Encounter with the Logic of Unreason
By Evans Kinyua (Kenya)
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Encounter with the logic of unreason Evans Kinyua
“The problem is that everyone here is a commander,” Jacob Kariuki said, his brow wrinkled in deep thought. “Ergo, they can break rules, intimidate people into submission, do virtually anything that pleases their fancy, and get away with it.”
We are sitting under a tree on Suk Juba Street, where a woman is cooking and selling tea. We are juggling glasses of hot, thick, sweetened black tea from hand to hand, a favorite beverage in this region, an antidote, they say, to the stifling hot weather. The science eludes me, but then, I come from Kenya, where the climate is much cooler. The Sudanese say that we in Kenya are blessed with natural air conditioning.
“What do you mean,” I ask him.
“Everyone, in uniform or civilian dress, says that they are commanders. And having so declared, they are in fact saying that they have carte blanche to do anything.”
“I am still in the dark,” I state. This is October of 2009, and I am in Juba for the second time since my last visit in November of 2005, four years to the day. Kariuki is one of the Kenyans who migrated in droves into the capital of Southern Sudan in search of business and employment opportunities.
“Sometime in 2007 a gentleman drove with a small truck full of crates of beer to one of the numerous restaurants that had sprung up at riverside, on the banks of the river Nile. This one was operated by an Indian guy. The visitor asked to see the proprietor, who duly presented himself. Then the gentleman introduced himself as a commander with the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a fact supported by the presence of two red eyed soldiers in worn out fatigues who accompanied him, each holding an AK 47. He inquired as to how much the restaurant retailed beer to customers, and the Indian guy gave the answer, four hundred pounds a bottle, assuming that the commander was about to give an order for him to supply, probably a bulk order for the army. He was in for the shock of his life,” Kariuki said, leaving me even more perplexed.
“Up to that point the conversation, which was taking place at a table within the premises, was deceptively cordial. Until said gentleman asked the Indian to kindly follow him outside to the parking lot, where he found the truck, surrounded by a couple of other similarly red eyed soldiers. Thence, the subtle became overt.”
“What on earth do you mean by that,” I asked Kariuki.
Kariuki continued with the account of what happened next. “My name is Commander Adri Iddris. I want you to buy this beer,” the man said, opening the tail gate of the truck and pointing at the hundreds of crates packed inside.
“That’s ok. I needed to re-order anyway. I purchase at three hundred pounds per bottle. How many crates do you have?”
“A while ago you told me the price at which you sell beer. Now you are telling me a lower price. That is unacceptable,” the Commander retorted.
“What I am offering you is the wholesale price, the same price I pay the distributors in Uganda. I cannot buy from you at retail price. I have to make a profit,” the Indian replied, clearly disoriented by the turn of the transaction.
“You people came here to make huge profits by exploiting the people. If you don’t buy this beer, I will order you to pack your things and leave Southern Sudan,” the Commander threatened, unperturbed by the explanation. In fact, it was as though he never heard the explanation at all. As if on cue, his cadre of ragtag soldiers cocked their menacing AK47s and stared at the hapless proprietor with grim faces full of meaning.
Kariuki waved his left hand over the mouth of his glass to chase away a swarm of stubborn blue bottle flies. He bent the mouth of the glass and poured a little of the tea, thereby getting rid of one of the insects which had fallen inside the glass. Then he sipped, and turned to me. “The poor Indian had to buy the beer at retail price, and sell at cost.”
“Why didn’t he go to the police, or simply refuse to buy it?” I asked Kariuki, displaying my ignorance of the socio-cultural situation.
“There is no justice for foreigners here. He would have lost everything,” he answered solemnly. “The commanders reign supreme.”
Having come to Juba to start a business, I was disturbed by the message this story was passing. We sat in silence for a while, mulling over the implications of the narrative. I was finding it absurd, and difficult to believe, and I said so.
“Surely, that one incident could be an isolated case of a rogue officer. It does not justify collectively describing the rest as such,” I opined.
“Unfortunately, similar examples are too frequent. Take the case of Juba Starehe, for instance.”
“What is Juba Starehe? I asked.
“I can see you haven’t been around for long. You see that huge, nice hotel near the Ministry of Communication?”
“That is Juba Starehe, the best hotel in this town. It is the hotel that the UN Secretary General stayed at when he visited recently. The most modern building in the town, complete with a fountain in the foyer. That building has a story. The investors who put it up bought the land from a guy who identified himself as a commander with the SPLA. He purported to own the land, and the investors, confident that they were dealing with a bona fide land owner, one of the ruling elite for good measure, duly doled out a fortune, in dollars, to buy the property. The man went his way, and they started construction. When construction was complete, and the day for a grand opening was announced, a local villager turned up, and, without blinking an eye, claimed that the land was his, and that he wanted it back.”
“He wanted what back? The hotel or the land?” I asked in consternation.
Kariuki wiped sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, which immediately darkened courtesy of the dust that swirled everywhere. “The land. He said that he wanted the developers to return his land.”
“Unbelievable,” I exclaimed.
“It gets worse. Someone mentioned that they had seen that same guy passing by severally, scrutinizing the progress of work with avid interest. You see the land in and around Juba town is owned by the Barre tribe, apportioned among clans and families.”
“So he was the real owner?”
“Apparently he was. The original guy, the commander, was a fake. This new guy had the papers to prove his contention.”
“And why didn’t he mention that the land was his from the beginning, during those times when you say he passed by and save the investors the embarrassment and cost?”
“That is the paradox that is South Sudan. He wanted the developers to finish building, and then demand for his land, knowing too well that by then they have sunk so much into the project that they would have to negotiate with him. But he wouldn’t put it in those terms. He would ask for his land back.”
“Sly bastard,” I say. “How did it end?”
“They negotiated. Gave him shares in the business. Not a few shares, but a substantial interest.”
“Did they sue the commander?”
“You don’t sue commanders here if you know what is good for you,” Kariuki answered. “You write it off.”
Kariuki stood up and stretched. He had nothing to do that day. Somebody who owed him money had asked him to return bukra-tomorrow- for the money. “Everything here is done bukra,” he lamented in a tone of disgust. “That’s another thing; nothing is done today, nothing moves.”
I finished my glass of tea and requested Kariuki to accompany me to High Malakal, where I was to meet an agent to show me some business premises. “I will buy you lunch,” I offer, knowing that he was flat broke. He obliged, and I was glad for the company.
We trudged up Haile Selassie Avenue, trying to brave the punishing heat, as Kariuki continued with his sermon. “Most of us Kenyans who came here thought it was a slum dunk, a grand money making opportunity. In a way it is, and many have been lucky to make a fortune in a short time. Equally, many have been jailed over trumped up charges decided in kangaroo court fashion, while others have gone back home in body bags, killed under suspicious circumstances.”
A chill went up my spine. I glanced at him quizzically.
“For instance, if you are driving and a Sudanese driver hits your car from behind, you are adjudged guilty automatically, contrary to standard traffic laws worldwide. In one case I heard the fallacious argument that ‘if the Kenyan driver had not come here the accident would not have happened.’ “Can you believe the audacity of that logic?”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. It was rhetorical anyway. The impudence simply mind numbing.
“Some of us call it the logic of unreason. You could say that the guy of Juba Starehe Hotel employed trickery to own shares in that establishment, to reap where he did not sow. At least he had it going for him that the land was his. In many cases it is purely brawn over any pretence at even basic trickery. Take the case of GG Security.”
I was completely unnerved by these revelations. I decided that if what Kariuki was about to narrate was as incredulous as the other events, I was going to take the first plane out of there.
“There is a law that any business registered here must have a Sudanese as a director. It is a good law, which, if well implemented and monitored, could avoid the Kenyan situation. When our country won independence, the majority of Kenyans could not raise capital to start businesses. That is how you find that most businesses in our country are foreign owned. The few Kenyans who could afford the capital were the few political elite created by the former masters. They are the same people who became directors in foreign owned businesses, as a pr exercise, for the political goodwill.”
“Anyway, the government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) has made this law. Therefore you will find that all companies here have a Sudanese director. GG security, a global brand expanding to this region out of Nairobi, was the largest security firm until a month ago. Their Sudanese director, who had been given a paltry one per cent shareholding and a monthly stipend, took over the entire company!”
“It is hard to believe that one man can take over a whole company,” I state.
“He did. In a spectacular fashion. Every other day he would come to the office and demand money from the accountant. For a whole year he did this, and the staff put up with it, because he was a director, and in any case the company could opt to recover the advances from his end of year dividend. But it got to a point where they couldn’t honor his demands any longer. One day, when he arrived at the premises pulling his weight as usual, the accountant informed him that there was no money available. A huge man compared to the slightly built Kenyans, he got violent, snatched the key to the safe from the cashier, and helped himself to all the money in the cashbox.”
“The regional managing director from Kenya flew to Juba to resolve the matter, and the man drove him out of the offices with a dire warning never to come back. The top honcho from London was informed, and he too flew to Nairobi, and onwards to Juba. He called a staff meeting. When all were seated, he demanded to know who this, quote, bastard, unquote, was, who thought he could take over the company. The culprit had heard of the meeting, and he was sitting at the back. He stood up, walked confidently up to the CEO, and walloped him a generous punch to the face. The shocked CEO went straight to the airport, and out of Juba. The company’s accounts were subsequently frozen, ostensibly to enable the wrangle to be resolved. There is no need to say that the man used his connections to achieve this. To date, the accounts are still frozen, with a lot of money in them, and the company cannot afford even operational expenditure”
For a while I was baffled and too stunned to comment. When I recovered, I asked Kariuki, “Why do you persist, knowing all these things and what could happen to you?”
“Today is a nightmare, but tomorrow is a beautiful dream. This is the last frontier for us to mint.”
“Surely it is better to struggle back home, where the rule of law applies?”
“Back home, every day and every tomorrow is a nightmare. The justice and economic systems are designed for the few rich. What is the difference between that and this?” he asked, wiping perspiration from his brow. “The hoi polloi stand no chance whatsoever of breaking the glass ceiling back home. Here, you take your chances and inshallah, the Lord may smile upon you.”
We boarded a Ugandan owned matatu at the downtown main stage, and continued with our chatter as the vehicle took off towards Juba Teaching and Referral Hospital. A passenger asked to be dropped at the hospital stage, but he was a bit late in issuing the instructions as he had been busy chatting with a colleague. The vehicle had already passed the spot by a few meters. When the matatu finally stopped, the man, a Dinka fellow of the usual abundant proportions, refused to alight, demanding that the driver reverses the few meters back to the spot directly opposite the gates of the hospital. Without responding to the man’s rude complaints, the Ugandan driver duly reversed to the place so ordered. Once the man got off in a huff, and the vehicle was on the move again, Kariuki turned to me.
“You see what I mean? Of course, the vehicle had passed the place where he wanted to alight by a few meters. But it was his fault. He had been busy talking to his friend. Secondly, why couldn’t he walk just the few meters back? It would have taken him just two seconds to do so. This is the perfect example of the logic of unreason that prevails here.”
I couldn’t disagree with his analysis. The incident had proved Kariuki’s assertion that the ruling class, and the whole tribe behind it, assumed the position of deities, the rest of the citizenry as second class, and the foreigners from neighboring countries as a distant third. It wasn’t a very confidence building realization for a businessman looking to put his money on the ground.
“You will find that most Kenyans do not re-invest profits here. They repatriate the money to Nairobi as soon as they get it. Any thing can happen, as you have just seen. For instance, many people have lost money after supplying things to government ministries and agencies, because when there is a reshuffle and a new minister or official takes over, he completely disregards all contracts prior to his tenure, under the reason that he was not the one who entered into such an agreement.”
“But for years, we gave them comfort and succor in our country, when they were fighting the war. Millions of them have lived peacefully in our country, free from molestation, free to go about their business. I see thousands of Sudanese in Nairobi, Eldoret and other towns. In fact they have almost taken over some of the suburbs in Nairobi,” I lament.
“Spoken with true, diplomatic wisdom. But we long ceased to expect reciprocal reception. And speaking of diplomacy, the Kenyan consul has been of little help. Like all diplomats, he behaves like a dog on a leash; restrained, unable to even bark, careful not to offend the local leadership. The private citizens, like us, are on their own.”
The building I wanted to look at turned to be partially bombed out. The owner, an Arab who had moved to Khartoum after the CPA was signed, was asking for two thousand dollars per month, payable twelve months in advance. “The owner wants twenty four thousand dollars in advance,” the agent said.
“Will he do the renovations,” I inquire.
“No. You will have to do the repair work yourself.”
“I will think about it,” I tell him, beckoning Kariuki that we leave. “What a jerk. That is extortion,” I comment in low decibel as we leave.
“That is the average asking price for premises. They are owned by Arabs, the majority of whom retreated to Khartoum after the CPA, and the rest after the riots by the Southerners when John Garang was killed, allegedly assassinated, possibly by the Arabs, it was rumored. Well aware of the shortage of housing, they are out to revenge by charging sky high prices.”
I bought Kariuki the lunch as promised, and left for the airport at 4 pm for my flight to Nairobi. The last I saw of him, he was sitting on a stone by the side of the dusty road to the airport, broke and forlorn, no doubt thinking about the debt he was owed. I hope he was paid bukra.
I decided that there would be no bukra for me. I would not put my money where common sense was turned on its head, where there was so much unreason.