The Kenyan ‘Left’ — like Uganda’s — is stuck!

President William Ruto (left) and Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga. Dr Ruto, whose campaign was arguably populist, was able to sell himself as a ‘hustler’. PHOTO | FILE | NATION

What you need to know:

  • Ruto ran a well-oiled campaign machine for five years
  • Ruto tapped into the powerful force of religion and portrayed himself as a God-fearing, devout man.
  • Ruto, whose campaign was arguably populist, was able to sell himself as a ‘hustler’.

The Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort and Spa in Entebbe, Uganda, is a sprawling five-star-facility that, on any day, teems with the country’s high society — corporate executives, celebrities, expatriates, moguls, crime lords, and politicians of every shade.

Across the border in one of Kenya’s emerging metropolises, Naivasha, sits Sawela, an upmarket lodge whose client list boasts that country’s (and indeed the region’s) privileged and powerful. Like the Serena in Uganda, Sawela’s guests have the option of accessing the hideout by helicopter.

While both getaway locations are famed for hosting top-shelf wedding receptions, quiet and fun for lovers, family vacations, Europeans fleeing heatwaves, and secret deals between robber barons and their politician acolytes, it is not unusual to bump into the leadership or staff of international NGOs, think tanks, university faculty, activist groups, and political parties from the region and beyond.

Much of the latter’s business there revolves around ‘reflection retreats’ ‘team-building exercises,’ ‘delegates’ conferences,’ and ‘strategy meetings’.

You can tell that this elite crowd is present by taking a glance at the parking lot, where one will have an eyeful of Japanese SUVs and German luxury sedans, some emblazoned with organisation logos or other signage.

A driver or two might be caught yawning or dozing, waiting for the lunch break or the day’s end to ferry his bosses to wherever the evening’s fun will draw them.

Fill flip charts

We, the coauthors, are familiar with this lifestyle by virtue of our employment in NGOs.

For a week or longer, we, together with our often well-meaning colleagues, discuss, debate, fill flip charts, and finally, solemnly adopt resolutions (also known as declarations or ‘action points’) on subjects ranging from democracy, social service delivery and minority rights to inequality, humanitarian situations, or the latest fad, which at the moment is climate change.

In our defence, and to be fair, these issues are real and afflict millions of people around the world. For example, it is scandalous that eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.

Further, one of the major realignments to contend with in the post-pandemic world is the fact that the ultra-wealthy tripled and in some cases quadrupled their wealth as aggregate demand slumped and livelihoods got decimated by supply chain disruptions and shocks.

It is cringe-worthy that airplane manufacturers registered increased purchases of private jets as the novel coronavirus stalled commercial air travel.

Even more disturbing is the habitual evasion of tax obligations by the top one percent, particularly in the West. As capitalism has sunk to new depths, the effects of financial meltdowns (like housing market failures and bank collapses) are passed on to the impoverished taxpaying public (through bailout packages).

Yet, when it comes to sharing the supernormal profits made by Fortune 500 companies, the janitor, nurse, postman, truck driver, and telephone operator who makes such profit margins possible gets nothing, except motivational speeches on hard work!

On continental Africa, the situation is not different as inequality deepens. Narratives on economic growth (‘Africa Rising’!) ignore the simple fact that growth does not necessarily mean more equitable wealth distribution.

Therefore, the various social justice causes are justified.

The Achilles Heel and blind spot of the causes that seek to challenge and correct the above consequences of the thoroughly discredited capitalist mode of production is fourfold:

a) our interventions are not backed by an understanding of the demographic shifts and digital revolution that have occurred in the past two decades;

b) the bulk, if not entirety, of our work is funded from outside Africa;

c) our programmes are largely based on theoretical assumptions and textbook theory, a huge chunk of which is obsolete; and,

d) we are disconnected and cushioned from the affected communities we (purport to) serve — most of us are careerists who view our 9-5 assignments as just another job that pays the bills.

Consequently, our significant privilege, that is to say, our private schooling or Ivy League education, international exposure, tech-savviness, political connections and social credentials have (perhaps inadvertently) alienated us from the realities that everyday people contend with.

By transplanting ideals that are distant and not relatable to the socioeconomic circumstances of millions, moreover in language that is only intelligible to ourselves, we have become an exclusive, invite-only club — contrary to the ethos of past anti-colonial struggles and today’s rooted social movements.

Authentic struggles

When we sequester ourselves in leafy resorts to “plan” for the poor and vulnerable, without immersing ourselves, much less testing our ideas in the slums and ghettos where we want them to take root, we lose the touch of authenticity that comes with authentic struggles and causes.

By relying on foreign sources of funding (that come with inflexible conditionalities on how money should be appropriated, spent, and accounted for), we cede the agency of our endeavours to the donor, not the citizen in whose name we write proposals for funding.

By relegating communities to the status of passive recipients and hapless beneficiaries of donor-funded projects, we become messiahs who are infallible and unquestionable.

It follows that we seldom acquire any knowledge from communities, much less establish organic connections through the engagements we have with “our people”.

This could explain why the increasingly frequent state-sanctioned attacks against NGOs or their leaders never elicit the kind of public outcry we see when a cultural leader or religious cleric, for instance, is mistreated by institutions of the state.

For all the billions we invest in communities, “our people” should defend us whenever state actors meddle with our work or persecute us. This should compel us to introspect.

Finally, we seem not to be aware of the effect that demographic changes and digital shifts have had on worldviews and value systems amongst the youth, who are a much sought-after constituency.

We insist on publishing academic-style reports for a generation that is not oriented to reading, and prefers scrolling through info-graphics, audiovisual clips, emoticons, and memes.

We don’t seem to understand that the historical horizon of Generation Z does not stretch to things like the slave trade, colonialism, or the Cold War.

These kids, whose knowledge of the telephone starts with the handheld touchscreen tablet design, have no idea what the relationship between a cassette tape and a radio cassette player is.

In their memories, the major events of their lifetimes — if any — stretch no farther than the carnage of September 11, 2001, the launch of Facebook, Twitter, the era of Rihanna’s iconography, the election of Barack Obama, and perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic.

Don’t be surprised if they cannot recognise Nelson Mandela from his portraits. This means that their greatest socioeconomic concerns are worlds apart from what older generations consider worthwhile.

And so it was that on a phone call between us, the coauthors, we wondered why there should be a contest between a man like Raila Odinga and his apparent polar opposite, William Ruto.

One has dedicated most of his adult life to fighting for civil liberties and rights, while the other has been a hatchet man for successive regimes, having cut his teeth under Daniel Moi.

Ruto has been implicated in several shady dealings, was indicted by the International Criminal Court, and has been cited in land grabs.

Odinga spent close to a decade in jail for standing up to strongman Moi and has been behind the expansion of the frontiers of democracy in Kenya and the region.

As we spoke on the phone, we wondered why the recent presidential election was such a close call, given the ‘obvious’ contrast between the two men. With such pedigree, Odinga should ideally have leveraged his near-cult status and beaten Ruto hands down.

Following several minutes of discussion, we agreed to take off our elitist lens of analysis and see the situation for what it was and still is. When we did, we concluded that:

a) Ruto, whose campaign was arguably populist, was able to sell himself as a ‘hustler’. The powerful and relatable message successfully struck a chord with the poor, downtrodden, and excluded, unemployed and hungry (young) people. Add to this an avant-garde social media team and the Kenya Kwanza campaign was impregnable. No amount of pointing at his fabulous wealth and indiscretions by the arguably progressive Azimio campaign and its sympathisers in civil society could sway those who saw Ruto as their own, even though they’ll never wear a tailored suit, own an outrageous acreage of land and helicopters, let alone ride in them like the Hustler-in-Chief does.

b) Ruto ran a well-oiled campaign machine for five years. He invested heavily in establishing a methodical operation that saw him garner over seven million votes and surpass the county minimum, to say nothing about his party’s remarkable performance in the national assembly and gubernatorial races.

c) Ruto tapped into the powerful force of religion and portrayed himself as a God-fearing, devout man. Call them gullible, naïve, or opportunistic, this display of piety galvanised Ruto’s support amongst ordinary citizens and the clergy.

His generous monetary contributions to various sanctuaries earned him numerous foot soldiers who did the groundwork. In addition, he portrayed himself as a family man (ideally middle-class attributes) more than did Odinga and Martha Karua. His running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, (and now Deputy President) also casts the image of a family man, and a man of God, as his wife is a pastor in Nyeri.

oth men paraded their wives and called them “wives” while Odinga’s urbane campaign used terms like “spouse” or “partner”, which, in a largely patriarchal society, were seen as an affront to masculinity. Under the radar, the unfair sentiment against Karua’s unmarried status was also exploited, with devastating effect.

It did not matter, and few cared about the fact that Karua risked her life for years, and has been at the forefront of fighting for the freedoms and economic progress that East Africa’s economic powerhouse enjoys today.

In next-door Uganda, an emerging class of young, Museveni family-aligned political actors — a number of whom have undergone above-average military training — is amassing enormous wealth.

A few of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, while the majority have clawed their way to high society. They have occupied parliamentary seats and are angling for more positions of power in parliament, the cabinet, the army, and statutory institutions.

Leisure and hospitality

On the economic front, this coterie of young, ruthless, amoral actors has stolen, laundered billions, and indulged in whatever it takes to invest in real estate, leisure and hospitality, general retail, financial services, sports betting, agribusiness, illicit escort services, and whatever other lucrative enterprise there is.

They flaunt their (ill-gotten) wealth on social media, throw lascivious parties, host boat cruises, pay media personalities for guest appearances, and often indulge in rewarding clout-chasing behaviour.

This lot is pretentiously pious, adheres to the tenets of their specific religious denominations, and enjoys an audience with numerous religious and cultural institutions, never mind that their behaviour runs counter to the ideals of those revered sanctuaries.

For a country that has an acute shortage of role models and mentors, these socialites, celebrities, and their criminal bankrollers are what most teenagers and young adults (the same Generation Z we talked about earlier) admire and aspire to emulate.

Unsurprisingly, this unscrupulous lot are the loudest and most vicious defenders of a succession (not transition) plan for General Yoweri Museveni, code-named the ‘Muhoozi Project’ after the president’s first son.

Beyond writing reports, drafting proposals, authoring op-eds, holding seminars and workshops, sponsoring radio talk shows, providing armchair analysis on the nightly news, and convening press conferences to lament human rights abuses and other improprieties of the ruling elite, there is no tangible political programme by those who are opposed to the dire state of affairs in Uganda or the creeping authoritarianism that Kenya is likely to suffer.

We have not created a political or economic disincentive to contain or dissuade those who have chosen to take sides with an oppressive regime like the one Museveni leads.

Indeed, if Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the heir apparent (or any scion or other puppet funded by the ruling elite) launched a presidential bid, it is not obvious that Muhoozi’s reputation for being a drunkard, and his many rumoured indiscretions, would necessarily render his candidacy dead on arrival.

He could win, and we would be as shell-shocked as we were when the vile and intemperate Donald Trump beat arguably the most experienced and qualified candidate to run for the US presidency in recent history, Hillary Clinton.

Millennials and Generation Z don’t care about older generations’ definition of ‘morality’. That’s why all attempts at painting the unassailable Bobi Wine as a drug addict fell flat. Many young people retorted thus: “If indeed it is true that Bobi Wine made it in life by being an addict, then we too want to become addicts!”

Relatedly, it is precisely because of this behaviour and thinking by the Left elsewhere that the world is going to sleepwalk into another Trump presidency.

Unless we change tack, we are going to continue talking and writing papers about ‘choiceless’ democracies!

The situation in Kenya and Uganda has parallels in the decay of politics in South Africa, which, under Thabo Mbeki’s African National Congress, sowed the seeds of discontent that enabled the rise of Jacob Zuma, and the United States, where Democratic paralysis and detachment from reality anointed Donald Trump.

The same can be said of several other countries where rising inequality, disenfranchisement, and the aloofness of civil society have inflamed passions and fanned racism and anti-immigrant nationalism and related rancour.

Predictably, the discussions of the next several weeks and months to come will centre on how Ruto could have defeated Odinga, without appreciating our implicit role in such an upshot.

Should another rogue in some sub-Saharan country defeat a decent candidate who speaks and looks like us, we will write more papers and proposals for funding, supposedly trying to understand voter apathy, the rise of the Alt-Right, again, without understanding our own role in it.

If we do not analyse, re-strategise, and act with the abovementioned realities in mind, we will continue to spectate while formidable figures like Julius Malema, Kyagulanyi Sentamu (Bobi Wine), and extremes like Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte emerge and shape the destinies of our communities and world.

May we find clarity of purpose and the courage that conviction brings.

The writers are Ugandans. Karamagi is a lawyer, and Batenda is an ethnobotanist. To send feedback, write to [email protected]; [email protected]


Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.