Wednesday, June 12, 2024

“Our Man” Syndrome: What it means to live in presidents’ backyards

“Our Man” Syndrome: What it means to live in presidents’ backyards

This, or its benign variant, our son, is a common feature of our political discourse, especially during electoral contests. It is used to rally support for a particular candidate in a region as “one of our own.”

So how do the communities benefit from their own?

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This week we visited the rural homes of Kenya’s former Presidents and some aspiring Presidents, trying to unpack the “our man” syndrome.

What does it mean to have a President coming from your area? What stake does the ordinary mwananchi, or Wanjiku, have in this zero-sum game that often drives voters into a frenzy at every election or charged political environment such as now?

We started from Gatundu, the home of the founding father of the nation and the current President Uhuru Kenyatta. At Kimunyu shopping centre, we found Samuel Ng’ang’a and Elizabeth Wamaitha outside their houses, next to the local stadium, whose construction stalled four years ago. Since then, water has invaded their buildings, which together host 30 people.

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“We have complained to virtually everyone in authority and they know our situation. Many have come here but they have done nothing,” said Wamaitha. She has had to rent a house elsewhere in the area to escape flooding. From the stench and slime, it is clear the waterlogging the area has sewage in it.

Unlike Wamaitha, Ng’ang’a has stayed put, although he has to wear gumboots.

“The President should come to our aid. We can’t keep moving,” cried Wamaitha.

The two residents present a stark, if extreme, reality check on the notion that having a President from your region is a panacea for all your problems. For Kimunyu is in the neighbourhood of the famed Ichaweri, home of the Kenyattas.

“We have issues like everyone else: overcrowded classes, water shortage and youth unemployment. Illicit brews are also a problem here, just like anywhere else in Central. People contributed money to build the local chief’s camp and nursery school here in Kimunyu,” said Joe Kigara, a politician and businessman from the region.

But Kigara said Gatundu people have fared well, living in the glory of the presidency for nearly a quarter century. “I don’t think there is any home — unless it has just been built, or the owners can’t afford — that doesn’t have electricity,” he said.

But as if to affirm the chasm between Ichaweri, the fort of power, and the local population, policemen guarding the home wave away anybody who may want to take a little more than a passing glance at the palatial home.

“Gatundu compares well with other constituencies in Central Kenya,” said Kigara. “The road network is quite impressive, yet the President doesn’t take credit. He comes here and says, ‘I give money to counties and constituencies and they should do their bit.’”

Yet so rampant is insecurity in the constituency that President Kenyatta has twice in the past two years sent Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i to deal with the menace.

“We are harassed at roadblocks. Police are doing brisk business at the roadblocks,” charged Michael Kimani, chairman of the Gatundu Market Traders Sacco.

He was referring to the barrier that locks the town from the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, which they believe they should be part of since they are closer  to the city than Thika.

Residents point to the upgrading of Gatundu Level Four Hospital and the building of the Gatundu modern market as some of the key benefits.

Mama Ngina University College, a constituent of Kenyatta University, is also coming up outside Mutomo Primary School, the President’s polling station.

The recarpeting and expansion of the Thika-Gatundu loop, which has been in a bad condition for many years, is also celebrated.

But, perhaps aware that the region expects much more, and in what appears to be a race against time to turn the rising tide against his administration, President Kenyatta has dispatched ministers in a whistle-stop launch of projects in the past few weeks to a region that routinely votes for him to a man.

Francis Kimani Muora, 80, a former Mau Mau scout, beams with delight as he reminisces about a shoeshiner in Tanzania who excitedly told him he recognised him as one of Kenyatta’s aides. “Even though I wasn’t one, I was very proud that I had been associated with the leader who came from my area,” he said

“When you slaughter a cow, however big, some people will miss a piece or if they get it, there must be some who will always complain that it wasn’t big enough,” explained Muora.

Kibaki’s closet generosity

Farther afield in Mweiga in Nyeri County, where the government built Kenya’s third President Mwai Kibaki a retirement home, the University of London-trained economist doesn’t have the inconveniences of poverty or constituency concerns surrounding him.

He is in Kieni, way out of Othaya, which he represented from 1974 to his retirement in 2013. The region is also home to the county’s rich and is surrounded by forests that add to the tranquility of his retirement.

During our visit, Mr Kibaki had been holed up here for a while, only coming out at intervals to take brief walks, according to neighbours.

“His guards come out here only occasionally to have a drink,” Julius Michael Gichure told us at a nearby inn.

This life of quiet and serenity fits the golfer just fine because it is in keeping with his character. Throughout his long political career, he kept to himself, only hanging out with close associates, much unlike his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi.

“We are proud to know he lives amongst us. Security is better here because of his presence. Even if someone doesn’t give you something directly, you can benefit from the proximity to him,” Gichure said.

This is a common sentiment among Kibaki’s admirers. Former Mukurwe-ini MP Kabando wa Kabando says Kibaki never changed, even when he became President, because his “friendliness was always subtle”.

“Did he give handouts, even when he was MP and Vice-President? No. Did he conduct harambees for the 10 years he was President? No,” Kabando said.

The former MP explained that unlike other senior politicians, Kibaki shifted his political base to Othaya from Nairobi on the invitation of the local elite and never saw the need to buy loyalty from anyone.

“But he spent time fixing the economy. In his years in office the economy was nearly wholly domestically funded. Even when he was kept away from Othaya by the affairs of State, systems in the constituency worked. I don’t think there is any constituency in Kenya with better schools than Othaya,” he said.

At Silent Lodge in Othaya town, which Mr Kibaki frequented for his White Cap whenever he was in the constituency, we got more glimpse of the man who ruled Kenya for 10 years.

While the hotel was closed in keeping with the Ministry of Health regulations to check the spread of Covid-19, we requested the establishment to open it for us for the interview. We, however, could not go to Kibaki’s corner, a cubicle in which he sat himself with a few of his trusted people.

“The common talk that Kibaki never bought people beer is nonsense,” said Shem Macharia, his waiter of many years. “He bought people drinks even though he allowed his drinking mates to order rounds.”

But Njigari, as the waiter is better-known in the town, added that if Mr Kibaki realised that for two or three months you didn’t pick up the tab, he would hand you the bill.

“From then on you would either be buying rounds or avoid his company altogether.”

“He is a generous man.”

The 89-year-old ex-President is admired locally for building roads and elevating Othaya Hospital, now called Kenyatta Hospital Annex, to Level 6.

“This is good enough; we don’t need handouts,” said Meshack Mwangi, a high school teacher.

The former President’s landmark free primary schooling, which he introduced in 2003, inevitably came up.

“We used to walk to school barefoot but when he brought free primary education, our parents could now afford shoes for us,” said Joel Gakuru, 25, a farmer.

To explain Kibaki’s strategic humility, a story is told in Othaya of the day his predecessor, Daniel Moi, came and found a highrise building going up. Moi was uncomfortable that Kibaki, then his VP, was challenging him. So Kibaki stopped the building to please his boss, until it was safe to continue.

And, unlike other political families, Kibaki’s scions are not known to flaunt power.

“If they come here, we don’t notice because they keep a low profile,” another resident told us at the Armed Forces Canteen at Kibaki’s home, which is usually open to the public.

Moi’s fading magic

The road to Sacho was once awe-inspiring for its smoothness. But it also attracted derision because Moi’s critics dismissed it as a place for drying maize and a goats’ basking field. For these critics, the thin motor traffic on the road did not warrant the tarmacking. Today, the once magnificent road is in disrepair, with potholes in nearly the whole length from Nakuru town.

The road demonstrates the changing fortunes in the ebb and flow of politics. At the peak of Moi’s power in the 1980s and ‘90s, Sacho was a rural State house, a beam of light on the hills above and in the Kerio Valley below it.

Today, the home is deserted. The neighbouring Sacho High School, which was President Moi’s pet project, is in a better shape, with two guards keeping sentry during our visit.

Elsewhere in the vast Baringo County, a majority of the people live in poverty.

“The ordinary people are only pawns in the power game. I was a longtime teacher in Baringo during Moi’s time and I don’t think his rule benefited local people in a big way,” a retired teacher told us.

“Even where he gave out land like in Muchongoi, the pieces were tiny — two-and-a-half to five acres at most — and he was only using this as a barrier to stop the influx of immigrants from Laikipia, not empowerment. It was about populating the area with  loyalists.”

Standing outside Koigi wa Wamwere’s Sauti ya Mwananchi Radio offices atop the eastern tip of the Menengai Crater, overlooking the Subukia Valley, it is easy to understand why the irreverent rebel was a thorn in presidents Kenyatta and Moi’s flesh. The two have vast lands in Subukia and elsewhere in the greater Nakuru North region, which he represented in Parliament. Kibaki, too, has land here.

“In 1979, they felt that I was the wrong man for the constituency. One day (Nicholas) Biwott came to me and asked me to name my price so that I could leave. I said no and they carved out Rongai, which houses Moi’s Kabarak home.”

Historians trace “our man” syndrome to the very foundation of Kenya, right from the colonial government that ruled through administrative divisions, which were ethnic in nature.

At independence, those who took charge realised they could use the tribal architecture of the colonialists to retain power. From the outset, Cabinet ministers were appointed to represent tribes.

The tribe, however, is only used to whip up voters. In the end it is the class that matters more to the elite in the sharing of the spoils.

“The ordinary people are separated from the rest by the class ideology. I have always said that if Raila Odinga and I go to the Uhuru State House, the door would be opened for him faster,” said Wamwere.

He added that the ordinary people know there is nothing in power for them but still, somehow, they are made to believe that if they don’t vote with others they will be defeated and harmed.

After independence, people noticed that whoever was president dished out jobs to people from his community.

When Moi came in, the enlisting of his men was slow but sure. Soon his people filled nearly all key positions.

This closeness to power has often led to loss of billions of shillings in corruption scandals.

The Goldenberg and the Anglo Leasing affairs are the best-known.

The latest WikiLeaks report details how presidents Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki – and their cronies – acquired huge and prime land across the country. Most of the acquisitions in the Kenyatta era were through the elaborate settlement Transfer Fund Scheme financed by the World Bank and the British government.

In all, less than 65 per cent of all arable land in Kenya is in the hands of 20 per cent of Kenyans – mostly these leaders and their power brokers – while nearly 70 per cent have to make do with less than an acre, according to the Kenya Land Alliance.

The extent of the heist highlights the chasm between “our man” and ordinary people whose role it is to prop up those in power.


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