Nyumba Kumi, and The Devolution of State Terror

The cell leader was supported by the party leader for that area (nyumba kumi,10 “ten houses” in Swahili). “Kugaba igitero” (to give orders) was a term used to organize the attacking mobs. This was mostly the job of the nyumba kumi. In this way, ibitero became a kind of offshoot of a wider strategy of mass political and labor mobilization devised in 1973 by Habyalimana’s ruling party MRND (Mouvement Revolutionnaire National pour le Développement). Members of MRND called “Militants” were supposed to maintain maximum control over the population and to carry out the party’s ideology at the local level.

Source: Mironko, C.K (undated): Ibitero: Means and Motive in the Rwandan Genocide. Yale University

You have heard Jubilee remark that Kenya should start limbering for twenty years of TNA and URP joint grip at the Presidency. It is difficult to see how this would be achieved given that Uhuru Kenyatta won the ballot by the thinnest of margins. On top of that, Jubilee’s ratings will suffer from the curse of the incumbency; already helped by the monumental blunders they have made within their first six months in office. Put in a scale, President Uhuru Kenyatta faces the most challenging of working environments than Kenyatta I, Moi and Kibaki combined. Added to the fact that Kenyatta II’s ride in politics has been the smoothest of the four, political inexperience will be his Archilles’ Heel. To survive, Kenyatta II needs a thick skin, or a tyrant’s mental armour, or both. Hence Nyumba Kumi.

Nyumba kumi literally means ‘ten households’. In the political administrative realm, nyumba kumi is another arm of governance which refers to non-salaried community leaders who [are] mandated to represent a group of ten households. These individuals were trusted and respected by their fellow community members. If the family cannot resolve a dispute, in most cases the next step would be to consult nyumba kumi. Nyumba kumi leaders have the mandate to impose fines on disputants who are found guilty of the charges against them.

Source: Mutisi, M. (2012): Local conflict resolution in Rwanda: The case of abunzi mediators; in Mutisi, M. and Sansculotte-Greenidge, K. (eds): INTEGRATING TRADITIONAL AND MODERN CONFLICT RESOLUTION: EXPERIENCES FROM SELECTED CASES IN EASTERN AND THE HORN OF AFRICA. Africa Dialogue Monograph Series No. 2/2012

Is Nyumba Kumi a new concept in Kenya? No. The (former) provincial administration structure recognized the role played by village elders, at the lowest level of the governance pyramid.  The village elders, locally referred to as Miji Kumi, are the government’s ears and eyes on the ground, literally. They meet the Chief periodically to update him on the serial wife-batterer down the valley, the pathological cattle-thief up the mountain, the footloose wanderer at the peripheral market, and the smooth-operating butcher famous for wife snatching. An encounter with a Miji Kumi is not the sweetest of interactions, administratively speaking. During President Moi’s era, before Section 2A was repealed, it was mandatory to own a KANU Membership card, and Miji Kumi were dispatched to execute this order with the ruthlessness of a typhoon. Most Kenyans could not afford the annual membership fee renewal, and so the Miji Kumi would boot down your door, rip apart your cow shed, pick the best of your breed then stamp your KANU folder with a compliance seal. All without demur. For those of you familiar with the word ‘Impunity’, the Miji Kumi of yore personified it.

It took blood, sweat and tears to dislodge Moi from direct reigns of power. That was the good news. The bad news is that Moi is still Kenya’s President. All Kenyans did was to “cut the Mugumo tree with a razor”. It bled for a while but remained rooted to the spot and kept sprouting shoots as deadly as the parent plant itself. Whenever President Moi meets Kenyatta II, the details are always secretive only known to the godfather and the godson. But things done in the dark always come to light, the Good Book says. As you can see with the latest revival of Nyumba Kumi.

As discussed above, Kenyatta II is clutching at straws to keep his head above the political waters. The International Criminal Court wants his head, a scary thought robbing him of sleep each passing night. He sees what happened to Charles Taylor and the humiliation Laurent Gbabgo went through, he knows he is no special mortal. He has been advised by African Dictators to shed off his soft skin and mushy mushy candour and be a man of steel. Slowly but surely, we have seen him address the ICC with a spitting cobra’s venom. The gloves are off, and Kenyatta II will not make it to the Netherlands. It’s the only way to tackle this “personal challenge” course. It’s the most assured way to engrave your name in the walls of political shame. As I write this, the senile African Union is debating whether Kenyatta II should make it to the Hague. All indications are that this is a rubber-stamping conference, the decision having been made long ago during the Hustler’s Jet tour around Mama Afrika.

So, international dissent has been sorted out, and it was about time internal criticism be choked on the pillory. The best way to stick ears on every wall in this country is to revive the Miji Kumi. Before long, University students being suspended on flimsy grounds will be asked to report back to their village elders to receive state punishment and their movement monitored. I have perused studies upon studies on the Nyumba Kumi and all I get are gory details of state terror with volumes of examples on how the concept helped kick-start the Rwanda Genocide.

In January 1994 (three months before the genocide), a Human Rights Watch report states that the [Rwanda] regime was distributing weapons among the population, thereby using the Rwandan administrative organization as part of a so-called civilian self-defence programme. For instance, in August 1991, Colonel Nsabimana, chief of staff of the Rwandan army, proposed to provide a gun for every administrative unit of ten households: ‘at least one person per Nyumba Kumi should be armed’ (unit of ten households; Human Rights Watch, 1994: 27). Human Rights Watch has documented how, in 1992–93, burgomasters (the head of the communal authority) ordered quantities of arms and ammunition that far exceeded the needs of their local police forces (Des Forges, 1999: 97–99). They ordered guns, Kalashnikovs, machine guns, grenades and large quantities of ammunition.

Will the Nyumba Kumi concept be abused again? I pray not.