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MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Roots of the crisis in Cameroon

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MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Roots of the crisis in Cameroon
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Since October 2016, Cameroon – one of the most stable states in a volatile subregion – has been making international headlines. A political crisis – the Anglophone Crisis – is shaking the country to the core. It started as a sectoral crisis – with lawyers and teachers demanding for English to remain the primary language of the education and judiciary systems of the English-speaking part of the country – but later turned into a political crisis after the protests were met with military violence, mass arrests and torture.

A country in turmoil

In November 2016, hundreds of people took to the streets in Bamenda after violence was inflicted on lawyers asking for Common Law and English to remain the basis of the judiciary subsystem and on teachers asking for the non-Francophonisation of the Anglophone education subsystem. At first, many people from the northwest and southwest regions were not for separation or violence; people were peacefully protesting for change. However, denial in official statements and the continuous violent responses from the government led to the emergence of small secessionist groups that are taking advantage of the situation to radicalise local activists and non-activist citizens.

Local groups and parts of the Anglophone diaspora have revived the separatist agenda: some demand federalism, others secession.

On October 1st, thousands of people in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon took part in a peaceful march to symbolically proclaim the independence of Ambazonia, the name of an independent country that would be located in the northwest and southwest regions.

According to an International Crisis Group report, security in Cameroon has deteriorated in the Anglophone regions of the northwest and southwest. To protest against the government’s marginalisation of Anglophones, protestors set fire to seven schools and several shops and, for the first time in Cameroon’s post-independence history, homemade bombs were detonated in mid-September 2017. Between 14th and 20th September, two bombs exploded in the northwest region; there were no casualties. On 21st September, another bomb was detonated at a police station in Bambenda, injuring three police officers. A fourth bob nearly exploded in Douala.

After the explosion, the governors of the northwest and southwest regions imposed a de facto curfew, cutting off the Internet for 24 hours, barring movement between Anglophone divisions, and banning gatherings and demonstrations until 3rd October. Despite these measures, around 50,000 people took to the streets in tens of towns and communities in the northwest and southwest regions on September 22nd, demanding the departure of President Paul Biya, the release of Anglophone political leaders and separation. The date chosen coincided with the president’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly. However, what was supposed to be a peaceful march turned violent in some areas. According to local newspapers, some protesters in Buea vandalised the home of the town’s mayor, who is Anglophone but against the protesters. In Mamfe, a police station was set on fire. Four protesters were shot to death by police forces and several more were injured.

On October 1st, thousands of people in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon took part in a peaceful march to symbolically proclaim the independence of Ambazonia, the name of an independent country that would be located in the northwest and southwest regions. This also coincided with the anniversary of the reunification of Cameroon under French mandate and British Southern Cameroon in 1961.

The response of military forces to the march was the most repressive to date. According to Amnesty International, 17 people were reported dead and more than 200 people were arrested during demonstration. The government put the figure at around 10 deaths, but according to locals, the army killed about 100 people on that day. In total, since the beginning of the crisis in October 2016, at least 55 people have officially been reported dead.

These repressive measures led to retaliation by the populace. People burnt vehicles belonging to the sub-prefect and prefect in Boyo and Fundong (in the northwest), snatched weapons from gendarmes in Kumba (in the southwest), ransacked police stations in Ikiliwindi, Mabanda Teke and Kongle, and threw stones at police and military officers in Buea and Bamenda. Since the beginning of November, four military men have been killed in conditions that are still not clear. Cho Ayaba, a leading member of the political wing of the separatist movement who lives abroad, told Reuters, “Cameroon soldiers are enforcing an occupation. The only thing that will make us stop these attacks is if the regime withdraws. If they stop using the military to impose political exclusion and systematic terror on our people.”

The so-called Anglophone Crisis is not something new, as the international media suggest; it has its roots in the decolonisation era.

Currently, the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have become ghost towns due to general strikes – an initiative taken by the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium as part of their long-term protest against a government they deem biased towards French speakers. For a year now, schools have not been fully operational, a lost year for students. In September, the so-called Ghost Town operations continued for three days each week. Several stores and seven schools were burnt down to protest against them opening despite the ban. Paul Biya agreed to release some Anglophone leaders and activists to stop the operations and to prevent the school year from being jeopardised for the second year in a row. However, the releases had little or no effect; enrolment rates remain very low and the ghost town operations are still ongoing.

The root of the crisis

The so-called Anglophone Crisis is not something new, as the international media suggest; it has its roots in the decolonisation era. Despite the fact that the current crisis started as a language issue between Anglophones and Francophones, the problem is not really about language; it is about people fighting for respect, integration and identity.

In July 1884, the German government and the traditional Douala chiefs signed a treaty that established a protectorate called Kamerun. After Germany lost in World War I, the victorious powers imposed punitive territorial, military and economic provisions that led to Germany losing her colonies. Kamerun, which was a former German colony, was partitioned between Britain and France under a League of Nations mandate, which appointed France and Britain as joint trustees of Kamerun. France gained the larger share and ruled its territory Cameroun from Yaoundé. Britain’s territory, Northern and Southern Cameroon – a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad – was ruled from Lagos. During the period of the mandate and the trusteeship, each colonial power shaped their territories in their own image.

 

A report from International Crisis Group describes the situation clearly:

This resulted in major differences in political culture. English was the official language in the territory under British administration. The justice system (Common Law), the education system, the currency and social norms followed the British model. The system of indirect rule allowed traditional chiefdoms to remain in place and promoted the emergence of a form of self-government to the extent that freedom of the press, political pluralism and democratic change in power existed in Anglophone Cameroon prior to independence. The territory was administered as though it was part of Nigeria and several members of British Cameroon’s Anglophone elite were ministers in the Nigerian government in the 1950s.

 In contrast, the Francophone territory was directly administered by France following the assimilationist model, although colonisers and the traditional elites also practised a form of indirect government, especially in the north of the country. French was spoken and France’s social, legal and political norms shaped the centralist political system of successive regimes. Bogged down in a total war against the nationalist movement (Union des populations du Cameroun – UPC), which challenged French presence, the Francophone territory was less democratic.

Being used to self-administration, Southern and Northern Cameroon were in many ways more developed than French Cameroun, with several industries and a sense of democracy. French Cameroun accessed independence before English-speaking Cameroon on January 1, 1961. British Cameroon was aspiring to independence as an autonomous state, but former colonial powers believed that it would not be economically viable and advocated for not creating microstates. So a referendum took place on February 11, 1961: British Cameroon was supposed to choose between joining Nigeria or the new Republic of Cameroon. Northern Cameroon chose to join Nigeria and Southern Cameroon chose to join the Republic of Cameroon. This led to the independence of Southern Cameroon in October 1961 and the creation of a federal state with a flag with two stars symbolising the two territories coming together – West Cameroon being the former Southern Cameroon and East Cameroon being the former Republic of Cameroon. Both territories were now one under the name United Republic of Cameroon.

Problems started when, despite the constitutional provision stating that English and French were both official languages, French became the language of administration.

A federal constitution approved by the National Assembly of the Republic of Cameroon in August 1961 and promulgated by the then president Amadou Ahidjo in September 1961 was imposed when negotiating the terms of reunification. (Southern Cameroon was then still under the trusteeship of Britain since as it obtained independence on October 1, 1961.)

Centralisation was the governing mode of the former French territory, and the federated state was administrated from Yaoundé, where political leaders held all powers in their hands to the detriment of traditional chiefs whose authority was recognised and respected during the trusteeship. The assimilationist model the former French territory experienced under French trusteeship became its way of governance. In line with the constitutional provision stating that the vice president must be from West Cameroon if the federal president comes from East Cameroon and vice versa, John Ngu Foncha became vice president of the country and prime minister of West Cameroon.

Problems started when, despite the constitutional provision stating that English and French were both official languages, French became the language of administration. Then Amadou Ahidjo divided the country into six administrative regions and appointed federal inspectors in each region. English- speaking Cameroonians were not happy because West Cameroon could not at the same time be a federated state according to the constitution and be an administrative region by decree. The appointed federal inspector had more powers over the region than its prime minister. At the economic level, Ahidjo imposed an exchange rate of £1 to FCFA692 instead of the normal FCFA800, which reduced the purchasing power of the region that still had strong ties with Britain. Then he demanded for West Cameroon to cut ties with Britain, which made the region lose export duty advantages.

Though the southwest and northwest regions play an important role in the economy, especially when it comes to agriculture and trade, and though most of Cameroon’s oil, which accounts for one-twelfth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), is located off the coast of the Anglophone region, these regions are still lagging behind.

The economic decline of West Cameroon became evident. Reunification came with the dismantlement of the federal state/region’s economic structures, such as the West Cameroon Marketing Board, the Cameroon Bank and Powercam, as well as abandonment of several projects (the port of Limbé, and airports at Bamenda and Tiko), with investments in the Francophone part of the country having more advantages. The problem still persists to date.

Though the southwest and northwest regions play an important role in the economy, especially when it comes to agriculture and trade, and though most of Cameroon’s oil, which accounts for one- twelfth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), is located off the coast of the Anglophone region, these regions are still lagging behind.   As Amindeh Blaise Atabong declared on Quartz, “In Cameroon’s 2017 public investment budget, home region of president Paul Biya, in the south, was allocated far more resources than the northwest and southwest regions put together. Going by the country’s government project logbook for the year, the south region was accorded over 570 projects at a total sum of over $225 million (FCFA 126 billion). For its part, the northwest region had no more than 500 projects to be executed with over $76 million (FCFA 42 billion), while the southwest region had slightly over $77 million (FCFA 43 billion) for over 500 projects.”

When Paul Biya succeeded Amadou Ahidjo in November 1982, he further centralised power. On August 22, 1983, he divided the Anglophone region into two provinces: North-West and South-West provinces. The following year, he changed the country’s official name to the Republic of Cameroon and removed the second star representing the English-speaking part of the country from the flag. (The Republic of Cameroon was the name of the former Francophone territory.) These decisions symbolically killed West Cameroon and assimilated it within the Republic of Cameroon.

The separatist agenda and the way forward

As previously mentioned, the separatist agenda is not a new one. In 1993, English-speaking Cameroonians organised the All Anglophone Conference (AAC) and called for a return to federalism. During this period, Anglophone political leaders Muna and John Ngu Foncha went to the United Nations to demand independence for former Southern Cameroon. The position of the Social Democratic Front (the main opposition party then and now with a strong contingent of English-speaking Cameroonians) was judged to be ambiguous since it was against secession, which led to the creation in 1995 of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Since 1996, the SCNC has been demanding secession and has taken its case to the UN, the African Court of Banjul, the Commonwealth and national embassies.

Cameroon cannot afford another armed conflict. The country is already engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the far north and militias from the Central African Republic in the east. The president has to take drastic and lasting measures to solve the crisis.

Despite the situation being a stalemate, measures have been taken to solve the crisis: there have been several attempts to dialogue; about a thousand English-speaking teachers across the southwest and northwest have been appointed; a Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism has been created; and leaders of the separatist movement have been released. In reality, however, these measures were doomed to fail from the start. Dialogue was actually the government trying to impose its conditions on the English-speaking leaders at the table. And the Commission is nothing but the recycling of former members of government or people with close ties to it.

Cameroon cannot afford another armed conflict. The country is already engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the far north and militias from the Central African Republic in the east. The president has to take drastic and lasting measures to solve the crisis.

Firstly, the president should act as if he cares about the situation and spend more time on national soil instead of abroad. Secondly, a mediator should be appointed to negotiate high-level talks between the government and the separatists, be they on national soil or from the diaspora, since the diaspora is playing a major part in the movement. Thirdly, each official who has ever been publicly disrespectful when addressing or talking about English-speaking Cameroonians should apologise and resign.

The law on decentralisation promulgated in 2004 should be enforced, not for regions to operate autonomously, but for each of them to be in charge of social and financial development of the region for the sake of the region and of the country as a whole. English-speaking regions of the country are not the only ones suffering from bad governance, so this will be an opportunity for the government to solve the crisis and improve the desperate situation of the country as a whole. The best way to go about this is to work on these issues before the next presidential election that is supposed to take place in 2018.

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Anne Marie Befoune is a Cameroonian living in Dakar, Senegal and founder of Elle Citoyenne, an online media platform which focuses on enabling civic participation and expression.

Politics

It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation
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Kariuki* hustled his way through Nairobi as a personal trainer, masseur and occasionally sold sportswear. Then COVID-19 happened. His income stream went down to zero. He got tired of begging friends and former clients for 500 bob here, a thousand bob there, decided to sell off what he could and went back to his parent’s farm in the country’s central region. This young, handsome, muscle-in-all-the-right-places, rangi ya chocolate, ambitious gay man, needed to live, and for that, he needed to eat. Nairobi had stopped feeding him. He was one of the many LGBTIQ individuals who found themselves going back to homes that had either forced them out or that they had fled.

Kariuki had left home soon after university and since then visits to shags were to his grandmother with whom he had a strong relationship. But it was not home. To be accepted back he had to renounce his gay ways, which he did. Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold. His parents gave him an acre of land and promised him another five if he stayed on the straight and narrow. Every pun is intended.

Kariuki started poultry farming, and he was surprised at how well he took to it; he started seeing a future for himself back on the land. Unbeknown to his parents, Kariuki is still actively living his gay life. He acknowledges that if going back into the closet and being on the “down-low” was what he needed to do keep hunger at bay and get him back his inheritance, so be it. I now had a gay friend who was a poultry farmer.

You see, I had resigned myself to believing that agriculture wasn’t really for us. Us being queer people, and I bet I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many queer individuals don’t see a future for themselves in agriculture. It is not within reach of our imagination. Young queer folk find security, freedom, opportunity, visibility and invisibility in urban settings. Plus, there is also greater access to health services that target LGBTIQ people and, more than anything, there is access to our community. Agriculture, the mainstay of our Kenyan economy, isn’t within our rainbow reality. Yet, it can be.

Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold.

Kariuki was “lucky” that he could go back home, and that there was farmland that he could access.  Plus, he was “not so obviously gay”. But what if how you present yourself in public doesn’t fit in the box that family or society wants you in? Are you still able to easily access services without fear of discrimination? Are you able to access land or even food without having to look over your shoulder?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned Kenya and the world. A friend of mine opted to move back to her rural area when the initial restrictions were announced. The reason for this migration was that she was unsure she’d be able to provide food for her children in a town that she had no affiliation to, where she had no kin she could turn to in case she was too broke to buy food or if there were any food shortages.

The song Mzee Kasema Rudi Mashambani by Equator Sounds came out during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency and was a rallying call for Kenyans to go back to tilling the land. Many years later, this land, which is such an emotive and sensitive subject in Kenya, is not equitably accessible to Kenyans. And if you have come out publicly as queer, then access to this land becomes even more complicated if you want it. Turudi wapi, kama tumefukuzwa? 

Wanja Mugongo has always loved farming. Her mother, who was the principal’s secretary at a Nyeri college, seeded that love for the soil.  Mugongo’s mother was allowed to farm on the college land, and this supplemented her meagre earnings. She supplied the college with maize, potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Mama Wanja banked on land and therefore invested in it whenever she could. Wanja inherited this astute perspective, and despite the many years spent in LGBTIQ activism, she never forgot that she had green fingers and never lost her love for the soil.

“Farming was my place of joy, and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I was out of employment. I didn’t want to retire and then farm for a living; I wanted to retire and farm for pleasure,” she states.

Mugongo was fortunate that she did not have to go to bank for a loan, that the land was hers. As I researched this article, I came across a number of LGBTIQ farmers who have accessed family land only because they have buried their sexuality.

Apollo* is married with children and lives in Bondo, Siaya County. He is an activist and farmer. The activist side of his life is only known to those who need to know. Apollo recognises that he would have been disinherited had he gone public about his sexuality. He informs me of a young man who has kicked off the family land after the family discovered he was gay. This young man was fortunate that a relative was kind enough to give him a small patch on which to build a house for himself, but he was denied his right to the family land.  Apollo is grateful that he was spared such an ordeal.

“You know, for some of us, this is the life we have chosen for ourselves and it is how things are done here for many of us. Things would have been very different for us,” says Apollo. “Very different” in this case probably means poor, landless, ostracised and maybe banished.

Wichlum Beach on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria is home to the Light Youth Group (LYG). The group works with members of the LGBTIQ community in that area. It has 15 members, but within its sphere of operation, it reaches close to 300 Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Many bisexual and gay individuals are also affiliated to the group.

Economic empowerment is one of LYG’s thematic areas, and being in a rural setting, the group is using agriculture and fishing to improve the economic status of its members. . The group is trying to lease three acres of land for farming activities; they were evicted from the land on which they were carrying out their activities when the owner discovered that LYG was a queer organisation. Once beaten twice shy, so this time round, LYG has come out clean with the prospective landlady who, fortunately, is not prejudiced against the community. Accessing capital to pay for the new piece of land is the next hurdle they need to overcome.  Expectations are high, but patience is needed.

Each member of the group is allocated a 50m by 60m plot of land on which to grow horticultural produce — sukuma wiki (collard greens), cabbages, onions, watermelons, etc. — which is sold to the surrounding community. By selling to the community, the group hopes to build bridges and expects that the local residents will see them as active members of the society. The project’s beneficiaries are drawn from both within and outside the Wichlum area; many have been disowned by their families because of their sexuality. The project offers an opportunity to a marginalised group of people who would otherwise have no access to land nor means to some form of livelihood.

Odhiambo* says he became a farmer by accident and has been farming in Ukwala, Siaya County, for the last three years on family land that he inherited after his mother passed away.  He says he is lucky as he and his siblings have a “your life is your business” approach to life and so Odhiambo, who is in his early 40s, doesn’t have to justify his unmarried status. His neighbours have tried to pressure him into settling down, but he informs me that he has warned them against meddling in his business.

“If my late mother didn’t pressurise me into getting married, who are they?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ve managed to build a life for myself here, and my business should be the least of their concern.”

American civil rights activist, the late Dr Martin Luther King III, states, “Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.” Unfortunately, many individuals have to keep their sexual orientation private just to access their birthright. But we as a nation should strive to ensure that one’s tribe, gender, sexual orientation, politics or faith is not an impediment to accessing the fruits of this land. It is a right enshrined in our Constitution that we as queer Kenyans should demand.

The country’s agricultural sector is the backbone of the economy, contributing approximately 33 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and employing more than 40 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of the rural population. By shutting out queer individuals from the farms, fields, lakes, rivers and the sea, we deny the country more food, income, taxes, producers, employers and investors.

In 2020, the Mombasa-based LBGTIQ group, PEMA Kenya, gave over 100 of its members who live in various neighbourhoods within and around the city, training in poultry farming to enhance food security and provide them with skills to earn an income. Such schemes, if successful, could be a way of better integrating queer folk into their communities and creating safe and queer-friendly spaces in which to live. Another group in Kitengela has opted to go back to the soil to produce healthy food for its members living with HIV/AIDS. This approach to ensuring food security and nutrition for vulnerable groups is innovative, practical and has impact.

“Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”

Urban farming should be supported as it could be a source of livelihood for the many young people who find themselves in the big cities and towns. And although access to land in urban areas comes at a premium or with terms and conditions that are difficult to comply with, urban gardening does not require vast amounts of space. Sack gardens can produce leafy greens like sukuma wiki, spinach, and traditional vegetables on as little as one square metre. There are lessons to be learnt from organisations like PEMA and what they are doing in building a pool of queer poultry farmers in urban areas. Their members can reap the benefits of both worlds — access to urban energies and to their chosen family, and the advantages of being food producers.

“Farming is not a get-rich-quick way of making money. If you have money pressures, it is hard to get into farming,” cautions Mugongo. “If you don’t know the soil, you will need time to understand the soil and its ways. You need time and money. Are queer people even considered bankable?”

Access to credit or capital is a huge deterrent for many queer individuals who would like to go into business or agriculture. Emerging Marginalized Communities (EMAC-Kenya) has established a system for its members that gets around the credit and capital hurdle. The organisation has set up a poultry farming facility and a greenhouse on the grounds of their offices, roughly the size of three-quarters of a football pitch. This pilot agri-business project supports seven queer men and two commercial sex workers who buy the produce on credit, for resale to consumers. EMAC-Kenya recoups its funds by deducting a specific amount when a member buys new stock from them. The organisation’s director informed me that the long-term goal is to create agri-businesses that can offer employment opportunities for other queer individuals; learning of this vision warmed my heart.

Bringing agriculture within reach of the imagination of queer youth might help prevent them from adopting precarious ways of earning a living. The queer community needs to be brought into the agricultural conversation and ways need to be found to support minority groups to earn a living within this sector that the country relies so heavily on.

There need to be discussions on how to make the sector more diverse, inclusive and innovative. Being a farmer, animal breeder, fisherman, rancher should be seen as a career option and not as a Plan D, to be adopted after all else has failed. Mugongo notes that the agricultural sector needs to be drastically transformed, and perceptions on agriculture need to change to make the sector attractive and within reach of the imagination of all youth, not just queer youth.

Unfortunately, there are those within the LGBTIQ community who dropped out of school or completed high school with poor grades. They have few employable skills, and when they do have them, the sectors in which they can work safely and freely are limited. The hustle is real, very real for them. The hospitality sector, entertainment, retail, personal care and grooming — the sectors in which many queer individuals have found work — have been severely impacted by the pandemic. If you don’t work, you can’t afford to eat, and many have been struggling to eat.

The one key attribute we must first remember about queer Kenyans is that we are Kenyans too. The fight for queer rights in the country is about giving us the same access as other Kenyans to the constitutional rights that are promised to us all as citizens of this land. This land that we prize so much that we have even killed one another over, that we go to whatever lengths to acquire, that feeds us all. This our soil doesn’t know our tribe, gender, faith, sexual orientation or class; all it knows is that it is meant to produce and feed.

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation. There are opportunities galore that we haven’t even begun to explore, and it is time to rejig and rethink a sector that feeds all Kenyans, for there is plenty to be found within our borders.

*Names have been changed.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Politics

Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?

Unga has been an effective rallying call to agitate for food rights, but Kenyans are yet to fully realise that access to food is a fundamental right that they must aggressively fight for.

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Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?
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Writing for the Route to Food blog on 8 January 2019, University of Nairobi don Celestine Nyamu Musembi and Patta Scott-Villiers, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University, said: “Though Kenya’s (im)moral economy was forged at a time of colonial rule, the pattern of the weak response to undernourishment has persisted. Kenyans on low income do not feel that they have a right to not feel hungry, despite the words of the constitution.”

And what do the words of the 2010 Constitution state? They guarantee food for all – that no Kenyan should go without food. That food is a basic need and an undeniable human right. Specifically, Article 43 (1) (c) states that, “Every person has the right to be free from hunger, and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” This state of affairs, of poor and underprivileged Kenyans not “knowing” that they have “a right to not feel hungry”, has been particularly evident during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The onset of COVID-19 in Kenya in March 2020 exacerbated an already bad situation insofar as the food crisis was concerned. By February, the government had already been sending warning signals indicating that the maize reserve was depleting and could not last for the next six months. The pandemic is a phenomenon Kenyans of all shades have never experienced before; when it hit them, it hit them really hard, leading to many poor people losing their sources of livelihood.

It is estimated that 820 million people, 10 per cent of the world population, are suffering chronic hunger caused by the devastating COVID-19 outbreak, the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Many of these people, in Kenya as in the rest of the world, come from the working class.

The COVID-19 containment measures imposed by the government caused a majority of Kenyans — those who live in the ghettoes and the crowded suburbs of Kenya’s towns and cities — to lose their daily (casual) jobs, their kadogo economy businesses and other self-employment hustles; they started going hungry. This was Julia Renner’s central thesis when she presented her paper Kenya’s Government Under Pressure: Lockdown increases Hunger and Unrest at the Alumni Network Sub-Saharan Africa ANSA Conference 2020 in Passau, Germany.

We want food

Sections of Nairobi’s underclass and those living in low-income areas attempted to organise food protests in the hope of prompting the government to help them with food rations. On 11 May 2020, Eastleigh residents woke up to demonstrations, with people waving placards reading “We want Food”. The demonstrators were peaceful, and their message was targeted at the national government which has the capacity to provide relief food. The government’s usual response towards any demonstration is to come down hard on the protesters; the demonstration was scattered by armed police within hours.

In their blog Musembi and Scott-Villiers further stated that “Moral economies emerge and are renewed each time there is a subsistence crisis when state responsibilities and the rights of citizens are made clear in formal responses. These episodes leave an imprint in people’s hopes and expectations that can last for decades. Kenya’s contemporary moral economy was forged during the colonial famines of the early 20th century. One of the most severe was between 1943-45 [in the thick of World War II], when the rains failed in successive seasons . . . .”

Unga Revolution

But have Kenyans always been docile when it comes to agitating for food rights? Not always.  The 2011 food protests dubbed the Unga Revolution proved that when pushed to the limit, poor and low-income Kenyans can mobilise and organise themselves to fight for their right to affordable food

Unga is the Kiswahili word for the white maize flour which is used to make ugali – a thick gruel that is the staple food in many homes in Kenya. Up until President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, this was the most affordable staple for low-income households. When he came to power in 2003, a two-kilogram packet of unga cost KSh30. By 2011, during Kibaki’s second term —which was a coalition government between him and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — the price of unga had shot up to KSh120.

Granted, the country was going through a devastating draught and there was a global rise in food and oil prices, which led to Kenya experiencing a 14.5 per cent inflation that obviously hit the Kenyans hard, especially the urban poor. Yet, it is in times of such crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

But truth be told, the Unga Revolution was not a spontaneous reaction to soaring food prices, or to Kibaki’s insensitive government policies and attitude towards the poor. It was the expression of the accumulated anger and frustration of a people talking to a “deaf” government over a period of time. By the end of Kibaki’s first term the price of unga had nearly tripled; a two-kilogram packet of maize flour was now costing KSh80. The plaints were audible, and the people hoped the government would hearken to their cries.

The bangled 2007 presidential election led to internecine warfare in Kenya’s breadbasket, mainly in the central and north rift regions where most of the country’s maize is grown. The post-election violence (PEV) displaced about 600,000 people, most of them farmers, and many lost their lives. Predictably, the country experienced a severe maize shortage in the aftermath of PEV; 35 million bags of maize had been destroyed in the violence. Hunger loomed.

It is in times of crises that the government should act to cushion the poor and underprivileged by providing them with the necessary basic foodstuffs.

Because of the looming hunger, there were “maize” protests in 2008 that pressurised the government to re-evaluate its “maize policies” by, among other measures, asking the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) to import three million bags of maize to plug the gap.

The high maize prices in 2008, the shortages and the hoarding, were threatening to get out of hand. A woman alighting from a matatu at the infamous Kibera slum was spotted carrying supermarket shopping that included packets of unga. Rowdy youths accosted her and relieved her of the packets of maize meal. In Mathare and Mlango Kubwa slums, the ghetto dwellers would not wait to die of hunger; they invaded homesteads that reared pigs, grabbed the animals and slaughtered them.

So, by 2011, there was already a groundswell of angry and hungry citizens because prices of foodstuffs had not stabilised or come down as they had hoped, in particular the price of maize meal. The coalition government did not seem to have any strategic plan to ensure that poor Kenyans did not go hungry because of unaffordable maize meal prices. Cobbled together as a result a peace accord supervised by Kofi Annan, the Kibaki/Raila government seemed unable to tame the ever-soaring prices.

The Unga Revolution started as a movement among the urban poor in the slums of Nairobi. By sheer coincidence, the build-up of the protests began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring that was taking place in the North African countries of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Locally, the protests reached a crescendo on 7 July 2011, Saba Saba Day, a date associated with the pro-democracy second liberation movement of the 1990s.

Today, Saba Saba Day is commemorated by Kenyans to remember the day President Moi cracked down on opposition figures and on Kenyans in general, and by brute force stopped them from congregating at the hallowed Kamukunji grounds to agitate for plural politics.

Spearheaded by Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), the Unga Revolution gained momentum as a grassroots movement. It organised the people from the slums of Huruma, Kariobangi, Kibera, Mathare and Mlango Kubwa among others, to come together and press for fairer maize meal prices. Gacheke Gachihi who was actively involved in the protest remembers how the organising and even the framing of the term revolution came about.

“The first meeting of the Unga Revolution took place in Kwa Negro in Mathare. We’d sourced some funds and printed 1000 leaflets written ‘Unga KSh30’ and distributed them in Mathare, Huruma and Kibera slums. At the Kwa Negro meeting, we demanded from the government that the price of unga drops back to what the people were used to: KSh30. We also used the meeting to signal to the government that we were serious on confronting the state on the matter of affordable foodstuff prices for the underclass.”

Following that meeting, Bunge la Mwananchi plotted how they would organise a protest march into Nairobi’s central business district. They also agreed that they needed to properly frame their message for it to have greater visibility and impact.

“That’s how we came up with the term Unga Revolution. I think I coined the term,” recalls Gacheke. “So, from the Unga KSh30 leaflets to Unga Revolution, we radicalised our message and hoped that the people, our people, would join us in demanding from the government, an overhaul of the maize meal prices.”

But even though on 7 July 2011 the Bunge la Mwananchi-driven Unga Revolution was prevented by a combined force of the police and the paramilitary from accessing downtown Nairobi and proceeding to Harambee Avenue where both the Office of the President and that of the Prime Minister were situated, it captured the national imagination and helped to spur a modern food rights movement in Nairobi and throughout Kenya. “The unga campaign was a major force. It led the government into asking the maize millers to start packing the five-kilogram unga bags for the rank and file,” said Gacheke.

A year after the Jubilee team of President Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto took power, in March 2013, food activists were back in town. This time they were demanding that the government reject a bill proposing 16 per cent value added tax (VAT) on essential food commodities. Their campaign was dubbed No Unga Tax. The activists printed 100,000 posters and plastered them across downtown Nairobi.

In May 2018, food activists took to the streets once again: “The government must subsidise the cost of food. It is not fair for the poor to be suffering with high food prices, yet the government has not increased salaries,” said an angry Tom Aosa, one of the protest organisers. “On Monday [June 1, Madaraka Day, a public holiday] your families will eat chicken, meat and chapatis. What do you expect us to eat if we cannot afford to make ugali?” shouted a protester.

Food protests have throughout history been instrumental in shaping government policy regarding access to adequate food for all. And while unga has been used effectively as a symbol to rally Kenyans into agitating for food rights, Kenyans are yet to fully realise that it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that its citizens are fed, and that access to food is a fundamental right which they must aggressively fight for, just as they have in the past fought against the curtailment of their right to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Will the coronavirus pandemic reignite in Kenyans the spirit of the Unga Revolution?

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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