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Kenya and the Majengo Syndrome

By Jibrin Ibrahim, Deepening Democracy Column, Daily Trust, 22nd July 2022

I just returned from a trip to Kenya and it is a fascinating country where people are passionate about politics but frustrated at the narrow field of key players. The same elite have been circulating for decades and making permutations about whose turn it is to rule while the people are distressed about the limited choice and offer on the table. The next general election is scheduled for 9th August, in a few day’s time and campaign is heating up. Kenya is very similar to Nigeria in the sense that the political class has used power to become extremely wealthy, made politics an expensive game to block new entrants and fight each other during each election to determine the new boss of the political and national elite. As for the masses, who cares?

What struck me most about the country was my trip to a slum in the centre of Nairobi called Majengo. I was given an excellent social history and current dynamics tour of the slum by two great guides, Iddi and Rashid, a great admirer of Nigeria’s legendary football star, Rashid Yekini. The squalor of the slum is striking with terrible drainage, lack of sanitation, drug and alcohol abuse with so many young people spending their lives drinking “illicit liquor” – it is shameful that the term is still in use in Kenya. Beside the community is the biggest second hand clothing market and hub for East Africa. The real story is that as with all slums around the world located in city centres, the gentrification moguls are after the high value land and are literally getting the masses burnt out, kicked out or bought out by the propertied classes. The stories are depressing, those who refuse to sell out suffer “mysterious” arson on the property which then has to be demolished for public health purposes and there goes the land on which high rise developments are built. There is no major metropolitan city slum in the world without similar stories.

Majemgo was established between 1900-1920 by settlers, mainly Muslim Bajuni from the coast between Mombasa and Lamu, brought in by the colonial administration to service the new capital city my guides told me. Since then, it has been stories of circles of displacements of the poorer previous inhabitants. The next group was returnees from the First World War campaign who settled there and made the area more cosmopolitan starting the process of the displacement of the earlier mainly Muslim inhabitants. Then there was the entry of the Somali when they started making money from various streams of revenue include piracy and commerce. Currently, the Chinese are coming into the country, linking up with the national bourgeoisie and developing high rise property that is changing the skyline.

The sad story, according to Iddi and Rashid who have spent the last fifty years in the area, every national government has promised a massive programme of urban regeneration for the area to get their votes, after the elections, a few estate blocks are built and the place is forgotten until the next one. The other side of the story of course is that there is a history of the availability of strong arms for hire in Majengo for election violence and as the next elections arrive in a few days, it might be harvest time for some people.

Kenya is a real tourist-oriented country. The National Museum requires at least four hours to go through the various exhibitions and collections. Both the National Archives and the Nairobi Gallery also have great exhibitions and artefacts on display. It was at the National Archives that I saw on display the stamp issued by the Nigerian Government to celebrate the marriage of former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon to Victoria.

The Nairobi Game Reserve is virtually in the city and it was strange seeing lions, buffalos and rhinos living their lives just a few kilometers from the city centre. I did wonder whether lions have ever wondered into the city centre and was told that was ridiculous a thought as if the animals know they were left to exist to entertain tourists like myself. I did see a lion hunting down a gazelle for breakfast and the Nigerian in me wondered fleetingly why the bush meat is reserved solely for carnivorous animals minus humans. Of course, that is silly thinking even if in Nigeria humans have hunted down and eaten most of the antelopes as bushmeat. My prayer however is that we should learn from the Kenyans, never eat bushmeat, in any case they are spreading dangerous diseases, reserve them as entertainment for the eyes of tourists and national visitors.

In 1991, after 26 years of single party rule, Kenya returned to multi-party democracy. On 9th August 2022, Kenya will be holding its 7th General Elections since the return of constitutional multi party democracy. The big story is that the President, Kenyatta, has made an alliance with the historical opposition party leader Raila Odinga thus abandoning his Vice President, William Ruto who has suddenly discovered he is not part of the establishment and was excluded for that reason so he has redefined himself as opposition and is contesting the elections as an “outsider”, whatever that means. In Kenya’s tradition, the two blocs contesting for the presidency are running neck to neck and we will know soon enough the outcome of the election.

The 2007 election was characterised by massive post-election violence that brought world leaders to mediate following massacre of over one thousand people. In the 2013 elections, the political environment around the elections was overshadowed by the impending trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. The key accused persons for the trial were Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Ruto, the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidates. They both faced charges of crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the course of the post-electoral violence following the 2007 polls. After a sustained attempt at prosecution by the ICC, the charges were dropped. The prosecution alleged that witnesses had been compromised or threatened thereby jeopardising the case. Today, the two are fighting each other. Kenyan politics remains bifurcated with voters split down the middle with a demarcation of about 50/50 for the two main voting blocks that are also ethnic alliances. I wish them the best of luck for the elections.

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