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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election

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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election
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On 13 November 2017, the people of Somaliland went to the polls to choose their fifth president since breaking away from Somalia in May 1991. Despite a delay of 28 months, international and local observers described the election as credible and peaceful. The fact that the election finally took place, and did so in a calm and orderly manner, was welcomed with a tangible sigh of relief, at home and internationally, and with pride on the part of Somalilanders.

A number of “firsts” added to this sense of achievement. Voters were registered using iris recognition technology to preclude double voting, making Somaliland an early pioneer in embracing biometric technology in elections. Unlike in the past, the incumbent was not a candidate, paving the way for a more robust campaign that featured, for the first time, a televised debate between the three presidential candidates, and the three vice-presidential candidates. It was also the most inclusive election, with all six regions taking part. The government made its largest financial contribution to an election, underlining how seriously Somaliland was taking its political future. For the first time, the government agreed to a code of conduct with the media to ensure balanced coverage by the state-owned media.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance. The multiple delays in holding the presidential elections also led to the gradual erosion of public trust in government institutions and to diminishing international goodwill. By November 2017, there was a convergence between domestic dissatisfaction and international pressure, making the election a defining moment in Somaliland’s political trajectory.

From remote villages to big towns, everyone from nomadic pastoralists across Somaliland to the elites in the capital, Hargeisa and in the large Diaspora communities, followed the election closely even if they did not vote. While they had different views of what they hoped for, there was a strong consensus that the political landscape needed an overhaul after seven years of the same administration.

Voters’ priorities

Desire for tangible improvements in their living standards dominated voters’ expectations. In our conversations with both urban and rural voters, the provision of water and enhancing the quality and coverage of educational and health services was repeatedly emphasised. The urgency of tackling crippling inflation, which has increased food prices and made poor people feel even more impoverished, was underlined across the board. Employment among youth and the development of road networks, electricity and other public utilities were also high on the list of priorities for most people. Rural communities, reeling from the effects of a severe drought in which they lost most of their livestock, the main source of their livelihood, called for investment in agriculture.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib). Consequently, the role of government in creating a fair and equitable environment for employment, business opportunities, economic investments, the distribution of resources, access to government services and political appointments, mattered to all voters. Fighting corruption, making the legal system work for everyone, curbing the powers of the police and putting an end to the arrest and detention of journalists also carried weight with voters.

However, these priorities did not, for the most part, shape the decisions made when voters actually cast their ballots.

Official party programmes and campaigns

To guarantee the formation of political associations with cross-clan representations, the Constitution of 2001 imposed a limit of three political parties. In addition to Kulmiye, the party of the sitting President, two other parties, Waddani and the Justice and Welfare party (UCID), joined the contest in 2017. While Kulmiye and UCID were participating in a presidential election for the third time, Waddani, registered in 2012, was a newcomer to the political arena. The leader of UCID had sought the presidency in earlier elections, but Waddani and Kulmiye fielded new candidates.

All three political parties had written programmes, popularly referred to as manifestos. Those of the opposition – Waddani and UCID – were largely a response to what were described as the shortcomings of the ruling party. They pledged major changes across all sectors. The party in power, Kulmiye, spelt out what it saw as its achievements and promised continuity while making further improvements.

Economic and social issues, international recognition and good governance all featured prominently in the manifestos. With the use of social media and increased media coverage, more voters than ever had access to party manifestos. Some of the parties held presentation sessions across all six regions to give voters the chance to question senior officials about their stated plans.

The manifestos, however, were not intended for all voters, especially given the high levels of illiteracy, particularly outside the main towns. Target audiences were the slim minority of educated voters, mainly young people, seen as independent of clan interests and who might, therefore, be swayed by a party’s stance and ideology. But they constituted an insignificant proportion of voters, their impact further undermined by the fact that they are scattered.

Illiteracy, reinforced by a strong oral culture, meant that a large percentage of voters were influenced by what they heard at rallies and in private meetings and what they witnessed on television. An official for Waddani said his party put at 65% the voters “who are not interested in the programme.” Their recruitment, he added, required using what he called traditional methods to get their support. This largely consisted of bringing party officials from their area “to show where their clan fits in the party hierarchy and probably in the next government”, as well as discussions about the sharing of power and resources.

One civil servant blamed constituents for letting politicians get away with making “blank statements about impossible deliverables which lack the how part.” People, she said, never asked the parties for concrete solutions and preferred instead to listen to speeches about “heavenly rivers flowing through their neighbourhoods.” At the same time, she acknowledged that voters know, from experience, that party programmes are not implemented after elections precisely because “parties are built on the foundation of clan interests and not ideologies.”

Yusuf Osman Abdulle, a poet known as Shaacir, said it was unrealistic to expect the population in Somaliland to choose between political parties based on written documents. “Given the low literacy rate and the very poor quality of our educational system, you don’t expect our society to be where they can choose parties based on what they are promising or what they have done in the past,” he explained. “The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

And that indeed was what mattered. The heartbeat, and heat, of the campaigns was not about policies.

Forging alliances

As happens with elections the world over, 2017 revealed the patronage system at work. In Somaliland, the politics of vote-seeking is directly tied to the clan-based social structure. Far more significant and decisive than the large public rallies held during the official 21-day campaign period were the numerous behind-the-scenes meetings between party leaders and traditional elders, politicians and businessmen, which had kicked off during the previous six months.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib).

As in previous elections, parties found it easier to maximise votes by securing the loyalty of clan elders who then become responsible for bringing the vast majority of their constituents on board. The campaigns that mattered were outsourced to elders, often from the same clan as the candidates, to meet with other clan leaders and build coalitions. Historical relationships between their respective clans and forging new relationships going into the future became the focus of discussions.

At the same time, party leaders also met with the elites of clans – elders, politicians and businessmen – to give clan-specific assurances in exchange for garnering political support, including political posts and development projects. At times, these pledges were captured in written documents signed by the party leadership. Party officials from those clans were given centre stage to show how well they were represented in the party, photo opportunities which were then broadcast through the media.

An official involved in the youth wing of Kulmiye in Hargeisa was straightforward about the political calculations at play.” A key winning strategy both for the ruling party and the main opposition party [Waddani],” he said, “was to bring in as many known figures as possible in the party from a certain clan. You can then expect more votes from that clan.”

Saying it was too simplistic to argue that parties go out and seek votes from clans, he underlined the importance of “intermediaries” between the parties and the clans, or what others referred to as political brokers. These are men [always], close to both elders and the party leaders, who work hard to implement the elders’ decisions. Parties, he commented, make either personal or group promises to them in exchange for influencing their clan or constituency. “When we talk about political parties spending millions of dollars in election campaigns, this is where the bulk of it goes to. And perhaps these elites distribute a fraction of that money to their followers.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

His counterpart in the small town of Salahley, 60 kilometres from Hargeisa, said elders had more powers over the community. He conceded that they, and not he as a party official, attracted the most votes. He attributed their hold over people to the fact that “everyone knows they will need the elder at some point.”

In the small town of Abdaal, in Sahil region, a young Waddani supporter worked with other members of football teams to oppose the elders, most of whom were behind Kulmiye. He said people did not take the challenge of competing with elders for votes seriously and “they were right”. Asked about politicians and elders who were not strong advocates of clan solidarity, an elder in the same town, Abdaal, was quick in dismissing their relevance. “There were very few of them and they had almost no influence over voters since they had defied the position of their clans,” he said.

The task of the elders, supported by their politicians, is to persuade, or pressure, their clan members to fall in line with the party of their choice. The lure of public service jobs for the youth and commitments to develop the region are stressed. Financial contributions are made for ongoing activities in the area, such as the construction of roads, schools and clinics, and money and khat are liberally distributed to men during campaign periods. In rural areas, affected by the 2016/2017 drought, the distribution of water, food and non-food items made a crucial difference to the outcome.

The blend of the traditional clan structure with modern governance institutions is reflected in the fact that the clans of the three presidential candidates were the stable base of support for their parties. Success, therefore, depended on establishing as broad an array of partnerships as possible with other clans. This is demonstrated, for example, in the parties’ choice of their vice-presidential candidates.

Practical considerations deepen the dependence of parties on the political clout of elders. Political parties do not have permanent offices at the district or regional levels, as became apparent when we visited a number of regions in February and March. They are, instead, concentrated at their headquarters in Hargeisa. Without grassroots branches, there is little to bring parties close to communities and foster a sense of belonging to, and ownership of, the parties. By the time senior officials visit the districts, usually close to elections, elders have already laid the groundwork.

“The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

The difficulties parties face in raising their own funds currently makes it nearly impossible for them to keep their distance from elders. The three parties are closely associated with their founders and/or individuals who occupy key positions. Consequently, they become dependent on businessmen and contributions from their clans, including households. One observer commented: “If they campaigned purely on policies, they will not generate funds.”

The political influence of clan elders

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The campaigns featured inflammatory speeches, ugly rhetoric and defamation of individuals and clans – messages that were spread by the traditional media and extensive use of social media. Since clans were the deciding factor, the messages were designed so as to attract a specific clan and unite some against others. Since clans tend to reside in the same localities, even in the same neighbourhoods in towns, it was easier to hone messages and target particular groups.

Having co-opted clan elders as their principal vote-gatherers, party leaders gave them unfettered power to guide voters. Elders did not mince their words or moderate their actions, threatening reprisals against those who did not toe the line. Several party offices for both Waddani and Kulmiye were attacked and vehicles stoned.

The fact that all three candidates came from the largest clan family in Somaliland, the Isaaq, amplified inter-clan dynamics, pushing people into further sub-sub-clan classifications. Small villages and towns, populated by the same clans or sub-clans, were divided into the smallest possible units, sometimes reaching household levels. A Kulmiye organiser in Salahley spoke of several sub-clan assemblies with each setting up meeting places for their party.

The media – print, television and websites – and especially the privately-owned outlets, contributed to the charged political atmosphere in countless ways, through selective reporting, fake news and endless reportage of elders and politicians insulting each other. The huge number of events hosted by parties, whereby people speaking in the name of a certain clan had deserted another party to join theirs, were given extensive exposure by virtually all news outlets. One TV network, in an effort to paint Waddani as a pro-Somalia party that planned to impose federalism on Somaliland, showed a false photo of the Waddani leader meeting with the current President of Somalia who was at the time a candidate for that office.

The toxic nature of these campaigns inevitably created a pernicious political environment that threatened Somaliland’s most treasured asset – a long reign of peace.

The moment of truth

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of Somaliland, the near exclusive emphasis on clan considerations, channelled through the media, social media and clan gatherings, swayed many voters, including the youth. Discussions with those who voted show they had, for the most part, positive expectations of candidates from their clan or the candidate supported by their clan, and voted to express support for the clan’s position. They also paint an entirely negative picture of the opposing candidates from other clans, out of fear and/or animosity. A young university student in Hargeisa spoke of her mindset when she voted: “I was influenced by what I saw as a threat that can personally affect me should the candidates from other clans win the election. It was a battle between clans.”

Underlining the extent to which voting along clan lines is inextricably linked with perceptions of self-interest and fairness, she added: “You have better chances of getting employed if the President or a Minister is from your clan. I know it is not a healthy feeling, but it is just a reality.”

Angry about what he saw as the political marginalisation of his clan, a young and educated employee of an NGO said resolving social and economic problems did not figure in his calculations. His sole aim was to see his candidate triumph even though he considered the other two candidates “way better on most issues.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

Some voters, while admitting they voted in line with their clan, believe this was in the broader interests of Somaliland. A man living in the small town of Dilla in Awdal region argued that voting in step with his clan “was for the good of Somaliland so as to prevent two clans establishing dominance.”

Amal said that politicians only come to her village of Tuli in Awdal during elections and she expects nothing in return. Nevertheless, she found herself vulnerable when politicians descended on Tuli in 2017 and “labelled us as sub-clan X and sub-clan Y.” Amal, along with her neighbours, succumbed to the messages the intensified as 13 November, the date of the election, approached. Speaking in late February, she said a united community had been torn apart and people no longer communicated as easily as in the past.

Bucking the trend

Not everyone, of course, bowed to the wishes of their elders and local politicians. Some voters made independent choices. But many of those who stood their ground, particularly women who were expected to vote as decreed by their menfolk, said they paid a heavy price for their position.

Many of those who did not vote, despite the insistence of close relatives relaying messages from elders, said they based their decision on what they regarded as the absence of realistic and feasible programmes by the parties. A staff member of a human rights group in Hargeisa said he failed to find “timelines or convincing details of exactly how they would carry out their commitments.” A long-term civil servant in Hargeisa said she had seen ministers come and go over the years without any attention paid to election manifestoes. So why, she asked, “should I spend my energy for nothing?”

Khadar, a driver in Dilla, said his income had doubled, and his life had become easier and safer since a tarmac road was built by the previous administration connecting Dilla, Borama and Hargeisa. When it came to the elections, the construction of this road, he said, and not the opinion of his elders, determined which party he voted for.

Maimuna in Dilla held out against intense pressure, including being labelled a traitor. Elders, her own children and her in-laws failed to convince her when she refused to support one of the opposition parties. Her customers boycotted her business but she would not budge. Calling her position “odd and 100% personal because women’s choices are strongly affected by their husbands and male community elders”, she cited an aversion to change as the reason she went with the ruling party. Describing 2017 as “a very divisive election”, she said “it ruined relationships between individuals and families.”

In Salahley, Rahma had initially agreed with her elders to back Waddani. But when the head of UCID announced the Quran would guide the actions of his party, she switched to UCID and refused to back down despite entreaties from her local elders.

Regardless of internal divisions, voters in Somaliland see elections as an important step towards the prospects of international recognition.

Aspirations for international recognition

Asked about the most vital issue at stake in November 2017, Mustafa Awad, who follows Somaliland’s political fortunes closely, did not hesitate to say it was “the same as every other election since the 2001 referendum – international recognition.” The pursuit of Somaliland’s recognition by the international community is of course intensely political, not only domestically, but also in the region and internationally. It is also a practical issue, in terms of greater diplomatic and commercial ties with the outside world, acceptance of Somaliland passports to ease the current nightmare of travel and an increase in foreign aid.

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The feeling of being a voiceless and invisible people, of not belonging to the community of nations, has left a deeply felt psychological wound. Commitment to the electoral process, and consolidating Somaliland’s position as a democratic oasis in a region not known for free, fair and peaceful elections, is regarded as “the gateway to this much-coveted recognition” in the words of Mustafa.

The aftermath

It is imperative for Somaliland to reflect collectively over the recent elections, particularly because elections for both parliamentary and local government councils will be held in less than a year. To move forward and capitalise on its achievements, every society needs self-analysis in order to correct mistakes, assess weaknesses and improve on its successes.

Some of the key challenges mentioned by voters, and those who abstained, include healing the rifts created or magnified by the elections. The extent to which relationships between clans, between communities living in close proximity and even within families were disrupted, entrenching old divides and creating new political and social fault lines, is uppermost in the minds of most people. The consequences of the unparalleled level of discord are still felt across Somaliland, especially because the animosity was intimate, between people who know each other and interact on a daily basis.

Other issues of common concern include how to hold the new government accountable from a non-political perspective and as ordinary citizens and the absence of opportunities for remaining politically engaged outside the existing parties. Dissatisfaction with the role and performance of parliamentarians and local councils, the absence of sufficient platforms for political debate and discussion and a host of problems related to the mechanics of voting were also mentioned repeatedly.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Safia, a civil servant, wants to see elders confined to their traditional role, and banned from speaking on behalf of voters, in the hope that people will then organise themselves into groupings of their choice. The difficulty of coaxing people to demand public action over a common cause, such as poor roads or the absence of water, underlines for many the dangerous and debilitating encroachment of clan politics in everyday life.

Focusing on the larger public interest, however, requires room for manoeuvre, which parties in Somaliland currently do not have, given their dependence on their clan constituencies. Cutting ties with elders and prominent clan figures risks loss of support and creates resistance, a prospect no politician with an eye on the next election is likely to welcome.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Unless voters can hold a government to account, it is impossible to compel a new administration to deliver on its election commitments. The space for accountability in Somaliland is already limited. This is further constrained by the low level of rights awareness among both the public and government officials, and by the nature of a system where most people voted out of clan allegiance. Successive governments have promoted a perception of demands for accountability as an opposition-fuelled process, leading to controversy and pitting pro-government and anti-government supporters against each other, often along clan lines. This situation will persist as long as politics is trapped in its current form.

The irony, as pointed out by Khaled Ismail Abdi, who works with media groups, is that people who voted for change then wait for the government to solve all their problems, imposing an unrealistic burden on an administration with few resources. When the hoped-for-changes fail to materialise, there are few avenues, outside of the clan, to seek redress. Addressing the government, as an expression of civic responsibility and a right, is not seen as an option.

Two decades is a very short period, particularly in the wake of war and conflict, to institutionalise the norms of a full-fledged democracy. In that time, Somaliland has indeed made strides that can be built upon to strengthen its political infrastructure and, for the sake of future generations, move away from being a clan-based polity. This requires an engaged citizenry to encourage the emergence of political leaders and parties independent of clan identity and committed to reinforcing Somaliland’s nascent democratic institutions.

Note: Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.

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Rakiya Omaar is the Director of the Horizon Institute and Mubarik Muse Ali is a Research Programme Officer at the Horizon Institute based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Politics

The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. But the contrast between the two countries remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

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Magufuli’s Legacy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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In 2015 John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s accidental President. Colourful and charismatic, Magufuli charmed the masses during his five years in office. He demanded results and pulled off successes that were elevated to the status of minor miracles. He channeled his inner Julius Nyerere to revive Tanzania’s distinctive internal self-reliance-based identity.

The state was back, and the state was Magufuli. He used his campaign against the mabepari class to grandstand on a regular basis, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the former chemist with an opportunity to elevate his anti-imperialist credentials. His controversial stance won him approval across the region: several of my colleagues remarked that “Magufuli is the only African President to speak truth to the pandemic”.

Then his government ministers began getting sick. Magufuli disappeared from public view. After two weeks of rumour and speculation, Tanzania’s Vice President announced his passing due to a chronic heart condition. Corona or coronary? Magufuli’s outsized sending off soon overtook conjecture about the cause of his death.

It began with the usual laudatory speeches by his fellow African heads of state. The dead president then set off on a grand tour that took him across the country by land, sea, and air. The wananchi paid homage by throwing their clothes on the road in front of the motorcade escorting the casket. People lining the road chanted, “jeshi, jeshi!”

The lionisation of the dead president was a fascinating trope, amplified by the mellifluous High Swahili commentary accompanying the televised coverage of the Magufuli hegira. My wife had become a Samia Suluhu Hassan fan. She insisted that the TV remain tuned to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation channel.

The stature of Tanzania’s domestic Shujaa grew over the course of the week. Like the mythical wrestler Anteus, who grew stronger when he touched the ground, Hayati Rais appeared to be drawing new power from the landscape as the conquering hero’s body made the long journey from Zanzibar to Chato, his lakeside home.

By day three of the roadshow, Tanzania’s state media was praising the departed leader, as Jabali ya Africa, “the rock who stood up to the West”. But Twitter was providing an interesting counter-narrative; for Tanzania’s online opposition, the “Jabali” was “Jiwe”, the “stone” who terrorised his critics and pummeled the political opposition. Day four brought the claim by a Chama Cha Mapinduzi party sycophant that the Magufuli show was attracting an audience larger than that of the last two World Cups.

I was looking forward to seeing Chato, the village that during Magufuli’s tenure had been transformed along the lines of Houphouët-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite home in the Congo. I was not able to catch the end of the journey because of a close friend’s funeral. But I did witness the dead president’s final apotheosis, which led me to pause on my way out the door: “With due respect to our respective religions”, one of the TBC commentators was remarking, “it should be recognized that President Magufuli was a Nabii.”

The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President.

Nabii is the Swahili term for prophet. The proof of his prophethood (unabii wake), the commentors went on to explain, lay in the fact that President Magufuli was the only world leader God sent to warn us that the pandemic is a crisis manufactured by the global elite to extend the hegemony of Big Pharma and other agents of the international capitalist order.

The real news for some of us was Vice President Samia Sulubu Hassan’s swearing in as the Republic’s sixth Head of State. Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was further enhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community. My wife, who is from Lamu and has never seen anyone of her background in a position of power, declared, “Samia is my president.”

It is hard to envision a similar sequence occurring in Kenya, or for that matter in any other country in the Horn of Africa.

Dog eat dog versus man eat nothing

“No contrast, no information”, my field linguistics professor used to tell us. The large number of African states and the interesting dyads they form makes for a lot of information. Nigeria and Ghana, Mozambique and Angola, Egypt and Sudan, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are examples that come to mind. But the Kenya-Tanzania contrast remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. They are linked by centuries of interaction on the coastal strip and a common history that gave rise to Swahili as the region’s lingua franca. Together they host the world’s most famous concentration of wildlife. Artificially divided into two countries by European powers, the modern nations created by imperial intervention were shaped by the same colonial model. Both gained independence under leaders inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was furtherenhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community.

Tanzania’s more uniform geography supported the intricately networked small-scale societal adaptations documented in Kjekjus’s classic study, Ecology Control and Environmental Management in East Africa. Kenya’s physical environment conditioned the country’s more complex ethno-economic composition diversity; late precolonial era migrations contributed to Kenya’s more variegated population of Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking communities.

Where the harshness of the German occupation in Tanzania inoculated the population with a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, many Kenyan communities welcomed the Pax Britannica, in part due to the disruptions of the decade preceding it. Efforts to force peasants to cultivate cotton for export in Tanzania triggered the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905, and the movement rapidly spread across southern and parts of central Tanganyika until its brutal suppression.

The commercial economy introduced by Kenya’s colonial rulers created new opportunities and avenues for accumulation. The first stirrings of anti-colonial opposition only emerged after World War II. The ethnic base of the Mau Mau insurgency contrasted with the nationalist focus of Tanzania’s liberation politics. The new countries nevertheless came into existence driven by a common vision of the future and its possibilities.

It was a time of idealism and political experimentation. Shared orientations propelled Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to form the East African Community soon after independence. The union represented a practical first step towards Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa—before political liberation gave way to an era of competing ideologies, superpower patronage, and military coups. Much of the ideological superstructure of that period ended up either dissipating gradually or collapsing for reasons that have been rigorously documented.

Technically, both Kenya and Tanzania subscribed to the third path option championed by the non-aligned movement, but their economies were moving on diverging paths. The East African Community foundered, undermined by economic differentials fueled by Kenya’s colonial economic legacy and Tanzania’s Fabian socialism. The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

The clash between Jomo Kenyatta’s conservatism and Julius Nyerere’s idealism highlighted their contrasting political ideologies and the external support they attracted. In 1975 the submerged tensions between the two countries surfaced in an exchange of words between Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Attorney General, Charles Njonjo. Nyerere referred to Kenya as a “dog eat dog” society; Njonjo retorted by describing Tanzania as a “man eat nothing economy”.

The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

There is a simpler explanation. Where Kenya retained the hierarchical Anglo-colonial template after independence, Tanzania adopted the more integrative Swahili model of nation-building. As Jomo Kenyatta once told his fellow East African presidents after Milton Obote adopted the socialist Common Man’s Charter in Uganda, “I cannot experiment with [the] lives of my people.”

Donor-mandated structural adjustment policies of the 1990s brought the countries’ economies into closer alignment. But the different trajectories pursued by Kenya and Tanzania continued to reflect their contrasting developmental strategies, and the delicate balance of competition and cooperation defining the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Convergence revisited

Kenya and Tanzania’s ideological differentials are sufficient but not necessary explanations of the two nations’ post-independence divergence.

Crawford Young’s seminal work published in 1981, Ideology and Development in Africa, confirmed as much for the two decades following independence. Young concluded that the strong ideological groundings informing Africa’s capitalist, socialist, mixed, and Afro-Marxist economic models, although important, did not significantly influence their performance. This is consistent with historical studies that show how countries within a geographical region tend to converge over time.

This trajectory appears to hold for the comparison examined here. Tanzania has recorded impressive economic growth under the neoliberal policy regime. Although Kenya is still East Africa’s strongest economy with an annual GDP of US$37 billion versus Tanzania’s US$28 billion, Tanzania’s per capita GDP is now only US$200 less than Kenya’s (US$1,600 vs. US$1,400). Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Tanzania was catching up to Kenya in the Transparency International annual corruption rankings until Tanzania’s position improved slightly after Magufuli took office. His anti-corruption campaign saw hundreds of civil servants lose their jobs, but only a few cases of prosecution. The offensive targeting international investors and domestic business interests took up the slack. The state charged international investors and domestic businessmen in court for underpaying taxes and other violations.

Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining company that has helped make gold the country’s leading export commodity, received a notice claiming it owed US$190 billion in fines and unpaid taxes. Many of these cases resulted in negotiated settlements and revisions in the terms of their contracts. Barrick ended up settling by paying US$300 million and increasing the government’s stake in their operations to 50 per cent.

Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Both of these campaigns, and Magufuli’s rejection of China’s debt diplomacy and IMF loans, enhanced the President’s reputation as the “Bulldozer”, but did little to effect the structural changes needed. Tundu Lissu, the head of Tanzania’s main opposition party, reported that many of the settlements were actually shakedowns initiated by the President’s CCM faction. Such behind the scenes venality accounts for Magufuli’s silencing of Tanzania’s media and the intensified persecution of the opposition during last year’s national elections.

Sources on the ground report a more complicated picture than the pumped-up legacy conveyed by state media. Although Tanzania joined the ranks of lower middle-income societies in 2020, the improved household income generated by the pro-market policies enacted by Magufuli’s predecessors is being eroded by the rising cost of living, while demographic growth is increasing pressure on the country’s land and natural resources.

Presidential activism failed to arrest the downward drift of conditions across Tanzania’s rural areas. Magufuli’s opposition to international capital limited smallholder access to the contract-farming arrangements that have enabled Kenya’s small-scale producers’ participation in global supply chains. While the benefits of contract farming are contested in academic circles, participation in out-grower schemes has led to improvement in producer terms in a number of cases, and improved access to inputs while diversifying livelihood options for many rural households.

The revival of the East African Community in 2010 was boosting both countries’ commodity exports to each other until tit-for-tat border disputes contributed to a drop to pre-2010 levels. Bilateral trade is a sub-set of the policy frame promoting regional integration, which has in turn triggered a scramble to upgrade the infrastructure facilitating trans-national linkages. This brings us to the governments’ penchant for mega-projects like Kenya’s grandiose Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project (LAPSSET) and Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT).

LAPSSET came to be viewed as a cash cow for Kenya’s state-based cartels before it stalled due to the withdrawal of once enthusiastic international investors. Analysis of the SAGCOT corridor indicates it has generated mainly just-for-show benefits while facilitating the entrance of large-scale agribusiness actors at the expense of local smallholder communities. Both countries are beneficiaries of economically dysfunctional Chinese railroads, contrasting monuments to that country’s contribution to regional linkages over the years.

Even in the presence of more comprehensive analyses of the two countries’ development, it is difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Kenya and Tanzania models. They are more connected — Kenya-based companies are the second largest source of foreign investment in Tanzania — than at independence, yet seem even farther apart now with respect to their political sensibilities.

Local folk models provide more succinct perceptions of the differences. Talk to Kenyans and they will characterise Tanzanians as laid back, loquacious, and xenophobic; talk to Tanzanians and they will tell you their neighbors are arrogant, aggressive, and hopelessly tribal. But if you pursue the conversation further, most will show that they understand their neighbours better than formal analyses like the one above convey. Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

Political theatre and executive revisionism

Is Magufuli’s hyper-nationalism at odds with Kenya’s constitutionally mandated federalism? In reality, each of these shifts from the previous status quo have been manipulated to reinforce the two states’ tradition of top-down governance. Both governments face an ongoing crisis of constitutionalism, and both have resorted to elaborate exercises of political theatre to camouflage their respective political elites’ strategies to remain at the top of the food chain.

Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative began with the handshake marking the reconciliation between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, then morphed into a comprehensive gambit to revise the nation’s new constitutional order. Two years later the government released an eloquently worded BBI task force report that was long on promises to fix long-festering problems, but short on how they would be implemented.

Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

The provisions to double the seats in the senate, create 80 new parliamentary constituencies, and create positions for a prime minister and four deputy presidents are hard to justify for a country that already expends 48 per cent of its budget on state salaries. Unlike his father, Uhuru Kenyatta is not averse to experimentation. But the circus orchestrated by the BBI’s political beneficiaries has worked to redirect attention away from such inconvenient details.

Since the handshake the Kenyan public has been subjected to an unrelenting procession of media publicity, traveling pep rallies, and tactics used to herd reluctant politicians into the BBI corral. The campaign has been an amped up version of the Moi playbook, featuring theatrics reminiscent of the anti-Nyayo charade the former President used to outmaneuver his opponents during his early days in office.

The rapid deterioration of Magufuli’s health clearly caught his CCM faction by surprise. The media coverage of the President’s elevation from politician to prophet contrasted with the opaque treatment of his last two weeks on earth — or was it actually one week, as the intelligence that he actually passed away on the 10th of March claimed?

The Nabii failed to prophesise his departure from the stage. The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President, who receded into the background after her eloquent speech at the funeral. In the meantime, critics were pointing out how the new government’s key appointments violated the process mandated in Tanzania’s constitution.

These games, however cynical, are part of a larger contest being waged across the larger Horn of Africa region, pitting executive power at the centre against distributed governance. Museveni’s Uganda presidency has dynastic ambitions, Rwanda is a developmental dictatorship, and Farmajo wants to restore the same kind of centralised state in Somalia that led to its collapse in 1991. Ahmed Abiy’s ugly war in Tigray is linked to his ambition to reverse the devolution established by the 1994 constitution that declared all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.

The strategies to bolster control at the centre that we are witnessing in Kenya and Tanzania may be benign by comparison, but the actions taken to muzzle the press and critics of government policies, along with political impunity, and institutionalised corruption, are not. They differ from the efforts to recentralise the state elsewhere by degree, not in kind.

Reimagining the African state?

The trend is part of a wider global pattern. Since 2017 opposition to heavy-handed governments and their policies has erupted across the world, occurring mainly in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states. These surging protests correlate with the reversal of gains in democratisation, respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy across the world.

Liberalisation catalysed a universal movement towards self-determination and the deconcentration of political power. Twenty years ago, scholars were even predicting the end of the nation-state as we know it. In recent years the state has fought back with a vengeance. Recent African developments, for example, reflect the influence of the surveillance state in China that is now challenging the democratic values guiding the post-1945 world order.

There was near-universal belief in the monolithic state at independence, and in the assumption that Africa’s leaders would use its power for the benefit of their populations. By the end of the 1960s these beliefs and assumptions were in tatters. African nations’ largely trial-and-error efforts to balance the nation-building equation since that time still represent the prerogative to adapt the state to the continent’s unique initial conditions.

The unique combination of scholarship, deep historical inquiry, and political imagination that flourished during the post-independence period, at least in theory, remains a useful resource for navigating Africa’s developmental future. The reforms of the post-1989 period come over as dismal and devoid of spirit in comparison, incapable of generating the creativity and passion inspired by the ideas that preceded them.

Tanzania was one of the continent’s leading exemplars of that era’s critical thinking. To his credit, John Pombe Magufuli fought to establish an equitable relationship with international capital while his counterparts in Kenya were drinking the foreign debt Kool-Aid. Theory is useful but trial and error empiricism is the best teacher. We hope that President Samia Suluhu Hassan will use the information generated by the two countries’ contrasting experience to negotiate an adaptive middle path without too much fanfare.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Names have been changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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