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FISHING FOR FRIENDS: Salva Kiir’s cynical flirtation with regional bodies

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FISHING FOR FRIENDS: Salva Kiir’s cynical flirtation with regional bodies

On 8 March 2018, the Arab League’s Council of Ministers rejected South Sudan’s application for membership in the League. South Sudan’s curious application for membership in the Arab body raises eyebrows as the country is neither predominantly Muslim nor Arab. Besides, only eight out of the League’s twenty-two members are African countries; of these, seven countries (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia) are predominantly Muslim countries where Arabic is the official language. (Somalia is the only Arab League member where Arabic ceased to be an official language when the Somali language and script became more widely used officially in the 1970s.) So in terms of both religion and language, we can confidently conclude that South Sudan does not meet the conditions for membership in the Arab League.

The Republic of South Sudan ceased to be part of the Arab League when it attained independence from the Sudan in July 2011. The idea of joining the Arab League is something that never crossed the minds of most South Sudanese, including the pro-Arab Muslim minority.

The news of the rejection of South Sudan’s application came as a surprise to many South Sudanese – not because South Sudan was rejected but because nobody contemplated the application itself. This speaks volumes about how the government of President Salva Kiir could have undertaken such an important national security matter in complete secrecy. It also suggests that the people of South Sudan would not have accepted the idea of joining the Arab League, which explains the secrecy surrounding the process until the Council of Ministers broke the news. Internal as well as external national socio-economic and political/security priorities dictate membership in multilateral and regional organisations. States seek membership in multilateral organisations to satisfy their economic, security or political needs.

The Republic of South Sudan ceased to be part of the Arab League when it attained independence from the Sudan in July 2011. The idea of joining the Arab League is something that never crossed the minds of most South Sudanese, including the pro-Arab Muslim minority.

Perhaps the regime operatives confused the Arab League with the Organisation of Islamic States (OIS), which many South Sudanese Muslims would be upbeat about joining. It is, therefore, a flabbergasting turn of events that the government wants the people of South Sudan to become part of the Arab world after nearly seven decades of resisting Arab identity.

One outstanding cause for South Sudan’s secession was the definition of the Sudan along the two parameters of Islam and Arab culture. The Arab-dominated northern political elite also considered the Sudanese nationality as a transition to full integration into Arab nationhood. The first civil war (1955-1972) was secessionist in character while the second civil war (1983-2005) was for the radical transformation of the Sudanese polity.

As a nascent state, emerging from two decades of war of national liberation, South Sudan exhibited extreme conditions of fragility and instability. Its internal stability, therefore, depended on the socio-economic and political engineering processes that the government undertook internally, as well as the external diplomatic relations it constructed.

Upon attaining independence, South Sudan immediately acquired membership at the United Nations, the African Union and the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, the internal socio-political stability could not hold and the nascent state descended into a civil war barely three years into its independence. This disturbed its internal legitimacy and so it had to rely on external legitimacy to maintain its equilibrium. This equilibrium hinged precariously on an oppressive kleptocratic totalitarian regime comprising a network of parasitic patrons and clients that fed on the dwindling oil revenues. The longer the civil war lasted, the more the system witnessed internal instability trending towards failure and collapse.

The East Africa Community (EAC), in a hushed process, admitted the Republic of South Sudan as a member in 2017. There was no internal debate in South Sudan to endorse the application for membership in the EAC.

The internal instability of the system triggered frenetic efforts to save itself. In 2016 and 2017, the system shopped for symbiotic associations as a strategy to keep itself afloat. The East Africa Community (EAC), in a hushed process, admitted the Republic of South Sudan as a member in 2017. There was no internal debate in South Sudan to endorse the application for membership in the EAC. The government of the Republic of South Sudan denied the people the opportunity to conscientise the community and its institutions. The process was rushed through the National Assembly in the heavy presence of national security officers to intimidate the legislators to meet the deadline for joining the East Africa Community Parliament. President Salva Kiir issued a republican decree appointing nine South Sudanese, all members of the ruling SPLM party (two incumbent presidential advisors and others occupied different positions in the government), to the EAC’s Legislative Assembly.

South Sudan could have been a founding member of the EAC had the British colonial administration not reversed its 1946 policy, which aimed at annexing southern Sudan to the then British East Africa. The East African countries of Uganda, Kenya and to some extent Tanzania, welcomed Southern Sudanese refugees in the first (1955-1972) and second (1983-2005) civil wars. Many of them studied and obtained skills and academic degrees in East African universities.

However, the cultural integration of ordinary South Sudanese, particularly those hailing from Bahr el Ghazal and Upper Nile subregions, into the East Africa Community will not be without pains and difficulties. They are oriented towards Sudanese culture with Arabic cultural and religious streaks. Nevertheless, the economic and political interests of the parasitic capitalist class in South Sudan dictated joining the East Africa Community.

In the same vein as the EAC process, the Republic of South Sudan joined the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in 2017. This came at a time of great social, economic and political stress in the country, the result of the civil war and the dire humanitarian situation that produced two to three million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Tens of thousands of internally displaced South Sudanese are living in squalid conditions in UN-protected areas, while many others are scattered in inaccessible bushes and swamps. The economy has collapsed – people cannot find a day’s meal without international humanitarian intervention. Some ministers in the government, members of the National Legislature and senior bureaucrats who did not send their families to cities in East Africa now prefer to send their families to refugee camps.

The government of South Sudan assented to the ICGLR Protocol on Non-Aggression and Mutual Defence Pact Art 2 (106) as a survival mechanism. It is an instrument to enable the regime to obtain political security and military support from the region and from the US administration. In fact, the regime’s most important expectation of this regional support is its declaration of the SPLM/SPLA (IO) and all opposition groups opposed to Salva Kiir and his regime as “negative forces”.

On 26 January this year, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the South Sudan government of President Salva Kiir an “unfit partner” of the United Nations.

In this context of political survival, President Kiir has tied South Sudan to the imperialist security projects in Africa, which purportedly are aimed at combating international terrorism. However, this strategy has allowed for the extraction and plunder of minerals and other resources in the Great Lakes Region.

Exclusive clubs

Poignant to the questions I have raised above is whether or not the regional multilateral organisations, such as the EAC, IGAD, the Arab League and AU, remain exclusive clubs for leaders who have little impact on the lives of the people in their respective constituent countries. In the Horn and Great Lakes Regions of Africa, civil wars rage in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, DR Congo and to some extent Burundi. These wars have triggered dire humanitarian consequences; there have been large-scale human displacements and migrations to neighbouring countries with serious economic and security implications for the host countries and communities. Nevertheless, we only see the United States, in cohort with the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Norway and the European Union, engaged in trying to quell these wars or meet the humanitarian needs of the internally displaced and the refugees. The regional multilateral organisations are completely absent in this endeavour.

The leaders of these regional multilateral bodies hold periodic summits and issue communiques after every summit that declare that they “remain seized” on South Sudan’s particular situation. Does the suffering of the people not freak out the conscience of these leaders, particularly leaders of the countries that are also experiencing civil war? I am not sure if the Arab League has ever discussed the conditions in Somalia since civil war erupted in 1991. Why then would the Arab League be concerned about South Sudan, which is a predominantly Christian, non-Arab country?

The news of South Sudan application to join the Arab League took many citizens of South Sudan by surprise. This is partly because one of the strong points for the southern Sudanese to secede from the Sudan was on account of the Arab-dominated northern Sudanese political elite’s definition of Sudan along the two parameters of Islam and Arab culture. Not just that, but also because they considered Sudanese nationality as a transition to full integration of the Africans in the Sudan into Arab nationhood,

The collapse of the agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) leading to the escalation of war and proliferation of opposition groups created other dynamics in the search for peace in South Sudan. The IGAD sponsored high-level revitalisation (HLRF) of the collapsed ARCISS did not make headway. The process kicked off in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2017 and brokered a cessation of hostilities agreement (COH). However, before the ink could dry, the government army violated the COH signed in Addis Ababa just before Christmas 2017, suggesting that the government was not interested in peace.

The violation of COH solicited unsavoury reaction from the US administration. On 26 January this year, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the South Sudan government of President Salva Kiir an “unfit partner” of the United Nations. These strong words speak to the growing rift between the US Government and the regime in Juba.

Egypt is only interested in the Nile waters, and has been threatening a war with Ethiopia on account of the Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. South Sudan is the weakest link, militarily speaking, in this confrontation, and therefore through it, membership in the Arab League would render its territory a buffer zone in the service of Egypt, the League’s most influential member.

It is worth mentioning that the Bush administration helped midwife the process that allowed the people of Southern Sudan to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination. The Obama administration had been instrumental in supporting the regime in Juba, including the continued incarceration in South Africa of Dr. Riek Machar, the leader of the armed SPLM/A (IO), in the vain belief that Riek’s absence from the region would help bring peace. This IGAD Council of Ministers Communique of 26 March echoed this belief by predicating Riek’s release on the opposition leader and former Vice President renouncing violence.

We view South Sudan’s application for membership in the Arab League in the context of the civil war in the country and the growing international isolation of Salva Kiir’s regime. South Sudan has no strategic interests in the Arab League. Therefore, the application must be viewed in the context of Kiir’s political survival in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US support to his regime. It was a strategy to obtain other kinds of support in case the US administration pressures Kiir’s main supporter in the region, President Yoweri Museveni, to urge him to leave office.

In addition, South Sudan has an outstanding “defence pact” with Egypt to the chagrin of both the Sudan and Ethiopia. Both Egypt and Uganda have been involved in chaotic attempts to reunify the factions of the SPLM, a process started jointly in 2014 by Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi and South Africa’s African National Congress.

Therefore, admission of South Sudan into the Arab League on the recommendation of Egypt smacks of the nineteenth century Egyptian colonial adventure in the Sudan. Egypt is only interested in the Nile waters, and has been threatening a war with Ethiopia on account of the Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. South Sudan is the weakest link, militarily speaking, in this confrontation, and therefore through it, membership in the Arab League would render its territory a buffer zone in the service of Egypt, the League’s most influential member. The people of South Sudan are therefore right in welcoming the rejection of South Sudan’s application for membership in the Arab League.

The next phase

President Salva Kiir did not have to subject the people of South Sudan to such national embarrassment. The 98.7% vote for secession in the referendum on self-determination in January 2011 was South Sudan’s march out of the Arab League. In fact, President Salva Kiir did not need to apply for membership in the Arab League had he implemented, without unnecessary hitches, the IGAD-brokered agreement on the resolution of conflict in South Sudan (2015).

The IGAD high-level revitalisation process (HLRF) is another opportunity for the people of South Sudan to make peace and return to stability and reconciliation. The third phase of HLRF kicked off in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, immediately after the Easter season. It is incumbent on all to give peace a chance.

The people of South Sudan have not seen meaningful peace since the nineteenth century European incursion, occupation, wars of pacification and the civil wars. The sticking point has been power-sharing and security sector reforms. It is imperative to undertake security sector reform in terms of effectiveness, proficiency and ethnic configuration. However, power-sharing during the transition and the elections are not the solution to the fundamental contradiction in the conflict.

President Kiir and his government, on the one hand, and the political and armed opposition, on the other, have to begin to think outside the box. The IGAD region or the international community will not bring peace to South Sudan. Only the people of South Sudan in their different social and political formations will bring peace if they so wish.

The IGAD region or the international community will not bring peace to South Sudan. Only the people of South Sudan in their different social and political formations will bring peace if they so wish.

The role of the region and the international community is only facilitation, nothing more. The focus, therefore, of the HLRF should not be on power-sharing but rather on how to get South Sudan and its people out of the social, economic and political avalanche. It requires a scientific understanding of the real issues facing South Sudan. This will enable the crafting of a comprehensive political programme to address the socio-economic and cultural backwardness of the people of South Sudan that play out as poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition, all of which have fuelled the conflict. This requires a national government based on competence and knowledge of issues and bound only by the completion of the agreed programme to revive the economy, promote social and economic development and build physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, electric power generating plants, communication systems, etc).

It does not require patriotism to think outside the box. The situation demands both patriotism (love of the country and its people) as well as the courage to think outside the box. In his own words, President Salva Kiir, while swearing in the new Minister of Finance, admitted, “The country is broke, the pound has lost it value and South Sudanese have become the laughing stock everywhere.” These are words of the incumbent president not somebody in the opposition aspiring to replace him.

What then are we waiting for? It must be clear to all and sundry that the onus of saving the country lies in our hands. We will succeed to save this country only if we think and act outside the box. It is now or never.

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Peter Adwok Nyaba trained as a geologist and lectured in Juba and Asmara Universities. He is a trade unionist, an activist, a former commander in the SPLA, a Noma Award (1998) winner and a former minister in the Government of the Republic of Sudan and the Government of the Republic of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the SPLM in Opposition.

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Uganda: Why Only Public Oversight Can Stem Corruption and Incompetence in the Public Service

It is more productive for Ugandans to focus on the underlying incompetence in public administration and to devise means of increasing public oversight of the Treasury.

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Uganda: Why Only Public Oversight Can Stem Corruption and Incompetence in the Public Service

It is that time of the year when the Auditor General’s annual report, released at the end of December, is drip-fed to Ugandans, query by query. The majority of the population will only ever know headlines such as “Uganda’s Public Debt Worrying”. Along with the news that Uganda’s public debt has risen by 22 per cent, the latest report carried the first official confirmation that the country’s sovereignty has been put at risk by the terms and conditions of some loans. These two alarming pieces of information received minimal response from the public.

What did not make the news was that significant amounts of the petroleum fund set aside for infrastructure development is being used instead to fund the recurrent budget (wages, consumables, transport etc.) amounting to UGX.125.3 billion ($34,137,671).

Revenues receivable from oil developers amounting to UGX 12,877,415,932 ($3,508,073), have not been collected. A number of other entities have failed to collect monies due to them and it is possible the receivables have been diverted.

Outstanding Receivables

Outstanding Receivables

There is a real risk of loan default given that borrowing and on-lending to parastatals has increased by 975 per cent, from UGX 431 billion ($117,409,571) in 2015/16 to UGX 4,634 billion ($1,262,612,871) in 2017/18 even as parastatals continue to fail to repay earlier loans. Parastatals have traditionally been conduits for public funds in to private hands.

The debt to revenue ratio is now 54%, the highest in the region and projected to rise to 65% in 2020 when some loans expire. Historically, nothing above 40 per cent debt to revenue ratio has been sustainable. Interest payments as a percentage of revenue collection, at 17 per cent, are also above the accepted threshold of 15 per cent. The AG first flagged unsustainable interest payments in 2016 when they were still at 16 per cent of revenues.

Other areas of deterioration in financial management reported are: a rise in contingent liabilities (including potential court awards) to UGX 9.4 trillion ($2,560,731) from UGX 7.5 trillion ($2,043,187) a year ago; unpaid court awards and compensation against the government have risen to UGX 655 billion, from UGX 648 billion ($176,509,616) in 2017. Interest on a section of judgment debts is UGX 124 billion ($33,790,210). Yet awards made in favour of the government amounting to UGX 20.6 billion ($5,611,883) have not been collected.

The debt to revenue ratio is now 54%, the highest in the region and projected to rise to 65% in 2020 when some loans expire. Historically, nothing above 40 per cent debt to revenue ratio has been sustainable.

The country has continued to fall short of the amounts it is required to contribute to donor-aided projects. In 2017, the shortfall was UGX 43 billion ($11,714,056) and rose to UGX 1.6 trillion ($435,891,546) in 2018.

The Youth Livelihood Programme attracted more attention than the debt situation, with its salacious details involving revolving loans being made to youth groups, 67 per cent of which do not exist. A small minority will find out from Twitter that 79,000 army veterans haven’t been paid their pension and gratuity arrears worth UGX 500 billion ($136,211,575) or that UGX 65.6 billion ($17,843,484) was released by the Treasury for pensions but was returned after the recipients could not be verified or were being deliberately frustrated by ministries, departments, agencies and local governments. (The latter is more likely. This writer was involved in arm-wrestling the Education Service Commission and the Ministry of Education for an elderly friend’s gratuity. A Ministry of Education official demanded an unspecified “share”; it was denied to him, and so the gratuity was not paid.)

The full report will come into its own with daily television coverage later in the year when the Parliament Accounts Committee (PAC) gets round to debating it. There will be further scrutiny if and when COSASE, Parliament’s committee on commissions, statutory authorities and state enterprises, debates its management. COSASE might spend some time trying to understand why out of the 11 public enterprises in which the government has invested UGX 70 billion ($19,067,642) only Kalangala Infrastucture Services is operational. KIS first came up for mention by the AG in 2016 when it was discovered that it had been paid UGX 16 billion ($4,358,994) to run two ferries between Ssesse Islands and the mainland while the nine other ferries countrywide were operated on a combined total of UGX 10 billion ($2,724,196). The AG pointed out that a new ferry can be acquired for UGX 14 billion ($3,813,865). KIS has never declared profits since the project began in 2012.

All except two of the government’s non-operational commercial enterprises are in the agricultural sector and were designed to transform smallholdings into commercially viable farms (See the State of the Nation Address 2018), fruit and sugar factories and tea factories and growers.

Non-operational Projects

Non-operational Projects. Source: Auditor General’s Report, December 2018

This should come as no surprise given that the AG had earlier warned against these investments made without strategic plans or feasibility studies;

Lack of guidelines for strategic investments

“The government, through the Uganda Development Corporation, is undertaking investments countrywide in the areas of fruit processing and helping others to set up industries in Soroti, Luwero, Kabale and Kisoro districts. These investments cumulatively amounted to UGX 26.6 billion ($7,246,598). However, I noted that there was no policy to guide the establishment of these investments.” The Auditor General’s report of 2016 also shows that some of the investments have been undertaken without feasibility studies on marketability and commercial viability.” (Auditor General, 2018)

The competence of parliament and the general public to oversee public expenditure is also in issue. Kira Motor Corporation (KMC), recently in the news for test-driving a car supposedly made in Uganda, was audited and is listed as non-operational in 2018.

It was only noticed when in February 2019 a parliamentary committee visited KMC and found that the plant does not exist. Where foundations and scaffolding worth UGX 15 billion ($4,087,095) had been expected, there was only bush. Like other presidential initiatives announced to fanfare and outside the NDP, KMC is being revealed as a scheme for gaining access to Treasury funds that have been embezzled.

Nugatory expenditure is a useful indicator of competence in the public service. The AG defines it as avoidable and therefore wasteful “expenditure that does not achieve any result”. In 2017 UGX 2.74 billion ($746,508) was wasted on “delayed settlements of obligations arising from contracts for construction services, court awards.” In 2018, the Ministries of Water and Education lost UGX 1.6 billion ($435,900) on “interest charges including on interest on delayed payments, litigation costs for wrongful termination of contracts and refund of embezzled funds”.

Masked corruption

However, the details are no longer important and not many more can be taken in by an exhausted polity. It is more productive for Ugandans to focus on the underlying incompetence in public administration that gives rise to audit queries such as these and to devise means of increasing public oversight of the Treasury. Some audit queries arise out of incapacity but most mask corruption.

It was only noticed when in February 2019 a parliamentary committee visited KMC and found that the plant does not exist. Where foundations and scaffolding worth UGX 15 billion ($4,087,095) had been expected, there was only bush. Like other presidential initiatives announced to fanfare and outside the NDP, KMC is being revealed as a scheme for gaining access to Treasury funds that have been embezzled.

Take wetland management. It has been government policy for at least a decade to halt encroachment on wetlands. The reasons are both to prevent environmental degradation and to maintain access for communities that derive livelihoods from them. The Wetland Management Department has not updated the inventory of wetlands since 2000; they are neither demarcated nor gazetted. This omission is convenient for those who acquired illegal title in the wetlands in anticipation of the planned standard gauge railway and the compensation that would have to be paid for them being vacated. In 2017 the National Environment Management Authority announced that the titles were to be cancelled. In 2018, the AG found that the cancellation exercise was not funded and therefore did not take place.

The target of restoring 12 per cent of destroyed wetlands by 2020 is unlikely to be met. Degradation of the wetlands outpaces restoration, with only 0.3 per cent of the targeted restorations having been implemented.

Furthermore, it has been found that reclaiming wetlands as part of irrigation schemes has led to enclosure of the irrigated land and exclusion of the local populations dependent on them for their survival. Land management generally is in similar straits with two million hectares belonging to the police, prisons and Ministry of Agriculture encroached upon. At the time of writing a massive tract of wetland is being filled with earth on the Bombo Road – a highly visible highway leading north out of Kampala. The public is mystified.

Thirty-four per cent of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and local governments are understaffed. The level in 2016 was more or less the same – 119 local governments were understaffed by over 40 per cent. “This affects service delivery as a majority of these are critical jobs like doctors, clinical officers, Professors, Commissioners.” (Auditor General). The most affected are public universities and local governments. Following[1] is a sector by sector list of audit findings for MDAs highlighting the understaffing and other difficulties they face.

Then there is the usual corruption, such as the case of six officials in Apac District receiving over UGX 2 billion ($544,883) without supporting documents; financial controls are still being overridden because the twenty-year-old IFMIS has still not been rolled out country-wide. Where it does operate, controls have been by-passed to allow UGX 369 billion ($100,531,084) in expenditure not related to the relevant budget line (up from 168 billion in 2016), unaccounted for expenditure of 21.7 billion ($5,912,119) and nugatory expenditure of 66.9 billion ($18,226,765). Undisclosed arrears, which may or may not be genuine, amount to UGX 377 billion ($102,707,560).

Overall responsibility must be ascribed to the top leadership of the public service, the planning departments of the Ministry of Finance, line ministries and local governments. Unfortunately, that is where the largest gaps exist between expected services and outcomes.

In 2016, a large number of MDAs failed to submit strategic plans “as a result most sector plans and targets are not aligned with the National Development Plan (NDP) and assessing service delivery and level of implementation of the NDP is difficult without service delivery standards and regular interviews.”

However, the details are no longer important and not many more can be taken in by an exhausted polity. It is more productive for Ugandans to focus on the underlying incompetence in public administration that gives rise to audit queries such as these and to devise means of increasing public oversight of the Treasury. Some audit queries arise out of incapacity but most mask corruption.

Low debt absorption is understandable now that it is clear that money is borrowed without plans. In 2016, UGX 18 trillion ($4,903,604,818) was committed but was not disbursed. The Treasury paid UGX 20 billion ($5,448,388) in wasted commitment fees for those loans. In 2018, the trend continued; municipal councils under the Uganda Support for Municipal Infrastructure Development failed to utilise UGX 95,006,243,857 ($25,881,547) while the project support unit did not utilize UGX 6,722,829,229 ($1,831,386). This occurred against the background of “various incomplete and abandoned works due to non-payment of contractors. Work on Mbarara-Nkenda and Tororo-Lira transmission lines was delayed for almost 8 years resulting into cancellation of the loan by the funder with an undisbursed loan amount of USD 6.5m”.

The same loan was audited in 2016 when the unabsorbed amount was UGX 94.783 billion. Officials at that time attributed the failure to a lack of specialised staff (understaffing), which in turn limited their capacity to procure specialised equipment, such as for land surveys.

A minor but interesting detail is that 115 properties under the management of the Departed Asian Custodian Board (DAPCB) have been repossessed by their former owners who were compensated for these properties in 1999. These properties may be lost to the State once the winding up of the DAPCB is complete.

Class action suits

Returning to the issue of an appropriate response to the Auditor General’s findings, the aggrieved have a number of options. The most promising would be to file class action suits for negligence and any losses consequent upon that, be they avoidable deaths in hospital or those caused by bad roads.

Where funds have been available and commitments made, the failure to transmit electricity for eight years and resulting loss of industrial capacity and simple comfort of the affected population is similarly actionable. Nugatory expenditure is actionable in its own right but various communities can demonstrate in lawsuits how it has adversely affected them and obtain compensation.

It is the right of affected populations to petition the Ombudsman, individual MPs, as well as COSASE. If they appear toothless, it may be because the public they represent has abdicated responsibility for the economy.

[1] ANNEXURE II: SUMMARY ENTITY FINDINGS OF MDAS Table 2.1 Adverse Opinions

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The Original Sin: Land, Politics and the History of Ethnic Tensions in the Rift Valley

As the theatre of the politics of succession leading to 2022 plays out in the expansive Rift Valley region, the spectre of the ever-simmering land question looms large. By DAUTI KAHURA

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The Original Sin: Land, Politics, and the History of Ethnic Tensions in the Rift Valley

“Chitap koret,” this is my ancestral land, a Kalenjin from the Sabaot community, one of the nine ethnic dialects that make up the Kalenjin nation, said to me at the foothills of Mt Elgon, in Trans Nzoia County. Sabaots are a pastoralist community and just like the Maasai people, believe in keeping cattle – even the poorest Sabaot must have a cow or two. “Kalenjin believe North Rift especially belongs to them and nothing will change that,” said Kip, my Sabaot acquaintance.

“These people (the Kikuyus) will always be tenants on our land,” said Kip. “They are here temporarily. It doesn’t matter whether the land they occupy has been bought legally or not, was dished out, bought from one of us or any other person, whether it has a title or not. One day they must vacate this land.” Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.

Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected. Every time the issue of foreigners arises in the Rift Valley region, the first targets are specifically the Kikuyu people, some of whom have lived in the Rift Valley region for the last 70 years.

Kip said mutual suspicion between the Kikuyus and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley will always abound. “Mark my words,” said Kip emphatically, “just like the Kikuyu don’t forget, we Kalenjin don’t forgive – we will revisit the issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley. We will soon show them who the true owners of the Rift Valley are.” It was an ominous threat.

The genesis of the land quagmire between the Kalenjin and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley region, traces back to the 1940s, which the British colonial government exacerbated by settling the Kikuyus in the area. An annual colonial write-up of 1957 reported, “In common with other Kalenjin people, however, there is everywhere else, dislike of the Kikuyu settlement being established in what is regarded as their district’s sphere of influence in Uasin Gishu”.

Yet, the colonial government had, by the turn of the 19th century, sowed the seeds of discord, when it pushed many of the ethnic communities into reserve lands and squatter camps, to create room for cash crop growing by the European settler farmers in the White Highlands. Central Kenya, Rift Valley and Coast Province were the major culprits in this settler land colonial project.

A pastoralist community, the Kalenjin, however struck an exceptional deal with the settler farmers: provide manual labour in the farms for exchange of grazing rights. But come the mid-1940s, this arrangement was destabilized, because the settler farmers needed more land for their cash crops. Why? World War (II) had ended in 1945 and Europe had decimated most of its agricultural lands for cash crop production. In addition, the Kalenjin people were expanding in population, even as their livestock grew in numbers. They too were demanding more land to graze their animals. This naturally created further tensions.

The first thing the colonial government did in reaction to this agitation by the Kalenjin was, to contain them in squatter camps and deny them grazing land. A warrior-like people, the Kalenjin refused to be squatters in the settler farms. So, in search of pastureland, they trekked off. This migration led them to central Rift Valley, Taita-Taveta and even in as far as Tanzania.

Every time there is a shift in the political relations at the national level, between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites, every time these elites engage in a public spat, the Kalenjin people of the greater Rift Valley allude to foreigners among them who should be ejected

To replace the departing Kalenjins, the colonial government brought in the Kikuyus from Central Kenya to work in the settler farms arguing that the agrarian, sedentary Kikuyus were hardworking and attuned to plant cultivation, unlike the “lazy” pastoralist Kalenjin.

By 1950s therefore, Kikuyu population in the Rift Valley had tremendously grown and this greatly upset the indigenous Kalenjin. This is around the time the Kalenjins started agitating for their land and viewing Kikuyus as strangers and intruders. Hence, the temporary halting of more “importation” of Kikuyus from Central Kenya to Rift Valley, according to colonial reports that quoted Mr P.H Brown, the Uasin Gishu District Commissioner (DC), who recommended the stop.

But, no sooner had Brown stopped further Kikuyu migration into the Rift, than his successor revoked the decree. Mr R.S Symes-Thompson pointed out that Kikuyus were central to agricultural success in the settler farms. It is an arrangement that Jomo Kenyatta inherited and perfected when he became first, the Prime Minister in 1963 and, later President in 1964.

When it became apparent that the British would have to relinquish its power in Kenya, they bought between one and three million acres of land to resettle the landless. They also put a caveat to land ownership: any Kenyan would own land anywhere in Kenya, regardless of their ancestral origins and ethnicity. Secondly, there was no free land. If anybody wanted to buy land, it would, henceforth be, on a willing-seller, willing-buyer. It is an arrangement that greatly favoured the Kikuyus and that Kenyatta took to heart and implemented it even better than the departing British. To date, these two decrees appear in the new promulgated 2010 constitution.

To this end, the British colonial government gave Kenyatta’s government 100 million sterling pounds under the Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) to buy land for the squatters – many of who were Kikuyus. In 1969, fiery Nandi MP Jean Marie Seroney, convened a charged meeting to debate the land question in Rift Valley. The Nandi Hills Declaration was the aftermath of that meeting, which decreed all land in Nandi belonged to the local community, that would henceforth oppose any further acquisition and settlement of Kikuyus in the area.

Moi who was the Vice President and Minister for Home Affairs and was Seroney’s political nemesis, threw him into detention. The Kalenjins have always argued that even when they had money to buy their own land, the Kenyatta government opposed the move. They cite the example of the Makonge (sisal) Farm in Ziwa. The attempt to buy this land was thwarted by the state in 1976, leading to the arrest of Eldoret North MP, the controversial Chelagat Mutai. The farm, instead, was handed to a land buying company belonging to Kikuyus.

In Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics, published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press, Catherine Boone, ably tackles the intricate interconnectedness of supra local politics and land ownership in the volatile Rift Valley region.

“The statist land tenure regime (LTG) established in the Rift Valley farming districts by the colonial state was perpetuated and elaborated by the Kanu government after independence,” writes Boone. She says, the government bought the land from the departing European settlers, and allocated the land through settlement schemes to smallholder farmers between 1960–1975. “The rest of the land so acquired was transferred in the form of large estates to high ranking members of the Kenyatta regime entrenching their status as an economic, as well as a political elite.”

Burnt Forest area – which become infamous in December 2007, after some Kikuyu families were trapped in a Pentecostal church and that was set on fire, burning mostly women and their children below 10 years – “become a zone of mostly Kikuyu settlement schemes and was purchased by the state in 1965.” During the highly contested presidential 2007 election, the Opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga, running on an ODM ticket cried foul and accused the Mwai Kibaki led Party of National Union (PNU) of stealing the elections, provoking ethnic cleansing in Rift Valley, especially in areas that were heavily populated by Kikuyu. Burnt Forest became one of the notorious flashpoints of that ethnic warfare.

“Many settlers on the Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia Districts schemes were Kikuyu who had previously been employed on European farms in these areas” points out Boone. “Under Kenyatta, the kanu government used its land powers to open the Rift to settlement by peoples and persons who were not recognized by the state as indigenous to these jurisdictions, and who did not claim ancestral or customary rights in these areas.” Boone adds, “Under colonial rule, these people were categorized into state-recognized ethnic groups (the Nandi, Kipsigis, Maasai, Tugen, Elgeyo, Samburu, Marakwet, Sabaot, Pokot Terik, Turkana and so on).”

Catherine Boone who is a professor of Government, International Development and Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), makes the point that even after these communities were pushed to the margins of their lands (presumably to create room for the sedentary communities such as the Kikuyu to engage in agricultural farming), the loss (of land) did not decrease, or become less onerous, overtime.

Conflicts over access to land in Kenya’s Rift Valley have marked all stages of Kenya’s national history and shaped each critical juncture, says Boone. “The colonial state expropriated much of what is now Rift Valley Province from the Maasai and other people indigenous to the Rift. The British proclaimed direct jurisdiction over what it designated as Crown Land in the Rift Valley in 1904.”

Boone argues in her book that “the farming districts of Kenya’s Rift Valley Province are some of the most productive and highly commercialized rural zones of sub-Saharan Africa. These districts – Nakuru, Trans Nzoia, Uasin Gishu and Nandi – are territories with high in-migration and high ethnic homogeneity and with settlement patterns and land allocation authored directly by the central state. It is also one of Africa’s worst conflict-ridden rural areas, with a long and bloody history of land-related struggles.”

Once Daniel arap Moi was in control of the state organs, after succeeding Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, “he used the central state’s land prerogative in Rift Valley to reward its own clients, who were encouraged by the regime to coalesce around ethnic identity, Kalenjin-ness that was centred on indigeneity (autochthony) in the Rift Valley,” notes Boone. “From 1986 on, government forestlands became caisse noire of patronage resources that were used to cement elite alliances and build political support for Moi among Kalenjin constituencies he needed as a mass power base.”

Hence, “evictions of Kenyatta-era forest squatters and the declassification of new forest land opened a land frontier that Moi used to settle thousands of Kalenjin families. Most Kikuyus were expelled from the Mau Forest in the 1980s, so that Kalenjins could move in. Many were allowed to settle south of Njoro.”

In the South Rift, largely composed of the Kipsigis, Kalenjin’s biggest dialect, a simmering anger of volcanic proportions is going on, brought about by the eviction of the Kipsigis people from the Mau Forest beginning 2018. Many were settled there, originally by President Moi in the early 1980s, soon after becoming the second president of Kenya, and for some as late as 15 years ago during the tenure of President Mwai Kibaki. The Kipsigis are now accusing the Deputy President William Ruto of ominous silence, as they are forcefully being kicked out and their property burned.

Daniel Burgei told me the Kipsigis helped marshal Kalenjin vote for Jubilee Party through Ruto, “now he is mum about the evictions. This is very troubling as we watch this whole spectacle in bewilderment. The Kipsigis have been practicing shamba system in the Mau Forest, where the soils are rich, do not need fertilizer and are good for cabbage, maize potatoes and tomato production. They also have been keeping livestock; cows, donkeys, goats and sheep.” Yet, in the process, they have hived huge chunks of the forest by cutting trees, hence destroying the natural environment, all in the name of giving way to farming, said Burgei.

Ruto, like Moi in the 1970s when he was Jomo Kenyatta’s VP is accused by a section of the Kalenjin people of keeping quiet in the face of the long-standing issue of land ownership in the Rift Valley region.

It is significant to note that “the name Kalenjin came into use as a group of designation in Kenya among World War (II) servicemen and ex-servicemen and students in the elite East Africa high schools in Nairobi and Kampala in the 1940s. “This ethnic consciousness of being Kalenjin was rooted in the native-stranger distinction. In very part, it was produced by the land tenure regime. The form of ethnic consciousness and mobilization that developed in Kenya was not the consciousness of all the people.

“When (former President Daniel arap) Moi led the efforts to amalgamate the political organization of the state-recognized tribes of the western Rift Valley in early 1960, he called the umbrella group the Kalenjin Political Association (KPA).” Boone adds that when the colonial government lifted the ban on indigenous politics, Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) took over the interests of KPA.

“By the time of the February 1962 Lancaster House constitutional negotiations, “the rifts between Kanu and Kadu were…deep and deeply felt…During the talks, Moi would repeat that the people of Kalenjin were prepared to fight and die for their land.” Boone reminds us all, that “Kalenjin first appeared as an official ethnicity on the Kenyan census in 1979, Moi’s first year as a president. Moi promoted Kalenjin identity in the 1980s and 1990s as an ethnic designation to transcend the narrower, older colonial-era identities of Nandi, Kipsigis, Elgeyo, Tugen, and so on.” These ethnic consciousness of being a Kalenjin, says Boone was driven by the sensitive land politics of the Rift.

This consciousness has had the effect of creating a peculiar “tribalism,” in the Rift Valley land politics “namely that in it was almost wholly a consciousness of being, either a Kikuyu or not-Kikuyu.”

If the 1960s and 1970s were decades of consolidation of the Kenyatta regime which sidelined those claiming ancestral land rights in the Rift Valley and “inserted” African settlers into Rift Valley farming districts, the 1980s and 1990s were a reversal of these settlements. Forced to accept plural politics in 1991, by the West, his erstwhile allies in the Cold War era, Moi mobilized the Rift Valley constituencies, “along an axis of competition that pitted indigenes of the Rift Valley against settlers who had been implanted by the Kenyatta regime.”

Boone observes that the Rift Valley politicians tapped into existing land-related tensions in which the central state was directly implicated as the author and enforcer of a contested distribution of land rights. “This conflict found direct expression in electoral politics at the national level. Political rhetoric that pervaded Nandi, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia districts dwelled on how land was lost to the Europeans was never recovered and how under Kenyatta ‘black colonialists’had been allowed to buy up land that rightfully should have belonged to indigenous communities.”

Prof Boone gives the example of Likia location, in Molo division, Nakuru District, “where most land belonged to Kikuyus in the early 1990s, local Kalenjin politicians reminded the people of the past ownership of the land and encouraged them to reclaim it.”

On January 10, 2019, a former Molo MP, Joseph Kiuna held a press conference in Likia area of Molo and reminded the Kalenjin that they had not forgotten what they had done to the Kikuyus in 2007/2008post-election violence (PEV). “All this time the Kikuyus have been pretending that they had forgotten and moved on,” said Kip. “We Kalenjin are very much aware they have not forgotten anything.” Even though thousands of Kikuyus were internally displaced – up to 600,000 people were dislocated from their homesteads in the greater Rift Valley during PEV, by the marauding Kalenjin warriors – many a Kikuyu nevertheless returned to Rift Valley. The allure of fertile soils, the armistice arrived at between Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta and a desire to go back to their lands, which they had occupied for many years, was greater than the ominous existential threat of a repeat “ethnic” attack on their farms.

And the Kikuyus have had big group farms ranging between 1000 and 3000 acres in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu Counties. 35 kilometers from Kitale town are the better known Gitwamba and Munyaka Farms located at the foothills of Mt Elgon, bordering Mt Elgon Forest. Most of the Kikuyus who settled here were from Nyeri and its environs. Endowed with black alluvial soils, the farms are very fertile. Since settling there, decades ago, the Kikuyus have grown beans, cabbages, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes amongst a host of other horticultural crops. Markets days in Iten, Kitale, Matunda, Moi’s Bridge and Soy are filled with fresh produce from these farms. As fate would have it, in Trans Nzoia, it is Gitwamba – which in Kikuyu language means a flat, rich plateau with fertile soils and Munyaka which means to be lucky – that were the first flashpoints of ethnic upheavals in 1991. They have remained so to date.

The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.

The other Kikuyu farms in TransNzoia are: Wamuini Farm A, the 1,000 agricultural land near St Joseph High School on the Kitale-Ndalu Road. Wamuini Farm B, formerly Mabonde Farm that was called mabonde – Kiswahili for denes, because of its ridges and valleys. There is also Meru Farm bought in the early 1970s. It is near Kitale showground, adjacent to the posh Milimani Estate. The other big farms owned by Kikuyus are Kiirita, Makui and Weteithie Farms. Weteithie, which in Kikuyu means self-help. All these farms were bought through land-buying companies with loans from Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC). They include Mwihoko, which means hope in Kikuyu, Ngwataniro-Mutukanio, Nakuru District Ex-Freedom Fighters Organization (NDEFFO) and Nyakinyua, which was President Kenyatta’s favourite cultural dancing troupe made up of women.

The 1991 ethnic clashes were instigated, organized and executed by Moi’s Kanu regime which suddenly felt under siege from the multi-party advocates. Hoping to tap into their age-old grievances of land ownership and aware he had kept mum as land in the Rift Valley was being parceled to Kikuyus and other communities, by the Kenyatta government in the 1970s, Moi allegedly encouraged the Kalenjins to “reclaim” their land from foreigners, in exchange for their support to further cement and consolidate his grip on state power. By foreigners, he meant the Kikuyu people.

In Trans Nzoia, other Kikuyus acquired land through SFTs, formerly white farms, given ostensibly to “landless people” by Jomo Kenyatta government. In Uasin Gishu County which borders Trans Nzoia, there is a replica of Munyaka Farm, today referred to as Kimumu-Munyaka Farm, located on the Eldoret-Iten Road. The more famous Ya-Mumbi Farm is on the Eldoret-Kapsabet-Kisumu Road. Rukuini and Kondoo Farms are near Burnt Forest. Kimuri and Kiambaa Farms are not far from Eldoret town. Rukuini and Kondoo, just like Gitwamba and Munyaka in Kitale, have remained focal points of “ethnic wars” since 1991.

After the violent uproar that took place in Eldoret North following the controversial 2007 general election, many Kikuyus living in Uasin Gishu County, abandoned their farms in Turbo 30 km from Eldoret town and went to live in town, at Langas estate, the sprawling Kangemi-type ghetto located on the Eldoret-Kisumu highway, just after the Eldoret Polytechnic. Kangemi is a slum on Waiyaki Way, seven kilometres from Nairobi city centre. Stephen Kiplagat, who was born and bred in and whose family still lives in Langas told me that it is today estimated to be 85 per cent populated by Kikuyus. “My family is one of the very few Nandi families that still reside at Langas, the rest are Kikuyus.”

Five Nandi families originally owned Langas. Many of them started parcelling the land and selling it mostly to Kikuyus from the 1980s. Two factors drove this sale: the Kikuyu desire for a plot of land and the fact that they had ready cash to buy the land. With the money, the departing Kalenjin bought land in Kitale, Soy, Turbo and Ziwa so that they could engage in agricultural and livestock farming.

I went to school in Kitale in the 1980s, then it was a one-street settler town and that is where I first heard the phrase “revisiting the issue.” A prominent Kalenjin businessman, (he later become an influential politician in President Moi’s inner circle and today he is retired), said in my presence: “We’ve only leased the land to them (Kikuyus), they should be knowing that…we’ll soon revisit that issue.” When the push for multiparty elections in 1991, appeared inevitable, Moi’s monolithic Kanu one-party dictatorship relented to political pluralism, but not before igniting “ethnic” skirmishes in the Rift Valley.

Kip told me, “resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse.”

The first wave of Kikuyu settlers in Trans Nzoia district first appeared as colonial civil service workers in the mid-1940s after the World War II. The next group showed up in the mid-1950s. These were Kikuyus running away from the Mau Mau insurgency and capture by the British colonial police. Many of them converted to Islam and assumed new identities. Indeed the first Kikuyus to settle in Kitale town were Hamisi Saidi and Hussein Ramadhan. They had taken up Islamic names and soon became petty traders in town.

Resources are becoming scarcer by the day in the Rift Valley region and our people would like the land issue in the Rift Valley region prioritized as a matter of national political discourse

Kigotho Njuguna, Mbugua Gachani, Danson Kangonga Mbugwa, John Muchuri, Wanguhu Githiomi (who hailed from Kijabe) and Peter Kinyanjui – one time Democratic Party of Kenya (DP) point man in Trans Nzoia) formed part of the earliest pioneers of Kikuyu settlers in Kitale. DP was an opposition party once led by Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya. The others were: Lawrence Waweru, Kirima Githaiga, David Kiberu, Waigi Mwangi (originally from Ngecha in Limuru) and Apollos Mwangi. All these men are dead and many of them hailed from Nyeri district.

As the theatre of the politics of succession leading to 2022, plays out in the expansive Rift Valley region, the spectre of the ever-simmering land question looms large. William Ruto, like his predecessor Moi, and not Seroney, finds himself in a dicey position of canvassing the entire Kalenjin vote, amid unsettled land ownership saga that remains an unresolved issue.

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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II, in general, suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level. By OWAAHH

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The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories

Before 2:30 pm on 12th February 1944, everything on SS Khedive Ismail was as normal as things aboard a troopship could be. In the music room on the upper decks, someone was playing the Warsaw Concerto on the grand piano. In the lower decks and the cargo hold, which had been converted into barracks mainly for the black soldiers, it was hot and humid. Both spaces would become death traps within a matter of seconds, and the grand piano, a weapon.

A lookout, probably bored out of his mind, noticed a periscope peeking from the water. He raised the alarm, alerting the gunners to the position of the Japanese submarine deftly charging towards SS Khedive Ismail. The troopship was on a routine mission to deliver troops, mainly East Africans, from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before their onward journey to Burma (now Myanmar). It was part of a convoy codenamed KR8, which had begun its journey from Kilindini port in Mombasa a week earlier.

The alarm was a little too late. Just as the gunners opened fire, the submarine fired four torpedoes. Two missed, but the other two found their target. The first struck the engine room. The second hit the boiler room. The troopship listed, and in less than two minutes, disappeared under the water. The other troopships and the destroyers in the convoy, codenamed KR8, barely had time to react or help. They fled to safety before two destroyers doubled back to face the Japanese submarine and to rescue survivors.

As the troopship sank, survivors clutched onto whatever they could get their hands on. The Japanese submarine, I-27, hid beneath them as the destroyers in the convoy doubled back and tried to hit it with depth charges, killing even more of the survivors. The submarine was eventually forced to surface, and one of the destroyers, Palladin, rammed into it. The hit breached the destroyer’s hull, forcing it to retreat and leave the work to the other destroyer in the convoy, the HMS Petard. The Petard’s torpedoes hit the submarine at 5:30pm, three hours after SS Khedive Ismail had sunk. The sub broke into two and sank with everyone on board.

Aboard the SS Khedive Ismail before the sinking had been 1, 511 people, 996 of whom were members of the 301st Field Regiment, East African Artillery. Only 215 people would make it out alive. The survivors were rescued once the submarine had been sank and moved on to Ceylon, where they got survival leave for two weeks before rejoining the war effort.

Of the 1, 296 people who died that day, only four of them were given a proper sea burial. The rest were left in the shark-infested waters, far from home and virtually forgotten.

***

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail is the subject of Brian J. Crabb’s 1997 book Passage to Destiny. In an email conversation, Crabb says his interest stems from his father, Percival Crabb, who “…was a fortunate survivor of the sinking, escaping through an open porthole with his leg still in plaster!”

In the book, Crabb includes an extensive appendix with all the names and ranks/roles of everyone, black and white, on board the doomed ship. The list of East Africans, mainly from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, takes up several pages. The troops are ranked by names, rank, and number. That’s all we know about Warrant Officers Alfani Ndagile, Kathuka Ndajo, Mua Kilonzi, Muema Ileli, Selemani Mzee, Shabani Mbaraku and Siligwi Mwita. The seven of them were the highest ranking enlisted men among the hundreds of East African troops who died that day. Most of the East African casualties were gunners.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

When World War II began, there were only 2,900 men in the Kings African Rifles (KAR). The real threat of an Italian invasion from Ethiopia, and the entry of Japan into the war, drove the need for fast mobilisation.

Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) was a relatively prosperous time for Kenyan farmers, it gutted the settler economy and the colony’s budgets. Job opportunities in urban areas and farms dwindled, and crime levels in the former rose for a time. Combined with the crop failure of 1939, it meant that the best option for young men was to join the military. Any able-bodied man could enlist, although there had been restrictions as late as 1941 based on ethnicity. The Pioneer Corps, for example, were initially recruited from Western Kenya.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.

In his memoirs, Fan to Flame, John G Gatu, the future Reverend and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, writes that he joined the armed forces because he was unemployed. Gatu joined the Signal Corps and served in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Like Gatu, Waruhiu Itote (General China) joined the military because he was unemployed and “to escape the boredom”.

For some, the economic benefits were a result, not a motivation, of being recruited. Kenya’s first four-star general, Jackson Mulinge, accidentally found himself in the military after he chose the wrong day to go to Machakos to sell a chicken. A recruitment officer grabbed the teenager and conscripted him, marking the beginning of a journey that would see him climb up the ranks over the next three decades.

The contracts the new recruits signed stated that they would be discharged “after the cessation of hostilities”. Most of them were in their early 20s, still single, and because of the education policies at the time, barely literate, if at all. By the end of the war, in 1945, there were nearly 100,000 Kenyans in the military either as members of the Kings African Rifles or the Pioneer Corps, a successor of the Carrier Corps.

Being a soldier meant a steady income and other benefits, such as being exempt from excruciating hut and poll taxes. It also gave the soldiers a common martial identity as well as exposed them to unprecedented trauma and horrors that would also go largely undocumented.

In the heat of war, despite concerns from the settler community about everything from labour supply to the economic and security risks, thousands of Kenyans were trained, armed, and deployed to fight in Northern Kenya, North Africa, and Asia. They were all enlisted men, meaning they could never rise beyond the rank of Warrant Officer. That would be one of the challenges in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of independence two decades later.

Discipline was still enforced mainly with corporal punishment. Major infractions were punished with a kiboko, while cowardice was punished with execution. There were at least three incidents of retaliation, once when a sergeant shot and killed three officers, and then when two enlisted men were executed for shooting officers and wounding others with a grenade.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had. They had not only seen the perils of war but they had also been exposed to a new lifestyle, and had had a steady income and developed new habits. Gatu, in his book, offers that the war was the beginning of unparalleled drug use among the troops. Every week, the soldiers would be issued with matches, soap, and cigarettes.

But they were also liquid and most of them were still young, single and raring to go. Studies of the post-war period mention a rising discomfort with the power held by chiefs and elders, as well as inflation in the social scene as bride price was hiked.

In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had.

The money they had made could not last forever. Many of them applied for trade, shop and transport licences, only to be met by a racist bureaucracy that expected them to fall back to wage labour, primarily in agriculture. Some re-enlisted into the Kings African Rifles, while others struck out in new businesses. Others, like my grandfather, used the training they had obtained during the war to eke out a living as health officers and drivers.

A number of the former soldiers were involved in the political upheaval of the late 1940s and the 1950s, but not to as significant a level as one would imagine. Dedan Kimathi, the de facto leader of the Mau Mau, was only a soldier for a month in 1940 before he was dishonourably discharged for violence and drunkenness.

Some rejoined the KAR and other disciplined units, but a large number disappeared into the normalcy of reserve life.

What’s less acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of them from scattered memoirs and academic studies. Several memorials and cemeteries in major towns celebrate their lives and sacrifice, but very few black soldiers are named.

The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail was also problematic because of its magnitude; it was the single largest loss of East African troops, and third worst Allied mercantile shipping disaster of World War II. Publicizing it in the immediate aftermath would have affected recruitment and morale as the sinking of SS Mendi during World War I had done with South African troops.

What’s lesser acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of their experiences from scattered memoirs and academic studies.

Despite Kenya’s central role as the home of the East African force, the Eastern Fleet, and also as a war front with Italy, the war itself is merely a footnote in the events that followed in the next decade. Thousands of enlisted men who died for a cause they didn’t necessarily believe in remain mainly nameless and unacknowledged. The unit that suffered the heaviest losses, the 301st Field Regiment, had been formed just two years before and had already served in Madagascar. The only thing that remains in their memory is a plaque at the Nairobi War Cemetery. Few of the thousands of Kenyans who died on different fronts and missions are named, and their stories have all but disappeared. Even the wounds of war, such as the bombing of Malindi and the Italian excursion 100km into Kenya, are now mere footnotes in history.

It is a significant gap in our military history, and if the lacklustre coverage of our eight-year war in Somalia is anything to go by, a part of our national ethos.

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