burundi. Others like Kenya, Uganda, Congo Brazzaville and Malawi , due to the same neglect and corruption, are finding it impossible to match development to population growth. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed years of negligence and corruption in all of Africa, including South Africa.
The African Union and the UN can go on burying their heads in the sand, refusing to see the looming apocalyptic meltdown of the continent. Or they could begin demanding accountability from those who manage our national affairs. There remains a small window in which to act.
We’ve defeated polio, smallpox… oh, now you fear coronavirus vax!
Within a year — less even — of the pandemic hitting the world, pharmaceutical companies had come up with not one or even two but several vaccination options. The process continues to be refined as we speak, a solution in motion.
I am in awe. When… how did technology get so amazing? What else will we be capable of if we just devoted more resources to preventive measures and other global crises? I am waiting to see what will be made available in my country — Tanzania.
Not everyone feels this way. I was minding my own business in the vicinity of a conversation last year when I accidentally eavesdropped because I heard the word “vaccine” but I politely tuned out again until my hearing picked up statements like “don’t trust…” and “they might mean us harm.” I had to look up and check.
To my disbelief, it was people here in Dar talking about the vaccines being a menace to Africans and Black people in general. For real.
Give us the benefit of the doubt, I thought. This might be a minority event. There have been disinformation campaigns targeting Africans, and Tanzania in particular attracted a lot of attention from people whose motives I never fathomed. Oh, how wrong I was. Anti-vaccination sentiment has been growing, and I hear it more often than I would have imagined. This is a phenomenon.
Conspiracy theories are fascinating, the weirder the better. I like them because they are a form of storytelling about ourselves and the world that is collective in nature — hardly a conspiracy if only one person believes it. Occasionally researching them can give startling bits of obscure history, little known facts.
But in the end, as interesting as they are as a social phenomenon, I try to stay away from what they are selling. It’s the Us vs Them element that feeds our worst fears, and scared humans are bad news.
Finding genuine anti-vaccination sentiment right here at home took me by surprise. I’ll tell you where the logic fails for me: by virtue of being born here and most countries in the world, you have been vaccinated as an infant or a child. And we’ve defeated polio, smallpox… except in those small communities where people do not want to vaccinate their children against these dangerous illnesses.
Even with my frustration with our education system I have never felt that we’re anti-science. Many schools of thought are welcome here.
But then again… there is such a thing as intergenerational trauma. This nebulous “They” who are planning to take over the continent and wipe out all people of African descent… aren’t exactly fiction.
The slave trades both Atlantic and Indian Ocean? Happened. There is only half a century separating many of us from self-rule.
In the obfuscations and politicised queries about the source of Covid-19 and the doubts about the vaccines’ efficacy, this is a perfect breeding ground for a very real fear to emerge.
You know what is truly Machiavellan? Exploiting a fear. Someone seems to have found a crack in our psyche.
In the Tanzanian anti-vax campaign’s early days, a number of American social media outlets advanced a narrative which gels with that of a belief that the world is out to get Black people and we must maintain our “purity” by refusing interventions, including medical ones.
I know the shape of the anti-vax movement in its hotspots, namely the part of American society that is certifiably insane, and a few dots here and there around the world that have become infected.
But to link it to a shared African super identity and scare people into doubting vaccination? That is a level of evil brilliance that is dangerous. Can you imagine what could happen if enough people refuse any forms of preventive measures and fail to achieve herd immunity?
It is hard to stomach that, as I write this, there are countries in real distress such as South Africa, and India, which now has a Black Fungus problem on top of everything else. Both countries with which we have close ties.
Close ties. Somehow in this anti-vax discussion, regular treatment we all rely on — the doctor’s visits, the run to the pharmacy, the myriad African scientists and their work — doesn’t come up. I thought that this article was going to be about arguing against anti-vax but that would be futile. The information is out there.
Lurking underneath the surface of what seems to be a contemporary debate is actually something else I have had a hard putting my finger on but which recurs: a crack in our psyche. The unfinished project.
Is this the unending business of liberation? At what point will we have that argument, discussion, healing with each other, in addition to pointing fingers outwards for all the things that aren’t right where necessary?
If I wanted to decimate a people, especially a people exploited for centuries — well, I will tell you more next week.
Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]