Rasna Warah on ethnicity, terrorism, the IMF loans

What national cohesion? ‘Project Kenya’ died under Mzee Kenyatta. Government is alienating local Somali and coastal Muslim communities and the Kenyan economy is on a free fall.



Our ethnic diversity has constantly worked against the progress of the country. If we are to use it as a strength, what kind of change should we make in our understanding of ethnic diversity?

I have always believed that it is not ethnic diversity per se that is the problem, but the abuse of ethnic identity to advance selfish, personal interests. Ethnic diversity can actually be a source of strength in a country, as it can promote multiculturalism and tolerance. In countries such as Canada, and even Britain, to some extent, there is a belief that ethnic diversity is to be celebrated and not shunned or stamped out through legislation. Ethnic diversity can make countries culturally richer and even have a positive impact on the economy.

In Kenya, however, ethnicity is being used to advocate authoritarianism (the “tyranny of numbers”, if you will) and to protect individuals who should ideally be in jail. There is a misguided belief that if “one of our own” is in power, then the whole tribe benefits. Yet, evidence shows that some of the poorest people in the country belong to the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes that have dominated political leadership in this country since independence.

Nairobi’s slums are teeming with single Kikuyu mothers and jobless Kikuyu youth. There are parts of Baringo and other parts of the Rift Valley that have seen no development in the last 50 years. However, politicians have cleverly been duping their ethnic communities that by attaining political leadership they will protect the interests of the tribe. And Kenyans, stupidly, believe it.  That is why you find people who have been accused of corruption running to their villages to garner political support from their ethnic communities. And their tribesmen, instead of demanding that those people be arrested and charged, hold rallies in their support. It is absurd.

Within the past nine months, Nairobi University, Kenyatta University and Egerton University have experienced student-related political tensions that were traced back to ethnic differences.  Being that these are centres of academic excellence, what do these incidents say about the efforts being made at promoting national cohesion?

I think efforts at building national cohesion have been a total failure in this country; not even a constitutionally mandated commission could promote it. And the reason is that “Project Kenya” died years ago when President Jomo Kenyatta decided that only his cronies should have access to the national cake. Kenyatta even failed his fellow Kikuyu who had fought in the Mau Mau movement – most Mau Mau fighters died penniless and landless.

“Project Kenya” was briefly resurrected in 2003 when Mwai Kibaki won the presidency, but eventually even he succumbed to tribalism, and the dream of a socially, economically and politically cohesive nation was killed. I am afraid that under an UhuRuto leadership the schisms between ethnic communities have widened even more. There is a perception that the country now belongs to only two tribes and the rest of us can just go to hell if we don’t like it.

At the moment, negative ethnicity is being fought by religious institutions and state-led strategies. These two seem to be failing at the job.  What else can be done?

I don’t think the religious institutions or the state are serious about eliminating negative ethnicity. The church and other religious institutions have ended up being just as tribalistic as the rest of Kenyans. The National Commission on Cohesion and Integration has also failed to stem the hate speech that seems to be becoming an epidemic on social media and at political rallies. Countries that have successfully dealt with negative ethnicity (Germany after World War Two, for example, or Rwanda after the genocide) have taken conscious, deliberate steps to fight the vice through changing school curricula, introducing legislation that make negative ethnicity and hate speech punishable crimes and actively promoting ethnic minorities and marginalised groups in government. Political will, I think is very important, as is a leadership that actively, in word and deed, condemns ethnic chauvinism.

In your heart of hearts, do you see negative ethnicity going away completely any time soon?

No, we are not as advanced as Tanzania in this respect.

The scale of terrorist activity in the country is unfathomable. Not a month goes by before something happens that endangers or takes away lives, or destroys property. Is this a question of a security crisis or a political crisis?

It is both. As I have argued so many times in my columns, our insecurity is the result of our inability or unwillingness to tackle corruption. In other less corrupt countries, when a terrorist attack occurs, the authorities immediately set up inquiries and take additional measures to ensure that the attacks do not occur again. However, in Kenya, we have seen that terrorist attacks are quite often the result of corrupt acts committed by our own security and immigration services. Police at our borders are known to routinely take bribes from illegal and undocumented aliens. Grand corruption in security-related contracts also undermines our security. When secretive contracts are awarded to fake shell companies, as happened during the Anglo Leasing scandal, or given to undeserving bidders, the country is deprived of vital tools that can enhance security, such as better forensic labs and more tamper-proof passports.

The ideas you espouse in your writing, both in the local dailies or through international media outfits, have clearly draw a line as to where you stand when it comes to the methodology of  the government’s fight against terrorism: You believe that the government is going about it all wrong – extrajudicial killings and targeting the Somali community in Kenya.

The approach the government has taken so far is to “externalise” the threat of terrorism by alienating local Somali and coastal Muslim populations who could actually be assisting the government in its fight against terror. As a recent report by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights has shown, instead of co-opting the Kenyan Somali community, the government’s security organs are targeting Kenyan Somalis either through illegal detentions, torture, extra-judicial killings, disappearances or “collective punishments”, such the “Usalama Watch” raid in Eastleigh in April of 2014 when thousands of ethnic Somalis, including pregnant women and children, were arrested and detained at the Kasarani Stadium. This kind of approach runs the risk of radicalising the affected populations and leading to more terror attacks.

Knowing what you just said above then, is there a point where human rights and the fight against terrorism can balance?

We have seen in Iraq that when human rights are violated and people are killed, the “war on terror” loses its moral high ground. Thousands of civilians have been killed in Iraq since George Bush and Tony Blair decided to bring about a regime change in that country on the false pretext of fighting Al Qaeda. The illegal torture and detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay and in detention facilities in Iraq gave birth to what we now call the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is hypocritical to claim that you are fighting terror and defending human rights when you yourself are using terror tactics and violating human rights. It is counterproductive too as it leads to more alienation, more radicalisation and more terror.

What approach, in your view, should Government take?

The State needs to mend fences with Somali and Muslim communities and involve them in the fight against radicalisation and terror. It should also eradicate corruption in the security and immigration services. And it must re-think its strategy in Somalia. Keeping our troops in Somalia who are accused of selling charcoal and propping up the Jubaland administration of Ahmed Madobe undermines Kenya’s authority and raises questions about the country’s real intentions in Somalia. There must be an exit strategy for the Kenya Defence Forces in Somalia. Building walls along the border is not going to help because, as we saw from the Garissa attack, Al Shabaab is now home-grown.

Still on your writing; your most recent book about Somalia “War Crimes: How Warlords, Politicians, Foreign Governments and Aid Agencies Conspired to Create a Failed State in Somalia” and your articles on the treatment of Somali people in Kenya, especially in reference to terrorist activities that have been traced back to the Al Shabaab, can easily be looked at as viewpoints of a sympathiser.  Are you one?

I am not sure what you mean by sympathiser. The book is actually a scathing indictment of the largely corrupt and clannish political leadership in Somalia. It was motivated by the fact that a lot of the local and international media do not examine events in Somalia beyond the lenses of terrorism, famine, piracy or conflict. The media also fails to examine how the international community, including Kenya, Ethiopia, the United States and the United Nations, have sustained conflict and entrenched warlordism and corruption in this war-torn country.

Because of their inability or unwillingness to join the dots to form a larger, more nuanced picture, journalists fail to inform Kenyans about what is really going on in Somalia. Yet what happens in Somalia deeply affects Kenya. I wrote the book because I felt the need to fill the gaping holes and omissions in the Somalia story. Incidentally, I am currently working on a revised and updated edition of War Crimes that looks at more recent events, and also examines the prospects for a new federated government in Somalia, which will be holding elections later this year.

Let us also not forget that since independence, Kenya’s Somali community has been unfairly targeted and discriminated against by the State. Moreover, in recent years, the attitudes of the State and ordinary Kenyans towards ethnic Somalis have become more xenophobic. However, it is not just Somalis that are treated unfairly; there are many other “second class citizens” in Kenya.

Both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been criticised for entrenching/ encouraging global inequality.  Do you think this criticism is justified?

Well, I am not an economist but I must admit that my opinions of these two international financial institutions have been largely shaped by Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which I recommend to every government economist around the world.

In her book, Klein shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF in particular to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from disaster or high levels of external debt. This had led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation and austerity measures, such as massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to inequality. She is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and capitalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF medicine has been administered, inequality has escalated and poverty become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to get an IMF bail-out loan. Or, through cooked up data, they can make it look economically healthy so that it feels secure to applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, IMF comes back with more austerity measures, which create even more poverty and inequality.

The presence of the IMF in Africa is huge. You recently wrote in one of the local dailies that “we can’t expect to prosper on IMF loans”.  What three things would you change if you were to lead the global body and be tasked with re-organising its approach and style of partnering with African Nations?

First of all, as a non-European, I will not be allowed to head the IMF. The unwritten rule is that the IMF will always be headed by a European and the World Bank by an American. Having said that, my view has always been that African countries must wean themselves away from aid dependency (though a loan technically does not qualify as aid). That is the only sure way to prosperity. Kibaki’s economic recovery team understood this. That is why his government adopted a “Look East” policy, which was focused on infrastructure development with few strings attached, rather than on loans that ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials anyway, as might be happening with the much-hyped Eurobond under the Jubilee administration.

It is believed that IMF loans/bailouts come with policy conditions that undermine development in the long run for the country receiving its help.  Why does it seem that the Kenyan government is currently unaware/ignoring this fact?

I believe that many people in the current government are too ill-equipped intellectually and lack the knowledge and experience to manage state affairs. Perhaps they have not read the many books and reports that show that aid dependency actually undermines development.

(I highly recommend Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid and my own Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits). In many ways, they are taking us back to the bad old 1980s and 90s, when the state was captured by corrupt elements and when representatives from the IMF or the World Bank could dictate to Kenya what it could or could not do. The government also seems to be on a loan-seeking spree, yet we don’t know what the loans are being used for.

The economy appears to be on a slow free fall.  We need planners and economists with a vision who can steer this country away from economic ruin. Sadly, such people are absent in this government.

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  1. Dear Rasna, No – Rwanda has not overcome ‘negative ethnicity’. The country is, unforunately, a volcano waiting for the next explosion……


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