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September 22, 2018

G-Spot: Of generous Harambee contributions and seemingly inexhaustible funds

William Ruto with the money donated by Uhuru Kenyatta during the Mau harambee
William Ruto with the money donated by Uhuru Kenyatta during the Mau harambee

Recently there has been quite the uproar in Kenya about Deputy President William Ruto and his rather generous harambee contributions. One news report claimed the DP has contributed at least Sh60 million at different harambees in the past six months, which by my calculations comes to almost four years worth of salary. If this and other reports of the DP’s munificence are true, then the man is in good company when it comes to Kenyan politicians who appear to have had seemingly inexhaustible funds.

Assassinated Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki — he of the 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars quote — contributed huge amounts of cash to Harambees but never had a decent answer about how he accumulated so much wealth in the remarkably short time between his release from detention in 1960, to the early to mid-1970s, when his harambee donations were rumoured to have threatened President Jomo Kenyatta.

I was once told that a group of university students attempted to interrogate JM about his millions, and he is said to have claimed that they came from the sales of his 1963 book, Mau Mau Detainee. Despite his being their favourite politician, not many of the students were taken in by this story, and years later, one of them confided to me that on research, he found the book hardly sold more than a few thousand copies, if that. Certainly not enough to bankroll JM’s multimillionaire lifestyle, including the harambee donations.

I think JM made money in the classic ways that many, if not all, of Kenya’s immediate post-Independence rich elite did: by using their proximity to political power to take advantage of the government’s Kenyanisation (later Africanisation) policy to enrich themselves and engage in practices such as tenderpreneurship. There were also the options of trading illegally in ivory and, for those who came in later, the coffee boom of the mid-1970s, which encouraged smuggling and made a number of overnight fortunes.  

Others on the inexhaustible funds list included businessman and politician Harun Mwau, who back in 1997 stunned President Daniel arap Moi and pretty much everyone else with his Sh2.5 million cash donation during a national harambee for the disabled at Uhuru Park.

Of course, there was President Moi himself, who was famously skewered by the satirist Wahome Mutahi back in a 1998 column, which purported to publish the presidential payslip. It showed a monthly salary of Sh40,000, but allowances and other perks coming to nearly Sh12 million. There was also one of the DP’s former comrades in the now-defunct YK’92 grouping, Cyrus Jirongo, who in his heyday had a propensity to dish out wads of crisp Sh500 notes, which were later christened “Jirongos” by the public.

According to the 1992 book, The Rise of the Party State in Kenya: From Harambee! to Nyayo! by Jennifer Widner, we have President Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya’s 1965 Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism to thank for having encouraged voters to judge politicians’ “development” record on their material contributions to harambees. We were fooled into believing that the bigger the donation, the better the leader.

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