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Unholy Trinity: Church, Tribe and Politics in Kenya

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Kenya 2017 coming soon
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On 31 July 2017, the day that Chris Msando’s body was found at the city mortuary, I was on the eighth floor of the Cardinal Otunga Plaza in the middle of Nairobi’s central business district. The floor houses the office of Cardinal John Njue, the head of the Catholic Church in Kenya. I was there to discuss peace and justice issues that the church had been conveying to the country in the lead-up to the 8 August 2017 general election.

I had squeezed in a meeting with his personal secretary, Fr. Calistus Nyangilo, who informed me that the body of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)’s acting ICT manager had been located. “Actually I was with his eminence when the report came through,” Fr. Nyangilo told me. “This is bad for peaceful elections,” Cardinal Njue had told him.

First, a word about Chris Msando. I had met Msando about two months ago at a workshop that had sought his audience to explain the IEBC’s election preparedness to a group of journalists, election specialists and observers. He spoke last. For 45 minutes, Msando took us through what he considered to be a water-tight technological schedule to curb electoral malpractices.

Throughout his stay at the workshop, he took notes, but when he stood to speak, he spoke off the cuff, without a script. He was confident, eloquent and knew his subject matter very well. He had his facts on his fingertips. Another 30 minutes was spent answering inquisitive and tough questions from the participants. At the end of our engagement, many of us gave the IEBC the benefit of the doubt. Initially, we were sceptical about the IEBC’s prep work, but Msando reassured us.

“I want to debunk the myth that the Catholic Church has not been preaching about both peace and justice,” said Fr. Nyangilo. “Maybe the messaging could be wrongly worded, but the church has been adamant that peace and justice are a prerequisite for a credible and just election.” Shooting from the hip, I had begun by asking the Cardinal’s personal secretary why the church seemed to be concerned more about peace, as opposed to justice, or even a credible election.

Sometime in June 2017, lawyer Charles Kanjama, addressed the Catholic church’s top clergy and told them that the church had been sourly “divided in half” during the 2007 general election ethnic flare-up. The one-on-one discussion took place at the Queens of Apostle Seminary in Nairobi, situated off Langata Road. Because of this division, the church could not speak in one voice. It had been deflated and had lost its legitimacy, and could, therefore, not be trusted by its laity or even by the rest of Kenyans.

On 27 July 2017, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) had issued a pastoral letter titled “Seeking Peace and Prosperity” that quoted from the Book of Jeremiah 29:7. Said the letter in part: “The clarion call has been to have Just, Fair, Peaceful and Credible Elections.”

But the pastoral letter was a far cry from the homily and punchy letters that the Catholic church had issued in the past. The letter, just a two-page affair and signed by Rt. Rev Philip Anyolo, the Bishop of Homa Bay and the chairman of KCCB, is nothing more than an exhortation by the Catholic church’s top clergy to the Kenyan people: “We are calling upon all Kenyans to seize this opportunity to exercise our constitutional right and give us leaders of integrity.” The letter ends by “beseeching God to take charge of the whole process of elections.” Then the letter signs off by calling for peace…peace…peace.

That the Catholic church – the biggest and most influential and powerful of the Christian denominations in Kenya – has lost its legitimacy and trust among Kenyans has been a public secret since the botched general election of 2007. Indeed Fr. Nyangilo himself told me as much. “The church has been trying to reclaim its trust – and it takes a long time. That election divided the clergy and it was one of the lowest moments of the church and it has not been easy.”

Since the post-election violence of 2007–2008 that almost tore the fabric that had held the country together since independence in 1963, the Catholic church has been hoping to exorcise the ghost of disunity and division that threw the church off balance. “I will be honest with you, it has been both an individual and collective struggle to reclaim the unity of the church,” said Fr. Nyangilo. He told me that the Archdiocese Justice and Peace Committee had deployed some of its members to talk about justice and peace around the country among the Catholic laity, albeit away from the limelight of the mass media.

Why is the Catholic Church not broadcasting its powerful message loud and clear?

Sometime in June 2017, lawyer Charles Kanjama, addressed the Catholic church’s top clergy and told them that the church had been sourly “divided in half” during the 2007 general election ethnic flare-up. The one-on-one discussion took place at the Queens of Apostle Seminary in Nairobi, situated off Langata Road. Because of this division, the church could not speak in one voice. It had been deflated and had lost its legitimacy, and could, therefore, not be trusted by its laity or even by the rest of Kenyans.

The antagonism between some of the bishops has been palpable. So bad has been the ethnic and political division among the Catholic clergy that an Archdiocese of Nairobi priest, who asked me not to reveal his name for fear of retribution, told me point blank, “I do not recognise Cardinal Njue as my spiritual head.”

The apex of the Catholic church’s ethnic division peaked when a Catholic priest was killed during the 2007-2008 post-election flare up. Fr. Michael Kamau was a priest who hailed from Nakuru diocese but taught at Tindinyo Seminary in Bungoma. On 30 December 2007 or thereabouts, he drove from Tindinyo heading to Nairobi. He was coming to pick a fellow priest who had been seconded to teach at the same seminary. He was excited and happy since the priest he was going to pick was to teach the same subject he was teaching.

On reaching Nakuru, Fr. Kamau, aware that taking the Nairobi-Nakuru highway was risky, took the Kabarnet-Mogotio road leading to Mogotio town. Mogotio was an area that he was familiar with because he had worked there as a parish priest. He, therefore, knew the residents well. But little did he know what lay ahead of him. He was stopped by marauding youth, who, upon realising that he was a Kikuyu, killed him on the spot.

“Father Kamau was killed in the area he had worked as a priest,” a priest from Mitume parish in Kitale, who knew him well, would later tell me. “The people who killed him knew him and they killed him because he was a Kikuyu,” said the priest when we met in Nairobi. Consumed with anger and bitterness, my priest friend told me: “We must avenge the death of Father Kamau…the Kalenjins killed one of our own. We must get our justice.”

Justice has been a difficult subject for the Catholic church’s clergy since 2008. Itself wrought by ethnic division, the church could not purport to talk about justice, even among its laity, when in 2008 its clergy lost all pretense of being united by the Catholic creed.

Otieno Ombok, a staunch Catholic and a peace expert who sits on the board of the Archdiocese of Nairobi Justice and Peace Committee, admitted to me that the Catholic Church completely lost it in 2008. “For a long time after the 2007–2008 debacle, brother priests from warring ethnic communities could not talk to each other,” said Ombok. “The conference of bishops was worse: it was a diametrically divided house.” He added that the senior bishops – “and you know who I am talking about” – could not even sit and share a meal for the longest time.

The antagonism between some of the bishops has been palpable. So bad has been the ethnic and political division among the Catholic clergy that an Archdiocese of Nairobi priest, who asked me not to reveal his name for fear of retribution, told me point blank, “I do not recognise Cardinal Njue as my spiritual head.” The Cardinal, he said, ruined the church when he openly sided with Party of National Unity (PNU). (PNU is the vehicle that former President Mwai Kibaki used to seek re-election in 2007.) “As the head of the Catholic Church, his titular role is to steer clear from partisan politics,” he added. “Yes, the Cardinal is entitled to his personal political opinion, but he should not make it public, or be seen to openly associate with a political figurehead or a political party for that matter.”

The truth of the matter is that ethnic division is not only a preserve of the Catholic church; all the mainstream churches in Kenya today are a reflection of political/ethnic division. During former President Moi’s time, the African Inland Church (AIC) was openly identified as both a “Kanu and Kalenjin church”, so much so that its then head, Bishop Silas Yego, openly associated with Moi, and occasionally even attended some Kanu meetings.

The Cardinal’s predecessor, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, said the priest, was pro-establishment, no doubt, but the one thing he never did was to openly and tacitly side with President Moi and his Kanu party. “Today, every Catholic, every Kenyan knows Cardinal Njue is pro-establishment, he is pro-Jubilee. His role in the lead-up to the 2007 elections was obvious for everybody to witness.”

The renegade priest reminded me that the reason why the Catholic church is limping in this electioneering period is simply because it cannot pretend to moralise to anyone; its leadership is punctured and there is little trust among the college of bishops. “The feeble peace messages sugar-coated with weak justice expressions is simply because the church’s head is interested in maintaining the current political status quo. When the conference of bishops comes together to issue a pastoral letter – like they did on 27 July 2017 – it was to give the impression that they are united and are speaking in one voice, but all that is a PR stunt.”

Yet, while the church that has been struggling to reclaim its power and glory, it has also been readying itself for any post-8 August 2017 election eventuality. In the last month, the conference of bishops has been inviting “election experts” at its Waumini House offices in Nairobi to help it think through the probable scenarios in the lead-up to and after the elections.

In one of these sessions, a facilitator presented the following four possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: Good elections – that will be credible and peaceful. The victor and the loser will both accept the results. Therefore, the transition of power will be smooth.

Scenario 2: Good elections – that will be credible, but that will result in violence because the loser – even after losing fairly – will not concede defeat, hence will not agree to hand over power.

Scenario 3: Bad elections – but “peaceful” because the might of the security apparatus that will be deployed massively will force a false peace. The people will be coerced to accept bad results – leading to a “negative peace”. (Otherwise called the Ugandan peace scenario.)

Scenario 4: Bad elections – that will result in an explosion of violence, even with the presence of the mighty security apparatus. Anarchy will reign supreme.

The in-house discourses that the KCCB has been holding with various experts are ostensibly to help it craft appropriate messages to Kenyans, as well as to prepare itself for the best of times and the worst times. “That notwithstanding, the Catholic church clergy can craft a theology of justice – if it wanted to,” said Ombok. “It doesn’t have to wait for experts to tell it what to do.” Ombok said a larger part of the problem is that the church’s leadership sits comfortably with the state, therefore implicitly, it is pro-establishment.

The truth of the matter is that ethnic division is not only a preserve of the Catholic church; all the mainstream churches in Kenya today are a reflection of political/ethnic division. During former President Moi’s time, the African Inland Church (AIC) was openly identified as both a “Kanu and Kalenjin church”, so much so that its then head, Bishop Silas Yego, openly associated with Moi, and occasionally even attended some Kanu meetings. Yego even helped Moi fend off criticism from the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that brings all the Protestant churches together. After the introduction of political pluralism in 1991, Yego instigated a breakaway group of evangelical churches that accused NCCK of being a political outfit. (NCCK had been on the frontline of exposing Moi’s excesses and in urging him to open up the political space for multiparty politics to thrive.)

Interestingly, NCCK today is a pale shadow of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s when it openly challenged the Moi regime. Today, under the leadership of Rev. Peter Karanja, it has all but gone quiet. Rev. Karanja, although an eloquent church minister, is apparently a victim of the 2007–2008 post-election violence that saw a large section of the non-Kikuyu Anglican laity view him as an apologist for a “Kikuyu state”.

In 2007, the PCEA church leadership openly took sides in the politics of the day. It drummed up support for President Mwai Kibaki and the PNU party. Its adherents, many of them from the ethnic Kikuyu community, tended to conflate their church creed with Kikuyu political leadership.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), from its inception in Kenya in the early 20th century, when the missionaries first set foot in the central Kenya areas of Tumu Tumu in Nyeri and Thogoto in Kiambu, has always been associated with Kikuyu nationalist apologists. A Maasai evangelical pastor once told me that after the Scottish PCEA missionaries had gone, the Kikuyu church leadership that was left behind sought to Kikuyu-ise the church. “When the PCEA church came to evangelise in Maasailand, for example, many of the Maasai children’s names would be turned into Kikuyu-sounding names; others would be given outright Kikuyu names – all in the name of receiving baptismal names.”

In 2007, the PCEA church leadership openly took sides in the politics of the day. It drummed up support for President Mwai Kibaki and the PNU party. Its adherents, many of them from the ethnic Kikuyu community, tended to conflate their church creed with Kikuyu political leadership. When violence erupted in the North Rift, where the church has a great following among the Kikuyus, the church leadership allegedly funded retaliatory attacks.

This is not to say individual PCEA ministers have not opposed the church’s apparent contradictions and paradoxes. Timothy Njoya, now a retired PCEA reverend – though he still preaches at his favourite PCEA church in Kinoo in Kiambu County – fought epic battles within the church and with the state. These battles are acknowledged nationally and globally.

The recent death of Reverend John Gatu in May 2017, a one-time moderator of the PCEA church in Kenya and a good friend of Rev. Njoya, reminds us of the battles he also waged against the state during Jomo Kenyatta’s time. In his biography Fan the Flame, he chronicles how he opposed the 1969 Gatundu oathings and the threats that were levied against him. Njoya remembers Gatu as a church minister, who like himself, fought for justice everywhere and for everyone.

“To the various church establishments, the preaching of peace, and not justice, means that they are only interested in maintaining their own status quo and that of the government of the day,” says Ombok. “It is the way the church has been socialised, since the missionaries’ activities coincided with those of the colonial masters.”

“The peace narrative in the slums is a euphemism for veiled threats and subtle intimidation, coupled with scriptural menacing carefully selected by the quasi-messianic and self-styled pastors, who are just out to eke a living.” Faced with the daily vicissitudes of slum life, the social worker told me, the peace message, when constantly drummed, can easily influence those who are constantly being reminded that “a demand for justice is tantamount to a demand for violence.” The implicit message being passed on is: between peace and “violence” what would you rather have?

Six months to the 2007 general election, a motley group of evangelical/revivalist churches’ leadership came together under the auspices of the House of Bishops. They agreed to speak publicly on the critical issues that would ensure a smooth election that year. The issues included accountability, credibility, fairness, justice, transparency and, well, of course, a peaceful election, among other things.

But unbeknownst to some of the bishops, a splinter group went to the State House and reportedly met President Kibaki. “After the ‘clandestine’ State House meeting, our friends’ demeanour and all the issues we had said we would champion and vocalise changed overnight,” a bishop who was part of the House of Bishops coming together confided in me.

Apparently, the group that had been left behind came to learn that there had been greasing of palms, but more fundamentally, the group that had gone to eat ugali (eating ugali in Kenyan political parlance has come to mean going to State House to be bribed) all belonged to one ethnic community. “There are no prizes for guessing from which community the group of bishops who had gone to see the president came from,” the bishop, who sought anonymity, told me. That is the same group that insisted that the important thing was the country to remain peaceful.

“In the slums of Nairobi and its environs, it is these evangelical/Pentecostal/revivalist churches that are now being used to spread this false message of peace,” said a social worker with a community-based organisation in Kibera, an informal settlement that was the site of much violence in 2007-2008. “My hunch is that they have been given money by the Jubilee Party to cause ‘fear and despondency’, even as they claim to advocate for peace,” said the social worker, who because of the nature of his work, asked that his identity be concealed.

“Life in the slums is always tenuous, people live on the edge all the time – but in peace. When you begin talking about keeping the peace and being peaceful, you inadvertently create doubt in people and the ‘peace’ that is being preached acquires a different meaning,” said the social worker. “The peace narrative in the slums is a euphemism for veiled threats and subtle intimidation, coupled with scriptural menacing carefully selected by the quasi-messianic and self-styled pastors, who are just out to eke a living.”

Faced with the daily vicissitudes of slum life, the social worker told me, the peace message, when constantly drummed, can easily influence people who are constantly being reminded that “a demand for justice is tantamount to a demand for violence.” The implicit message being passed on is: between peace and “violence” what would you rather have?

I found this to be true when I spoke to a middle-aged father of three in Lakisama estate, which neighbours Mathare North, another low-income area in Nairobi. “What we want is peaceful elections – not violence.” Violence here is interpreted to mean disruption of the daily and natural order of life. “Elections will always be stolen. So long as they let us (voters) be, there’s no problem. In any case, leaders are chosen by God not man – that is what the Bible says.”

A more nuanced message that the peace narrative is not talking about – yet that is being hinted covertly – is the notion that a nation’s leader is picked by God. It does not matter whether the leader in question coerces, kills, maims, rigs or steals to remain in power.

Thus, the peace narrative’s other purpose is the normalisation of electoral malpractices, which people should just “accept and move on.”

A more nuanced message that the peace narrative is not talking about – yet that is being hinted covertly – is the notion that a nation’s leader is picked by God. It does not matter whether the leader in question coerces, kills, maims, rigs or steals to remain in power. For the religionists and Christian Right, the end justifies the means. And that is why the peace narrative is largely being drummed by evangelicals – quasi “criminal” men and women – who themselves were “chosen” by God to preach to the people. These kind of pastors litter the slums, where they have converted semi-permanent iron sheets structures into Christ’s tabernacles.

A self-respecting mother of two from Kiamunyi estate in Nakuru told me that a country’s president is ordained by God. “The language of justice, which translates into violence and opposition politics, cannot be equated to the language of peace – which is all embracing and Godly. God is telling us to be peaceful and he is the one who will give us a president.”

Nobody captured the contradictions of the Kenyan church better than my friend Fr. Carole Houle, an American Maryknoll priest and an anthropologist by training who is now resident in the United States. Before retiring, he was the Superior General of the Maryknoll Fathers in East and Central Africa. I got to know Fr. Houle after he came to Kenya from Tanzania, where his congregation had headed the Musoma diocese for close to 25 years, and where he had also forged close ties with the late Tanzanian president, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

“When I came to Kenya,” recalled Fr. Houle, “I found a Catholic church that was highly ethnicised. The priests coalesced around their ethnic identities and so did the laity.” Even in those early days of the 1990s, he could foresee that this was a recipe for disaster, especially for a fragile nation-state like Kenya. “Depending on the occasion, my Catholic friends and priests alike were Catholic first, Kenyan second, and their ethnic identities third.”

This would be the order of their identity priority when in the church precincts, but immediately after the parishioners stepped out of the church, the order would be re-organised. “They would assume their ethnicity identity as their first priority, they would be Catholics second and Kenyans third.” These identities, he observed, could shift effortlessly.

A self-respecting mother of two from Kiamunyi estate in Nakuru told me that a country’s president is ordained by God. “The language of justice, which translates into violence and opposition politics, cannot be equated to the language of peace – which is all embracing and Godly. God is telling us to be peaceful and he is the one who will give us a president.”

“Peace is an important ingredient of the electioneering process,” says Ombok, “but not at the expense of justice. Kenyans are a peaceful lot – it is an oxymoron to ask Kenyans to keep the peace. What Kenyans are demanding for is justice.”

Ombok has been working with Ghetto Radio to spread the message of peace during this electioneering period. His programme is supported by the International Republican Institute (IRI), which also supported peace caravans around Nairobi County in 2013. “Our peace messages are an exhortation to the youth – many of whom listen to Ghetto Radio – not to allow themselves to be (mis)used by politicians from across the political divide to cause mayhem in the campaign period.”

It is not only the church has that been struggling to peddle a peace message that Kenyans are interpreting as lullabies to lull them into “accept and move on” once more. A captain of the insurance industry who is also a member of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) recently told me, “All what KEPSA is doing – pretending to preach peace – is to hope the status quo can remain and to pray for the best.”

“But I will tell you this, the KEPSA leadership is living in a bubble,” said the insurance guru, who asked me to conceal his name so as not to antagonise his company and the KEPSA fraternity. “It is disingenuous for the KEPSA leadership to purport to preach peace instead of calling for credible elections.” The private sector, the captain confided, is undergoing its greatest test ever, “all because of the Jubilee coalition’s ineptitude and grand looting.”

“I think there is going to be violence,’ he predicted. “Nobody is buying this false narrative of peace and remaining calm.” He said his Asian colleagues were closing shop a week before the elections, travelling abroad, from where they will monitor the unfolding events. “If all turns out well, we will be back in business by 15 August,” his colleagues had told him.

“As the country is being inundated with peace messages, drums of war are being beaten in certain sections of the country,” said a lawyer friend who has been doing litigation work in Eldoret. “I have been in the North Rift for the better part of July and I can tell you the voters there are being militarised as if being prepped for battle.”

The lawyer, whose clients include both Jubilee Party and NASA coalition candidates, said he had also been in Baringo County for two weeks and what he witnessed there left him with no doubt that the clarion calls for peace was a diversionary tactic of the Jubilee Party. “Songs of war, talk of defending our birthright, people being asked to protect their leaders – by all means, by any means necessary. This is what is happening in William Ruto’s key fanatical support zones,” said the lawyer.

Drinking copious mugs of tea in a Nairobi restaurant, the lawyer said he had an eerie feeling of the calm before a storm when he was up in Eldoret and Baringo County. “I was on my tenterhooks all the time I was in Kabartonjo and Kabarnet…the Kalenjins have sworn not to let power slip through their hands. I am not sure about anything anymore.” He said that when he was in Bomet and Kericho he felt more relaxed.

In spite of the peace messages ostensibly being broadcast all over Nairobi and central Kenya, many of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s fanatical supporters are speaking a different language: a combative language of not ceding ground. “If we are not going to have ‘peaceful’ (read going our way by hook or crook) elections, then let Uhuru unleash the military might on these people (these people being anybody opposed to the leadership of the Kikuyu hegemonists),” said an Uhuru supporter from Kiambu County.

In the opposition turfs, the peace messages are being interpreted to mean: this time around, we are not falling for your (President Uhuru’s) ruse – of accept and move on. “If President Uhuru tampers with the election results, we are not going to court, we will burn the country,” my ghetto friends from Huruma have vowed. “We are ready…for any possible eventuality.”

A couple of day ago, a gangland youth leader from Kariobangi North was addressing his gang members of about a hundred young men. “This time ni kufa kupona, Jakom anawahi uprezo na lazima tumwapishe.” (This time round, it will be a matter of life and death, the chairman – Raila Odinga – will win the presidency and we are going to swear him in). “Ounye anataka kumwaga amiero, lakini pia yeye ajua tuko chonjo.” (Uhuru is planning to unleash the army on us, but he should know even us we are prepared).

The gangland youth was congregating a stone’s throw away from the Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The peace narrative, it seems, may just turn out (this time around) to be just that: a once-upon-a-time narrative.

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Politics

Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession

The effects of the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.

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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
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Two years have gone by since I last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.

It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.

“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had  carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.

One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.

“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.”  The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.

For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”

The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.

The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.

At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.

Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.

“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”

Return to Kasighau

The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.

It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.

According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.

No land, more problems

In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.

“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”

According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.

Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”

However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.

“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.

“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”

“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”

Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.

“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”

Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.

“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.

It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.

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Politics

Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid

In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.

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Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid
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The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.

The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.

The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace

Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.

Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.

Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.

This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.

Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter

Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.

The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.

The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.

From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.

Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.

Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.

Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.

Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.

The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku

Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:

1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.

2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:

  • It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
  • The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
  • It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
  • It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.

Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.

This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:

  • Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
  • Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
  • Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.

Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:

  • The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
  • The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent

Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.

Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.

Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya

Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.

He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:

  1. Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
  2. A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.

He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.

ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market

According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.

Moving beyond the state?

The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021

In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.

Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.

Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’

This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal. 

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Omissions of Inquiry: Kenya and the Limitations of Truth Commissions

Gabrielle Lynch provides a radical analysis of the mechanisms of transitional justice. Looking at the case of Kenya, Lynch argues that truth commissions which hope to achieve truth, justice and reconciliation also require ongoing political struggles, and substantive socio-economic and political change. While reconciliation and justice may be goals which truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, they cannot be expected to achieve them.

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In today’s world, it is almost expected that a truth commission will be introduced in the wake of conflict or a period of authoritarianism to try and consolidate a transition to democracy and peace. A truth commission generally understood – as per Priscilla Hayner – as a temporary state-sanctioned body that investigates a pattern of past abuse, engages ‘directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences’ and which aims to conclude with a public report.

The underlying idea is that societies need to confront and deal with unjust histories if they are to establish a qualitative break with that past. Proponents of modern truth commissions thus ‘look backwards’, not as interested historians, but as a way to ‘reach forwards.’ As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained in his foreword to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report:

The other reason amnesia simply will not do is that the past refuses to lie down quietly. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt one … However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them, so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past. It is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future.

Motivated by this desire to render the past ‘passed’ in the substantial sense of being ‘dead’ or ‘over and done with’, modern truth commissions dedicate most of their time to two activities: the holding of public hearings and production of a final report.

This is a relatively recent development. Early truth commissions did not hold public hearings and were largely fact-finding bodies. However, ever since the South African TRC of the 1990s, truth commissions have held hearings as a stage for various actors – victims, perpetrators, political parties, state institutions and so forth – to present their account of past wrongs. The underlying idea is that people will have a chance to speak and be heard, and thus regain their humanity; that a wider (and engaged) audience will bear witness to a new human rights-conscious regime; and the overview provided will feed into, and help legitimise, a final report. The latter in turn intended to record and acknowledge past wrongs and provide recommendations that can help to promote truth, justice and reconciliation.

However, while much hope is often placed, and much time and money expended, on truth commissions and their hearings and final reports, it is evident that these processes generally fall far short of ambitious goals and high expectations. But what explains this gap between aspiration and reality?

This is one of the questions that I address in a new book – Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya – which analyses several transitional justice mechanisms introduced following Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8 when over 1,000 people were killed and almost 700,000 were displaced.

This includes the establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Significantly, the Commission’s mandate recognised that, while the 2007/8 post-election violence was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems.  In turn, the Commission was tasked with investigating a wide array of injustices – from state repression and causes of political violence to perceptions of economic marginalisation and irregular land acquisition – between Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in February 2008.

Established through an Act of Parliament in 2008, and operational from 2009 to 2013, the TJRC sought to meet its mandate, in large part, by collecting statements (with over 40,000 collected in total), holding public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country and adversely mentioned person (AMP) hearings in western and Nairobi, and publishing a substantial final report that runs to over 2,000 pages.

Despite such achievements, the Commission was soon mired in controversy with calls for the chairman – who was soon linked to three injustices that the Commission was meant to investigate – to resign, while the public hearings attracted little media attention, and the final report is yet to be discussed in parliament let alone implemented.

The Kenyan experience highlights a range of lessons and insights. This includes the fact – as recently outlined in a piece for The Conversation – that transitional justice mechanisms are not ‘tools’ that can be introduced in different contexts with the same effect. Instead, their success (or failure) rests on their design, approach and personnel – all of which are incredibly difficult to get right – but also on their evaluation and reception, and thus on their broader contexts, which commissions have little or no control over.

However, the lessons that can be drawn go beyond reception and context and extend to the inherent shortcomings of such an approach.

First, while victims appreciate a chance to speak and be heard, the majority clearly submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken to redress the injustices described. As one woman explained after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken and how, having told her story, the Commission would ‘come in and help.’

To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included ‘justice’ in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations and institutional and constitutional reforms.

However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated that ‘recommendations shall be implemented.’ However, such legal provisions proved insufficient. Amidst general scepticism about the Commission’s work, parliament amended the TJRC Act in December 2013 to ensure that the report needed to be considered by the National Assembly – something that is yet to happen.

Moreover, to document and acknowledge the truth requires that one hears from both victims and perpetrators. However, the latter often have little motivation, and much to lose, from telling the truth. This was evident in Kenya where, during the AMP hearings I attended, where I heard little that was new and not a single admission of personal responsibility or guilt. Instead, testimonies were characterised by five discursive strands of responsibility denied: denial through a transfer of responsibility, denial through a questioning of sources, denial through amnesia, denial through a reinterpretation of events and an assertion of victimhood, and denial that events constituted a wrongdoing. However, while AMPs denied responsibility, none denied that injustices had occurred. As a result, while the hearings provided little clarity on how and why a series of reported events may have occurred, they simultaneously drew attention to, and recognised, past injustice. In this way, they provided a public enactment of impunity: Kenya’s history was replete with injustice, but AMPs were unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for it.

This ongoing culture of impunity points to another issue, which is that – for most victims – injustices clearly do not belong to the past but to the present and future. The loss of a person or income, for example, often constitutes a course that now seems beyond reach – from the hardship that accompanies the loss of a wage earner to the diminished opportunities that stem from a child’s extended absence from school. However, the past also persists in other ways, from the injustices that never ended, such as gross inequalities or corruption, to fears of repetition and experiences of new injustice.

Unfortunately, the idea that one can ‘look backwards to reach forwards’ downplays the complex ways in which the past actually persists, and possible futures infringe on the present. This is problematic since it can encourage a situation where small changes dampen demands for more substantive reform. At the same time, it can facilitate a politicised assertion of closure that excludes those who do not buy into the absence of the past, the newness of the present, or the desirability of imagined futures and provides a resource to those who seek to present such ‘difficult people’ as untrusting, unreasonable and unpatriotic.

This is not to say that truth commissions are useless and should never be considered. On the contrary, many view speaking as better than silence, while the commission’s report provides a historical overview of injustice in Kenya and a range of recommendations that activists and politicians are using to lobby for justice and reform.

However, when introduced, truth commissions should be more aware of the importance of persuasive performances and how their initial reception and longer-term impact is shaped by broader socio-economic, political and historic contexts. Truth commissions also need to adopt a more complex understanding of the ways in which the past persists, and possible futures infringe on the present and avoid easy assertions of closure.

Ultimately, such ambitious goals as truth, justice and reconciliation require not Freudian ‘talk therapy’, although catharsis and psycho-social support are often appreciated, but an ongoing political struggle, and substantive socio-economic and political change, which something like a truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, but cannot be expected to achieve.

This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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