Forgive me, comrades
If I say something apolitical
And shamefully emotional
But in the dark of night
It is as if my heart is clutched
By a giant iron hand:
“Treachery, treachery” I cry out
Thinking of you, comrades
And how you have betrayed
The things we suffered for
– Dennis Brutus
During a 1998 visit to Uganda by US President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton was meant to have dinner with representatives of the Makerere University students’ guild. However, the Makerere students took the risk and liberty to invite an extra guest to the table, a Kenyan student from the University of Nairobi with whom they had built a comradeship. The Kenyan was part of a group campaigning for the reinstatement of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), a historically radical organisation in Kenya’s largest and oldest university that had been banned in 1987. The body was reestablished in 1992, after which it was banned again.
Throughout this period, Kenya’s strongman, Daniel arap Moi, was eternally fearful that SONU would partake in an onslaught against his authoritarian regime. There was a history. In 1982, when Moi was barely half a decade into his 24-year reign of terror, tens of University of Nairobi students – seen as coup sympathisers of an attempted putsch by junior Kenya Air Force officers – got rounded up by the nudged state. The majority were released after brief detentions, while those identified as lead troublemakers, including SONU president Tito Adungosi, got locked up on trumped-up charges. Adungosi was jailed for five years, dying mysteriously barely days before his release date. Those who survived the reprimand from the paranoid regime, like future Kenyan ambassador to the US, Nicholas Rateng’ Oginga Ogego, who served a six-year jail term, remained living examples of the spirit of defiance SONU instilled in its cadres – the Comrades.
Kenya’s future Prime Minister Raila Odinga was similarly netted along with the University of Nairobi students in 1982, accused of working in cahoots with the coup plotters. Odinga was charged with treason, an accusation which was later dropped. He was detained without trial for six years. His co-accused, journalist Otieno Mak’Onyango and University of Nairobi lecturer Alfred Vincent Otieno, whose house was allegedly used as the coups nerve centre, were similarly detained. The twelve Kenya Air Force masterminds of the coup died by hanging after being repatriated from Tanzania, where they had sought refuge. No one could have predicted that almost four decades later, in 2018, it would be these University of Nairobi students from the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s who would anchor Odinga’s political project.
In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s.
At the Kampala dinner with Hillary Clinton, the Kenyan student presented the First Lady with a hurriedly prepared dossier documenting gross human rights violations in the country. The case the student sought to make was that as Kenya stood at the time, there was no single organisation or formation – including the parliamentary opposition to which Odinga belonged – that was bold enough to stand up to the state and challenge its excesses. Therefore, reinstating SONU was the only viable option in keeping the rogue state in check. It was an exaggeration to claim that only SONU could stand in the gap at a time when the civil society was greatly emboldened, but that embellishment did not take away from the historical centrality of SONU in the clamour for change, including when such activities meant death, torture, exile or imprisonment.
As it turned out, Hillary was sufficiently persuaded by the young man’s argument. Decisive phone calls were made across Kampala later that night, where Moi, who had gone to meet his US counterpart, was implored to unban SONU. It was that same night that the Kenyan president insisted on meeting Moses Oburu, the Kenyan student who had aired his country’s dirty laundry in Kampala. The two eventually met back in Nairobi, where SONU’s proscription was lifted.
It is this sort of mystique that has shrouded the University of Nairobi students’ organisation for decades. It now appeared that cross-generational radical figures who served within its ranks had finally found a point of convergence within the Kenyan body politic in the form of a shared national political project – the presidential candidacy of Raila Odinga, which morphed into a movement seeking more than the presidency – around which they coalesced and were reliving their days of youthful fervour, challenging a government they considered illegitimate.
As Odinga took the now infamous oath as “The People’s President” on January 30th 2018 at Nairobi’s largest public park, Uhuru Park – packed with tens of thousands of his supporters – one thing was conspicuous to the discerning observer. In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The three outspoken lawyers-turned-politicians formed a semi-circle ring around Odinga.
Standing on Odinga’s right was Miguna Miguna, who was expelled from the University of Nairobi in 1987 and exiled in Canada, where he completed his studies and practised law for fourteen years. Miguna briefly served as SONU’s Organising Secretary at a time when the state cracked down on him and his colleagues, led by Wafula Buke – a current Odinga confidant and strategist – for supposedly being funded by Libya to destabilise the Kenyan state. It was the clamping down on the likes of Miguna and Buke that led to SONU being banned in 1987. Prior to January 30th, Miguna had overtly admitted and boasted of being in the custody of “instruments of power” with which he intended to use to swear in Odinga as president, all along daring the police to arrest him.
In a dramatic dawn attack lasting at least an hour on February 2nd, the Friday after Odinga’s oath, a heavily armed police unit descended on Miguna’s residence in Nairobi and used explosives to blow his front door open. Apart from his role in administering the oath, the state claimed that Miguna’s residence housed weapons and subversive material meant to undermine the government. The former prime ministerial advisor to Odinga was driven away in a convoy of police vehicles and was clandestinely detained for days, with his lawyers and doctors prevented from accessing him despite successive court orders demanding his presentation in court or his immediate release.
In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar.
On Tuesday, February 6th , Miguna was deported back to Canada aboard a KLM flight. The state alleged that he renounced his Kenyan citizenship when he took up Canadian citizenship during his time in exile, an allegation Miguna continues to refute. On a layover in Amsterdam, Miguna gave interviews to international media, stating how he had been tortured by the state, not having taken a bath for five days. Speaking in Toronto, he continued issuing edicts to Odinga’s supporters, asking them to stay defiant. The judiciary has since invalidated the deportation.
Behind Odinga stood MP Tom Kajwang – dressed in a black robe and wearing a white judicial wig – who coincidentally served as SONU president in 1992 after the organisation was reinstated following the 1987 ban necessitated by the likes of Miguna Miguna. Kajwang’s elder brother, the deceased lawyer and MP Otieno Kajwang, like those of his ilk in the 80s, had been expelled from the University of Nairobi and forced to complete his studies at Uganda’s Makerere University. By standing next to Odinga, Tom Kajwang was living up to his own convictions as well as those of his deceased brother, a renowned longtime Odinga loyalist. On January 31st, the Wednesday after Odinga’s oath, Kajwang was briefly arrested for his role in the affair.
To complete the oath-administering troika was lawyer and Senator James Orengo, who stood on Odinga’s immediate left. Possibly Odinga’s current right-hand man, Orengo has travelled the long, turbulent liberation struggle journey together with Odinga, marked with intervals of falling out and making up. A Kenyan liberation stalwart, Orengo served as SONU president in 1972, later becoming a dependable protégé to Odinga’s deceased father and Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. It was Orengo, a senior respected lawyer, who led a team of litigants in successfully arguing for the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The team argued that Odinga’s victory had been stolen by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, in collaboration with a corrupted electoral commission whose head of technology, Chris Msando, was found gruesomely murdered a week before the elections.
As his two co-conspirators in administering the oath got picked up by the police, it became clear that the state was aware of James Orengo’s stature within the opposition ranks – possibly being Odinga’s Number Two in terms of struggle credentials – a fact that made the security agencies not pounce on him like they did on the other two. It was with the same logic – that such a high profile arrest might result in massive public unrest by opposition supporters across the country – that the state shelved any intention of arresting and charging Odinga with treason.
Constitutionally, the presidential oath is administered in public in front of the Chief Justice, in whose absence the Deputy Chief Justice does the onus. The Chief Registrar of the judiciary usually administers the oath. In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar. In their political role-playing, either Tom Kajwang or James Orengo must have been the Chief Justice. During opposition rallies later on, Kajwang referred to himself as Chief Justice of “The People’s Republic of Kenya”. The whole performance might have been sketchy and hurriedly put together – with Odinga’s only instrument of power being a piece of paper mounted on a clipboard, an inauguration certificate masquerade – but to the millions of opposition supporters, this symbolism rejuvenated their resolve for rebellion against the state.
Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary-General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.
This was not the first time Odinga was being pushed to take an oath either as president or as an alternative president of Kenya. In 2007, on realising that the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was probably interfering with election results in a bid to steal Odinga’s victory, members of Odinga’s inner circle, including James Orengo, rooted for their man to take an oath of office to preempt electoral fraud. But as they were still consulting, the electoral commission declared Mwai Kibaki as the winner of the election, which resulted in violence across the country. The chaos and bloodshed led to a coalition government, with Odinga as Prime Minister. A decade later, Odinga would have no choice but to succumb to the pressure from the Comrades to take the oath.
Following the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election, the Supreme Court of Kenya ordered – based on a constitutional provision – that a fresh presidential election be held within 60 days. As they celebrated their victory on the steps of the Supreme Court, Odinga and his coalition’s lawyers immediately cautioned that unless massive electoral reforms took place before the fresh presidential election, the group would not participate. In keeping to his word, Odinga pulled out of the repeat election, which the defiant Uhuru Kenyatta won with an unprecedented 98.2% majority. Odinga then proceeded to mobilise his supporters across the country, forming the Peoples Assembly – which they argued was founded within the constitution as a direct way of Kenyans to exercise their sovereignty – whose climax was the oath of January 30th.
Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.
Like a number of vocal University of Nairobi students in the early 80s, Oduor was first arrested and detained without trial for two months following the 1982 attempted coup. He was accused of being one of the coup plotters – a predicament that befell tens of University of Nairobi students at the time. He was later rearrested in 1986 and sentenced to four years in prison for sedition, getting released prematurely in 1988, after which he fled the country in 1990, escaping a police swoop targeted at agitators for pluralism. He was exiled in Sweden.
Before Oduor was appointed executive director of Odinga’s party, Wafula Buke, a fellow political prisoner who served as SONU president in 1987 – alongside Miguna Miguna, the man who administered Odinga’s oath – instigated an internal coup, declaring himself executive director of Odinga’s party. Buke was serving as deputy director in charge of strategy, and upon the unceremonious ejection of the previous executive director on suspicion of spying for Odinga’s opponents, Buke declared that it was only natural for him to take up the position.
Known for his militancy, Buke was among former University of Nairobi student activists who went as far as being trained in guerilla warfare in Uganda in an attempt to violently overthrow the one-party Moi state in the early 90s, a plan which was shelved when the state relaxed its repressive laws and agreed to multiparty democracy in 1991. It is not an openly discussed topic, but a larger group of dissidents, including some close to Odinga, were involved in seeking international support for the training exercise in Uganda. Other than being jailed for five years after being picked from his hostel room at the University of Nairobi, Buke was hunted down in the early 90s for being associated with the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA), a ragtag militia that unsuccessfully attacked Kenya from Uganda in a frail coup attempt.
The person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto.
However, the person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto. Alongside his fellow University of Nairobi detainee Oduor Ongwen, he served as a member of the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly, which culminated in the January 30th oath. It is noteworthy that as lawyer Miguna Miguna defiantly administered the oath to Odinga, Ndii was standing right behind the tall bespectacled lawyer, witnessing part of the maturation of his intellectual labour.
On Tuesday, February 6th, the day Miguna Miguna was dramatically deported, the government issued a directive suspending Ndii’s passport. Ndii had earlier been arrested on the night of December 3rd, 2017, while on holiday with his family at the Kenyan coast. He was driven overnight to Nairobi and accused of incitement. Ndii had continuously articulated the idea of splitting Kenya into different republics if co-existence within the country’s current borders became untenable due to electoral fraud and unequal development, a view espoused by Odinga’s radical supporters. By close of business that Tuesday, the names of senior opposition figures on the list for passport revocations extended to 15, including that of James Orengo, who got stopped from leaving the country on Monday, February 19th, and spent the night at the airport alongside the opposition’s financier, Jimmy Wanjigi, before the judiciary issued orders against their illegal restriction.
The journey to this point where radical activists and intellectuals took centrestage in Kenya’s push for a proper democratic dispensation – the third liberation, as its proponents called it – started taking shape back in the late 80s and early 90s during the agitation for multiparty democracy, when the group coalesced around Odinga’s ageing father and deity of Kenyan opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The senior Odinga pushed for an alternative politics following his fallout with his independence struggle comrade and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.
Among those working closely with the senior Odinga at the time were former University of Nairobi lecturer Prof. Anyang Nyong’o (father to Hollywood actor Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico where the family was exiled) who later became a confidant of the younger Odinga. Also present was the current United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretary General Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, who had been expelled from the University of Nairobi in the 80s and sought refuge at Makerere University in Uganda, before proceeding to Norway.
Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.
When Odinga’s father died in 1994 after failing to clinch the presidency during the 1992 general election, a split emerged between him and these intellectuals, which resulted in Odinga parting ways with the likes of Nyong’o, Kituyi, and the man who stood on his left as he took the oath on January 30th, lawyer James Orengo. During the burial of Mr. Odinga’s father, and in the presence of the then sitting President Daniel arap Moi, Orengo, in representing the youthful radicals, read a hard-hitting speech titled “Woe Unto You” targeted at the authoritarian head of state. There were murmurs of Orengo’s impending arrest after the funeral. Consensus was building that the fiery lawyer should inherit the senior Odinga’s political constituency, given that he had been nicknamed the senior Odinga’s first-born son.
After the dust had settled following the split, Nyong’o and the likes of Ndii coalesced around the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP). The group was further strengthened by the coming on board of Prof. Nyong’o’s University of Nairobi political science contemporary, Apollo Njonjo. Later, the 1984 SONU chairman and political prisoner Mwandawiro Mghanga – who remains the leader of the Marxist-Leninist party to date, and is credited with spreading Marxism to political prisoners during their stints in detention in the 80s – joined the party. Orengo unsuccessfully contested for the Kenyan presidency under the party’s banner in 2002, protesting Odinga’s unilateral endorsement of the lukewarm Mwai Kibaki, who won the vote and turned against Odinga, leading to their bloody 2007 electoral contest.
From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired. But in the end, Odinga’s charisma, scheming and ability for mass mobilisation outshined everyone else’s, making him the closest the radicals could have to an ally with a real shot at Kenya’s presidency.
Much as he was Kenya’s longest detained political prisoner, Odinga made huge political compromises to get ahead, including merging his party in 2002 with that of Daniel arap Moi, the authoritarian who had jailed him and his colleagues. In the end, it is these alliances built for political expediency that saw Odinga appointed into cabinet for the first time, where many believe he expanded his business interests and accumulated substantial financial muscle to sustain his future political activities.
As he and his colleagues challenged Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy, Odinga rode in bullet-proof SUVs with chase cars and armed security – this after the state declined to provide him with security and similar benefits that he is entitled to as a former prime minister due to his continued political agitations. He similarly ran a multilayered political machine headquartered in various Nairobi suburbs. This elaborate logistical infrastructure, coupled with Odinga’s fanatical following, contributed in setting him apart as the undisputed leader of the University of Nairobi grouping, himself having lectured at the institution’s Department of Engineering in the early 70s.
From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired.
In Odinga the radicals found a politically viable candidate around whom to erect an ideological scaffolding that could have seen them realise the dream of a radically progressive state. On the other hand, Odinga found himself in a position where he was not the most radical person in the room, a state of affairs that afforded him ideological sustenance.
On February 4th, during an opposition rally in Nairobi, Babu Owino, a youthful Nairobi MP who served as SONU president for four controversial consecutive terms since 2011, assumed his role as trash-talker-in-chief within Odinga’s party. Previously arrested for referring to Uhuru Kenyatta as a ‘‘child of a dog’’, the first-time MP requested Odinga to appoint him minister for interior once he formed “the people’s government” so that Babu could arrest Kenyatta’s security minister, who had been leading the onslaught against the opposition. Having single-handedly coined the captivating – if nonsensical – slogans used during Odinga’s presidential campaign rallies, the populist MP warned – to huge applause as is always the case whenever he speaks – that if more opposition leaders were targeted and arrested, then there would be smoke everywhere in Nairobi, hinting at violent protest action. The resounding message from the rally and subsequent ones was that the opposition would not take the state’s excesses lying down.
Then, on Friday March 9th, news broke indicating that Odinga and Kenyatta were having a meeting at the president’s office. When the two men emerged from the meeting, smiling and calling each other “my brother” – before staging the mandatory ceremonial handshake and brotherly public embrace to mark a cessation of hostilities between them – Kenya was thrown into a spin. The tens of protestors who had been shot dead by Kenyatta’s regime as they protested in support of Odinga – including a toddler and a nine-year-old – all seemed to have vanished into thin air, and all the claims by Odinga that Kenyatta was an illegitimate president seemed instantly buried. There appeared to be a new-found camaraderie between the son of Kenya’s first president and the son of Kenya’s first vice president; now the Kenyan masses were expected to fall in line and fully support the two leaders’ calls for national unity.
Neither Odinga nor Kenyatta had involved key leaders from their respective political parties in the talks, and only the two men, their very close functionaries and family members seemed to be in the know. No one in the media or political sphere had foreseen the meeting, and no one knew what to make of it. Anyone questioning the elite pact between the two families with a love-hate relationship was quickly shouted down by supporters of the two leaders.
However, as Odinga’s die-hard supporters bought into the handshake, questions abound as to what the meeting portends for the Comrades, who were not viewed as Odinga’s sycophants but as vanguards of a people’s revolution. Would they, in the words of South African poet Dennis Brutus, consider Odinga’s move to close ranks with Kenyatta to be a betrayal of the liberation aspirations of Kenyans to whom they sold a reformist political project, or would they join Odinga in reaching an elite pact with Kenyatta, who they previously called a despot?
Asked differently, could the Comrades break away from the man who provided them a political home and a real shot at taking over the state as its new ideological architects, or have they run out of time and steam to engineer a new revolt either within or outside Odinga’s party? Will they now have to work with whatever Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta hand them?
Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia
We can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible.
In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nick Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.
Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.
We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.
Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s.
Misleading aid narratives distract from rebranded structural adjustment
On the first point, Cheeseman establishes his argument early on by stating ‘that international donors have become increasingly willing to fund authoritarian regimes in Africa on the basis that they deliver on development’. In support of this assertion, he cites a table from the World Bank that shows net Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by Ethiopia surging to USD 4.93 billion in 2018, up from just over USD 4 billion in 2016 and 2017, and from a plateau oscillating around USD 3.5 billion from 2008 to 2015.
Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.
These aggregated data are misleading because ODA received by Ethiopia from western bilateral donors in fact fell in 2018 (and probably continued falling in 2019 and 2020). The World Bank data that he cites are actually from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) statistics, which refer to all official donors (but not including countries such as China). If we restrict donor assistance to DAC countries – which is relevant given that Cheeseman only refers to the US, the UK and the EU in his piece – disbursed ODA to Ethiopia fell from USD 2.26 billion in 2017 to USD 2.06 billion in 2018 (see the red line in the figure below).
Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019
Source: OECD.stat, last accessed 30 December 2020.
There was a brief moderate increase in DAC country ODA starting in 2015 and peaking in 2017. Cheeseman might have been referring to this. However, contrary to his argument, it was likely that the reason for this increase in aid was primarily humanitarian, responding to the refugee influx from South Sudan that began in 2015 and to the severe drought and famine risk in 2016-17. It was also probably related to attempts to induce incipient political reform following the major protests in Oromia in 2014, which Cheeseman would presumably condone given that conventional measures of democracy and freedom improved in 2018. Indeed, it is notable that committed ODA from DAC donor countries fell even more sharply than disbursed aid in 2018, from USD 2.49 billion in 2017 to USD 2.07 billion, reflecting the context in which these countries were negotiating hard with the Ethiopian government at the time.
Instead, the sharp increase in ODA in 2018 came entirely from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank Group, which increased its mixture of grants and loans to the country from USD 1.1 billion in 2017 to USD 2.1 billion in 2018. This subsequently fell to USD 1.8 billion in 2019 (the dashed green line in the figure).
Such ODA has been explicitly tied to the World Bank’s long-standing goal of liberalising, privatising and deregulating the Ethiopian economy, thereby ‘reforming’ (or disassembling) many of the attributes that have allowed the Ethiopian state to act in a developmentalist manner. These attributes include state-owned enterprises, state control over the financial sector, and relatively closed capital accounts, in strong distinction to most other countries in Africa (including Rwanda).
For instance, in October 2018 it approved USD 1.2 billion from the IDA in support of ‘a range of economic reforms designed to revitalize the economy by expanding the role of the private sector… to gradually open up the economy and introduce competition to and liberalize sectors that have been dominated by key state-owned enterprises (SOEs)’. The support aimed to promote public-private partnerships in key state-owned sectors such as telecoms, power and trade logistics as key mechanisms to restructure these sectors, as well as broader deregulation and financial liberalisation. It is also notable that the World Bank prefaced this justification by emphasising the political reforms that had already been embarked upon, and the promotion of ‘citizen engagement social accountability’ in Ethiopia.
In other words, contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017. The World Bank pulled up the slack in 2018, and in December 2019 both the World Bank and IMF promised more funding in support of ongoing economic reforms. The economic liberalisation has in turn undermined political liberalisation and has been a key source of political destabilization.
The bargaining hand of these donors has been reinforced by the economic difficulties faced by the Ethiopian economy – in particular, a hard tightening of external foreign-exchange constraints. Balance of payments statistics reveal that the government had effectively stopped external borrowing after 2015, a policy that it was advised to adopt in its Article IV consultations with the IMF in 2016 and 2017 as its external debt distress levels were rising. As a result, the government became excessively reliant on donor grant money as a principal source of foreign financing. Yet the country continued to run deep trade deficits, in large part because its development strategies, as elsewhere in Africa, have been very import and foreign-exchange intensive (e.g. think of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, requiring more than USD 4.6 billion to build, the bulk in foreign exchange). Significant capital flight appears to have taken place as well; for example, errors and omissions reported on the balance of payments were -USD 2.14 billion in 2018. In order to keep the ship afloat, the central bank burnt through over USD 1 billion of its reserves in 2018 alone.
Contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017
This severe tightening of foreign-exchange constraints needs to be understood as a critical structural factor in causing the development strategy to stall. Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting. Again, the point is not to apologise for authoritarianism, but rather to emphasise that the current situation is rooted deeper within a conjuncture of systemic crises that go far beyond any particular form of political administration.
Indeed, Cheeseman commits a similar oversight in ignoring the previous systemic crisis that the present is in many ways repeating. Later in his piece, he asserts: ‘The vast majority of African states were authoritarian in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost all had poor economic growth.’ This is an ahistorical misrepresentation of the profound global crisis that crippled Africa from the late 1970s for about two decades and which was the source of the poor growth he mentions. Then, as now, economic crisis was triggered throughout the continent by the severe tightening of external constraints, which neoliberal structural adjustment programmes exacerbated in a pro-cyclical manner despite being justified in the name of growth. The combination crippled developmentalist strategies across the continent regardless of political variations and despite the fact that many countries were performing quite well before the onset of the crisis. Such historical contextualisation is crucial for a correct assessment of the present.
Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting.
In this respect, there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse. Most countries that descend into deep protracted crises (economic or political) generally stop being nominally democratic, and yet this result becomes attributed as a cause, as if authoritarianism results in crisis or poor performance. Cheeseman cherry-picks two papers (one a working paper) on democracy and development performance in Africa (which like all cross-country regressions, are highly sensitive to model specification and open to interpretation). However, drawing any causality from such studies is problematic given that states tended to become more authoritarian after the global economic crisis and subsequent structural adjustments of the late 1970s and 1980s, not the other way around. For instance, 16 countries were under military rule in 1972, compared with 21 countries in 1989 during the height of adjustment. Faced with crippled capacity under the weight of severe austerity and dwindling legitimacy as living standards collapsed, many states responded to mass protests against the harsh conditionalities of adjustment with increasing force. As such, economic crisis and adjustment plausibly contributed to the rise of political instability and increasingly authoritarian regimes. Other factors include the Cold War destabilisation, which western countries fuelled and profited from. In other words, the political malaise across Africa at the time was driven by as much by external as internal factors.
Aid as a lever of regime change
This leads us to our second point concerning Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Cheeseman is at pains to emphasise that rigged elections and repression of opponents have contributed to the recent emergence of conflict in the Tigray region. While these are important features, Ethiopian intellectuals have also emphasised that conflicts in contemporary Ethiopia have taken place against a history of imperial state formation, slavery and debates about the ‘national question’, or what has sometimes been called ‘internal colonialism’. These conflicts are shaped by the system of ethnic federalism, in which ethnically defined states control their own revenues, social provisioning and security forces. They have been affected by foreign agricultural land grabs, which interact with older histories of semi-feudal land dispossession. Most recently, there have been concerns that regional tensions over the Renaissance Dam and agricultural land may help draw neighbouring countries into the conflict.
In the face of this highly complex and rapidly changing context, no one person can identify the optimal response. It plausibly requires regular collective deliberation by people who are deeply embedded in the context. In particular, the brief political liberalisation of 2018 was followed by a sharp uptick of political violence on all sides, rooted in fundamental tensions between different visions of statehood. Such situations cannot be solved simply by ‘adding democracy and stirring’; they require deliberative governance.
Yet, Cheeseman’s piece seeks a reimposition of the very political conditionalities that were a primary factor in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the first wave of structural adjustment and its attendant Good Governance agendas. Such conditionalities work by constraining the open contestation of ideas and the process of informed consensus-building. They undermine the sovereignty of key institutions of the polity and the economy. And by doing so they degrade the historical meaning of development as a project of reclaiming social and economic sovereignty after colonialism.
Indeed, as Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’. Such ‘disempowered new democracies’ are incapable of responding to the substantive macroeconomic demands of voters and thereby undermining substantive democracy, deliberative governance and policy sovereignty.
In particular, the idea of a democratic developmental state is meaningless in the absence of policy sovereignty. The institutional monocropping and monotasking of the type that Mkandawire wrote about does not merely prevent key institutions, such as central banks, from using broader policy instruments to support the developmental project. It also involves the deliberate creation of unaccountable policy vehicles, such as Monetary Policy Committees (MPCs), which operate outside of democratic oversight, but have considerable hold on the levers of economic policy. MPCs are in turn wedded to neoliberal monetarism. The message to such disempowered new democracies is that ‘you can elect any leader of your choice as long as s/he does not tamper with the economic policy that we choose for you.’ Or as Mkandawire wrote in 1994, ‘two or three IMF experts sitting in a country’s reserve bank have more to say than the national association of economists about the direction of national policy.’
As Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’
In such contexts, the prospect of a democratic developmental state is severely diminished. Ensuring significant improvements in people’s wellbeing is important for the legitimacy of democracies. Yet the subversion of policy sovereignty significantly constrains the ability of new democracies to do so, setting them up for a crisis of legitimacy.
If democracy is to be meaningful it should involve the active engagement of citizens in a system of deliberative governance. Civil society organisations, in this context, are meaningful when they are autonomous institutions of social groupings that actively engage in boisterous debate and public policymaking in articulating the interest of their members. Yet, donor clientelism in Africa has wrought civil society and advocacy organisations that are manufactured and funded by, and accountable to, donors, not the citizens. This is a substantive subversion of democracy as a system of deliberative governance.
In this respect, we can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible. In particular, it does not take into account the destructive, anti-democratic role of western-backed regime change and policy conditionality across the Global South during the era of flag independence. Even recently, these donor countries have disastrous human rights records when pushing for regime change in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Their support for military dictatorships, such as in Egypt, has been a central pillar of foreign policy for decades. And several of these donor countries worked hard to uphold apartheid in South Africa. They have no moral high ground to push for regime change, and little record to ensure that they could do so without causing more harm than good.
Moreover, external actors attempting to enforce their narrow view of democratisation in contexts of deeply polarised and competing visions of statehood, and in the midst of economic instability reinforced by already burdensome economic conditionalities, austerity and reforms, could well be a recipe for disaster. As a collective of intellectuals from across the Horn has emphasised, the people of Ethiopia in particular and the Horn in general must be at the forefront of developing a lasting peace. This would likely require a developmental commitment to supporting state capacity and deliberative governance, not undermining it through external interference and conditionalities.
This article was first published in CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 2, January 2021 Page 1
Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.
Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?
We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.
Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.
‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity
Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.
According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.
Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.
Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.
But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.
Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital
Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.
After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.
The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.
At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.
Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy
Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.
While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.
Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.
The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’
When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.
Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.
Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.
After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?
Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.
El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’
Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.
Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.
Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology
The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.
Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.
‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.
On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.
Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.
The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.
Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.
This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal
We Need New Names
Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we must decolonise our languages and dismantle colonial borders based on imagined ethnicities.
In late 2019, the Luanda Boda Boda Riders’ Association purchased a bus for public service. The association is located along the Maseno-Luanda border and its membership is largely drawn from the Luanda and Maseno catchment area.
The name of the association has a lot to do with the state of our union as a country or even as a region. It is a microcosm of ethno-nationalist tensions existing in Kenya and many other regions of Africa, and the changing times that bring new and multiple ways to negotiate these invented differences. The boda boda association is a chance to look at how we negotiate citizenship daily, and how we can overcome some essentialist ideals that are so deeply entrenched in eastern Africa.
The boda boda association draws membership from Luanda and Maseno, two small towns that are barely three kilometers apart. Maseno was established as a mission town and gets its name from oseno, which is a Luo word for the indigenous tree that used to be dominant in the area before ecological colonialism. The Kinyore (the Luhya sub-group inhabiting the Maseno and Luanda corridor) calls the same tree luseno. Oseno has since been colonised by the blue gum commonly called bao, which is indigenous to Australia. Young people would be at pains to identify oseno in Maseno today. Shortly before colonialism, Luanda had been established by a Luo chief from Gem Yala. Currently Luanda is dominantly a Luhya town, and it is located in Vihiga County. I have grown to like the sound of Maseno. For me, the word conjures pleasant images of green hilly spaces.
Kenya, like the majority of other African countries, has never been a nation-state. Kenya’s territorial boundary, as we now recognise it on maps, was drawn exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920. It is a border that split, for example, the Luos into three different countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). As part of these colonial processes, the Somali people were also split into three countries, with a section of them occupying Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and Somaliland. It is instructive to recall that coastal East Africa presented similar challenges. The current Zanzibari semi-autonomy in Tanzania and the conspicuous Pwani Si Kenya slogan are witness to the inherent pressures in the formation of nation-states in this part of the world. The boda boda riders in Maseno-Luanda zone show us only too well how we have an incomplete sense of ourselves and our politics when we are inclined to always think and conceive of ourselves and our communities as complete.
In 1929, the colonial administrator, Charles W. Hobley, said, “The Kikuyu and its blood relations on the slopes of Mount Kenya are, next to the Kavirondo, the most numerous native society in Kenya colony. They have no internal homogeneity, so were brought under control section by section.”
Therefore, the Kikuyu as we popularly know them today, are a creation of the colonial empire and each section was amalgamated onto another until they were made to imagine themselves as one whole part. This imagination has seeped into the dominant Kikuyu popular imagination, yet tensions still exist on who should claim the authentic Kikuyu title and name. A popular myth names Murang’a as the place where Mumbi first set foot, and thus the Kiambu Kikuyu are actually considered proper Kikuyu as opposed to the Murang’a Kikuyu who have interacted with the Embu and Meru communities. It is weird how we still stick to these categories as authentic, without the slightest examination of the histories and names behind them.
Electoral voting patterns and the legendary Kiambu-Muranga division still remind the Kikuyu of their incompleteness as a nation. This also applies to what we have think of as the Luos, the Luhyas, etc. The “tribes” (I will use the terms community or nations) as we see them today were invented in the colonial era. The introduction of a centralised and domineering government was a creation of the British empire. It was created along the Westphalian Christian state system to enhance resource extraction and organise labour along pliant and easily micromanage-able paradigms in Kenya.
Before colonialism, local communities had several centres of power, not necessarily along political lines, but sometimes along religious leaders and familial loyalties. This is still evident in the way religion plays a major role in our conception of ourselves and their celebrity status in national governance dialogues. As an illustration, Mgahanya, the rainmaker of the Banyore community in colonial Kenya, drew his power not from politics but from his hereditary technology of controlling rains. Indeed, Mgahanya’s power would be sought by the Luo neighbours as well whenever the need arose to have a rainmaker present. For his prowess and popularity, Hobley gave Mgahanya the title of a principal chief, thereby instilling new ways of looking at a rainmaker, not as a helper in the society but as someone who had the power to lord and rule over his relatives, friends and foes with an iron fist. Mgahanya’s rainmaking power was finally, and dramatically, curtailed by Hobley himself. In divesting Mgahanya of his political power gained through rainmaking, Hobley instituted new ways of gaining power in the society. Power would never be the same again in eastern Africa.
Evidently, government in pre-imperial Kenya was largely by consensus. But this was not always the case. The Mazrui family’s control of the slave trade in Mombasa reminds us that consensus was not always the default governance case in colonial and pre-colonial Kenya and that power was not always benign. In other words, the long history of governance in Kenya has experienced ruptures and transformations. Perhaps this history, culture and knowledge of power might be useful when we finally decide to finally form a government that is focused on ourselves. This would be a better alternative to the exhausting gerrymandering the political elites in Kenya frequent.
Moreover, Hobley, in Kenya: From a Chartered Company to a Crown Colony, further notes that he played an important part in reviving the importance of the Kiama among the Kikuyu, but of course to enhance colonial government. The idea of a Kikuyu elders was revitalised and invented as an essentialised entity by the colonial government. While reconstituting the tribe for the colonial agenda, Hobley instructed the heads of the Kiama (for whom he invented the title “chiefs”) to be detached from their compatriots in order to give proper judgments. In one instruction, the Kiama authority was not only centralised but also given sweeping powers and stripped of communal ethos and emotions. The colonial reconstruction of African societies was an unmitigated cultural disaster whose legacies we still contend with in present-day Kenya, such as the nationalist insinuations in differentiating Luos from the Banyore people in the Maseno-Luanda corridor.
From Hobley’s new ways of creating and accumulation of power, political leaders in Kenya have since stuck to the idea of leadership as a manifestation of paramount chiefs. The impersonal detachment and the attempts by public officials to centralise power can also be seen in how Kenyan doctors perceive their patients, how head teachers treat poor parents, how immigration and customs officials mistreat Kenyans in their own country, how bus conductors mishandle passengers, and how factories pollute Lake Victoria and its environs with impunity. The colonial system is replicated in every public sphere. Scarcely does one transcend this system.
The Westphalian state
After the end of colonialism, we did not take stock of our various systems of power and ways of naming in the community. Rather, we adopted and imported the Westphalian state model that was used to institute various hegemons, with each community waiting for a turn to lord over other communities. The communities that have been at the helm have ensured that the patronage system instituted by Carey Francis, Charles Hobley, and Lord Delamere, among others, has been perfected for a post-independence Kenya. Community nationalism as a basis for mobilising power is a narrative that has been employed in Kenya. This happened right from the first Kenyan president to the present president, since they could not pursue an alternative Africanist ideology with which to administer the country. They failed to either take notes from or apply the history of the country as far as governance was exercised. They lost a grand chance to decolonise governance and bring back the government to “we the people” of Kenya. And now Luanda boda boda riders have shown us how one can undermine such dominant narratives.
To appreciate this, one needs to understand that Maseno-Luanda is divided along “Luo” and “Luhya” communities. During each election period, this division is amplified by politicians. They incite tribal animosity among people who ordinarily intermarry, language differences notwithstanding. Indeed, the dhoLuo language has evolved to use Semeji or Omejo in reference to Luhya in-laws. That is how frequent intermarriage occurs here and how transcultural conversations have been conducted here despite the politicians and Kenyan comedians who frequently prop up negative ethnicity in their speeches and performances, respectively.
Maseno was the place the Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries established the first Anglican church in western Kenya, circa 1906. The two communities grew around this church. Along with the growth of the church, the established ethnic differences also grew. Thus, Maseno Mixed Primary School would later be created, not as a mixed school for boys and girls, but as a mixed school for Luos and Luhyas! The idea of “mixed” in this case was founded on ways of negotiating cultural differences and not to denote gender.
For a while, in its long history, this primary school had its own Luhya and Luo staff coming to teach at different times of the day. Independence-era Kenya would see the split of this Maseno Anglican church into North and South. Maseno South diocese became the Luo church while Maseno North diocese became the Luhya church. The growth of Maseno as a mission town was doomed due to its cultural topography. The Maseno South diocese relocated its headquarters deep in Luo land, to Kisumu. Maseno North pushed its diocese deep in Luhya land to Kakamega. In other words, a single Christian religion could not keep its adherents from the two cultures together. This was the design of the colonial government. Each community would be coalesced together within itself, especially as a way of breaking down each community’s governance structures. But inter-community solidarity would be robustly discouraged. Mgahanya would eventually be appointed a principal chief within the Banyore community, after all his power was no longer needed among the neighbouring Luo, for Hobley had effectively taken charge of administering the Luo nation.
The independence-era Kenyan state also drew a border between the two communities, locating Maseno in Luo Nyanza and Luanda in Western Province. This imagined boundary was based on the colonial separation of the Luo from the Luhya. What if the boundary was to be re-drawn along matters that boda boda operators find useful, such as geographical features, and not along ethnic territories? For boda boda operators, features such as hills, muddy terrains, valleys and flat lands denote how much fuel a motorbike consumes.
We need new solidarities
Can we have associations not based on the colonial structures, like this boda boda group does? Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. Post-independence Kenya has cost lives, in the name of the community. The Kenyatta presidency quickly consolidated ethnic capital to misrule the state. Ethnic patronage quickly grew deep roots and it has irretrievably thrived, until now. Nearly all the chiefs under Moi rule were imperial personalities in their own right and might, just like they were in colonial Kenya.
We need new solidarities like the Luanda Boda Boda Association, but devoid of unchecked rugged capitalist ambitions. Kenya’s model of its solidarity is based on capital accumulation. In the fullness of its agenda, organisations founded on purely commercial interests morph into monopolies and create the same trap that the founders initially ran away from: poverty, disempowerment and powerlessness for others. The Luanda Boda Boda Association might not be cognisant of the fact that the public transport business is usually the function of an operational government. Even if they are, they have chosen to ignore that, under the illusion that they are working hard and sustaining themselves. The self-employment agenda of this association rips apart ethnic loyalties because it co-opts Luo and Luhya communities.
I am not into economics, here, I am on the use and ab-use of names – how innocent names like Luanda Boda Boda Association circumvent a nationalist current. The afterlives of this name embrace the inclusion of other communities not associated with the cultural geography of the Maseno-Luanda route. The association teaches us how to bring back two communities that have been divided by colonial and post-colonial Kenyan rulers. Resiliently, the people still head back to certain elements of solidarity that existed way before the arrival of Hobley and his imperial British associates.
At the same time, we might have to remember that Luanda was founded by a Luo chief, as we are reminded by Bethwel Ogot who convincingly presents this event in his autobiography My Footprints in the Sands of Time. Contrary to its founding, Luanda is currently located in a Luhya-administered ethnopolis. The street-level motorcycle association undermines the political narrative in the control of Maseno-Luanda borderlands. The politics of Maseno-Luanda is pegged on community divisions. These boda boda motorcyclists, however, teach us lessons on cosmopolitanisms.
It is also instructive to recall that the Maseno-Luanda topic is a divisive factor and always comes up during election periods. However, the boda boda riders frequently move in and out of Luo and Luhya “tribal” zones conveniently and daily, with or without electoral cycles. If only the road network could catch up with the socialised motorcycle networks! These riders transcend the names and political divisions that were issued by the colonialists and their successors in post-colonial Kenya.
Boda boda riders transport passengers with little reference to ethnic origins. They move within and around the Luo and Banyore nations. Indeed, the motorbikes work across the tribal difference in a way that seems to shorten the already -narrow cultural distance between the two communities. In the process, they circulate cultural contacts between the two, and defy the political elite who thrive on the divisions. And now their bus will move passengers beyond Luo and Luhya nations. Linguists will observe the historical and structural complexities that separate Luloogoli, Libukusu and Kinyore from the Luo language, the obvious one being that dhoLuo is a Nilotic language and the other dialects belong to the Bantu language family.
The thing with language is that one owns the power to name things, to make a world with yourself at the center, to rewrite (hi)stories of far-flung peripheries. Take the ethnonym Luhya, as an example. Before this coinage, the Luhya were part of the Kavirondo people. The Kavirondo was initially the Eastern Province of Uganda before it was switched to Kisumu Province of the East Africa Protectorate, and finally moved to western Kenya. The umbrella term Kavirondo included both Nilotes and Bantus around Lake Victoria, all the way to Mumias and Mount Elgon. The freedom of colonialists’ naming of African communities was an enaction of the powerlessness of these communities vis-à-vis the colonial imagination and grammar. Within the Luhya nation there are a total of about 17 linguistic groups. The term Luhya is an artificially constructed ethnolinguistic reference to many closely related (some of which are not mutually intelligible) Bantu-speaking peoples. They include the Bukusu, Tachoni, Wanga, Marama, Tsotso, Tiriki, Nyala, Kabras, Hayo, Marachi, Holo, Maragoli, Idakho, Isukha, Kisa, Nyore, and Samia in Western Kenya. Their cultural divergences are many and multilayered, with the Tachoni tracing their ancestry to the Nilotic group of Nandi in the around the 14th century.
To fit yourself in a name that classified and considered you part of exotica needs careful self-extraction out of such languages. This need is even more immediate when one remembers how this classification was done without the agency and input of the local people and their collective consciousness and knowledge systems. Thus, the iLoikop people are made into Maasai, the iSampuru became Samburu. The various communities known as Nandi, Kipsikis, Pokoot, and Tugen are collapsed into an easily classifiable and ruled “tribe” called Kalenjin. This is in spite of the cultural and linguistic differences between them. In these cultural acrobatic movements mediated by colonialist linguistics, Kakamega (spelled as Kakumega in colonial orthography) was not the name of a town but an ethnonym in reference to the Idakho and Isukha communities.
If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we need a new generation of names. We need Names 2.0. These names could consider political and cultural differences and histories. We need a new name for a governance that will neither be called kleptocratic nor a kakistocracy. We need new names for Luos, who pride themselves in Nyikwa Ramogi (based on a point of origin, not a colonial classification). Don’t we need a new name for the daughters and sons of Mumbi? We need new names that denote plurality, but account for differentiated identities, like the Mijikenda. (My translation of “Mijikenda” would not be a tribe but “nine homes”.) We need decolonised names in order to open or transcend some of the worlds which were closed by colonial naming processes.
Renaming ourselves might not be an easy way to redesign our nominal worlds, which were forced into cruel unions in Berlin in December 1884. It might even prove to be a messy but it is still a necessary activity. We need to open these worlds that were closed by colonial naming processes, like the Luanda Boda Boda Association has done. Every time we use these new colonial names, we acknowledge the problematic grammar that inherently operates within them. We also reiterate that the names did not aim to usefully matter to Africans. We repeat the insufficiency of English to capture the nuances that exist in our cultural worldviews and political lives.
I must reiterate here that these names were not arbitrarily drawn; they were created to enhance control. Perhaps post-colonial eastern Africa should ask what control mechanism the various ethno-nationalities initiate. For example, the Luhya group is one of the reminders that ethno-nationalism is an invention that is a mirage. It was created for divide et imperium purposes. As Bethwel Ogot reminds us, there was no Luhya empire prior to colonialism. Yet the colonial history implies the presence of a Luhya empire. The Nabongo Mumia was no threat to the neighbouring Kager clan. However, as a paramount chief, Nabongo Mumia, was a creation of the British to pacify western Kenya, especially to control the northeastern Kager clan of the so-called Luos.
We need new names, donge?
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