Somaliland’s 2017 elections, which were generally hailed as successful, have prompted some to wonder whether the democracy model used in this self-declared independent state could be exported to Somalia. With its hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance, Somaliland could, in fact, be held up as an example that could work in societies that are deeply divided along clan lines. While clan, tribe, ethnicity, race or religion should ideally not form the basis of a democratic state, given the protracted conflict in Somalia, there are some elements of the Somaliland model that might just work in Somalia.
Somaliland has adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law (known as xeer), Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force. The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model.
Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy. According to Walls, Somaliland “represents a strong counter-argument to the preoccupation with state failure and corrective external intervention, while also holding out the hope that an accommodation is possible between the discursive politics of tradition and a representative system more suited to the Westphalian state.”
However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten the future stability of this former protectorate that opted to became part of Somalia following independence from the British in 1960 and then declared independence from Somalia in 1991.
In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot, for instance, enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international banks. (Some argue that this lack of official recognition may actually be a blessing as Somaliland is spared the arm-twisting and conditionalities of donors and international financial institutions, plus the exploitation of its resources by predatory foreigners, a phenomenon that has plagued so many African countries.)
Nonetheless there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour. What type of governance system is most suitable for Somalia, which is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where political/militant Islam and lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building?
The perils of federalism
Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories. The 4.5 formula for federal states proposed by the new constitution, which is based on the four largest clan groups (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne), and (0.5) minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians. (The 4.5 formula is itself contentious as some Somalis claim that the Isaaqs, who are dominant in Somaliland in the northwest of the country, are part of the Dir family of clans, while Isaaqs claim that they are a separate clan.)
As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict. “As new lines are drawn on the map, new opportunities for clan, business and political networks to capture State resources have emerged,” stated the 2015 UN Monitoring Group Report on Somalia.
Besides, the various federal states that have emerged in Somalia under the new constitution are beginning to look like clan enclaves that are disconnected from the centre, and which actually work to undermine the national government in Mogadishu. Fears that entrenched clan interests will dominate the future political landscape in Somalia have generated heated debates about whether a unitary system is more suited to a country that is so divided along clan lines and where minority groups have been denied a say in national politics for decades.
As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.
The bitter reality, however, is that the majority of Somalia’s people have not experienced the benefits of a functional central or decentralised government for nearly thirty years; the concept of a state that provides services and protects the citizens is unknown to the majority of the country’s youthful population, especially those in remote areas who are governed by customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that with its strict codes and control over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab is the only form of “governance” the majority of Somalis have known since Somalia collapsed and descended into civil war in 1991.
This means that even when Amisom forces liberate regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they essentially leave behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can successfully fill. This has made these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, which area are already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.
Moreover, as the Qatar-based Somali scholar Afyare Elmi argues, in a country that suffers from a “trust deficit”, and which has experienced dictatorship, people do not want to risk having the kind of highly centralised government that was prevalent during Siad Barre’s regime. He proposes a “decentralised unitary system”, rather than what he calls the “clan-federalism” proposed and supported by the international community. In this system, sovereignty and constitutional powers would remain within the central government, while administrative, political and fiscal powers would devolve to different entities and regions. This would lead to a “de-concentration of authority” that is more responsive to local needs. (However, to accommodate this governance model, the constitution would need to be changed.)
In 1999, the Somalia expert Matt Bryden predicted that the “building block approach” – first proposed in 1998 by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – whereby the country would be divided into six “local administrative structures”, would eventually “resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation”: the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in Puntland would dominate the northeast; the Jubaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya-Somalia border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakool; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.
The bigger question, which no one has yet been willing to honestly confront is: Why should clan determine how Somalia is federated? How can Somalia emerge as a strong and united nation if clan forms the basis of state- and institution-building? How can Somalis convincingly argue that neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya are supporting clan-based regional entities within Somalia when Somalis themselves implicitly support the creation of these entities based on clan domination? How can democracy advance in a country held back by parochial clan or individual interests?
There has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour.
Some analysts argue that the proposed federalism will eventually lead to the balkanization of Somalia as clan-based fiefdoms start competing for more resources and territories. Other critics, such as the Somali scholar Abdi Samatar, have argued that federalism will lead to “institutionalised discrimination” against minority clans and groups, which would undermine national unity, citizenship and meritocracy.
There is also a concern that the larger (armed) clans could manipulate the system, entrench corruption and pursue their elites’ agendas at the expense of the Somali people. One of the biggest dangers of an exclusionary political system is that rent-seeking and the grabbing of the spoils of war that have dominated Somali politics for decades may be replicated at the federal state level.
A game of musical chairs
Much of the UN-supported transitional governance period was devoted to drafting a new constitution that would set the parameters for statehood and citizenship. However, Somalia’s UN-supported constitution-making process faced resistance, even before it was adopted in 2012, mainly because it was viewed by many as inconsistent, incoherent and difficult to implement.
Some say the constitution tries to unsuccessfully merge Sharia laws with democratic principles. For instance, the constitution precludes the prospect of religious freedom and tolerance in Article 2, which categorically states that “Islam is the religion of the state”, that “no religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country” and that “no law can be enacted that is not compliant with the general principles and objectives of Shari’ah”. (Somalia’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, told me that the insertion of this article in an otherwise secular constitution was a strategy to “buy in” the support of Islamic religious institutions, which had to be accommodated if the constitution-building process was to be a success.)
Moreover, while the constitution recognises the president as the symbol of ultimate government authority, his relationship with his prime minister, who selects the cabinet, is not clearly defined. In-fighting in all of Somalia’s transitional and post-transitional governments has led to the resignation or removal of several prime ministers and ministers, which has undermined governance. The general high turnover of ministers and public officials, both within the transitional and post-transitional governments, has led to other problems; with so many different prime ministers and ministers rotating, it is difficult to carry out long-term economic development plans or to ensure accountability. This has allowed opportunities for corruption.
Corruption within the government is partly due to the fact that the brief tenures of most presidents, prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials encourage them to make money through corrupt means in the shortest period of time. They enter public service with a “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude, which makes long-term planning difficult, and severely diminishes the government’s ability to be transparent about its finances, including donor funding. Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.
In addition, unlike Somaliland, Somalia has been unable to hold a one-person-one vote election both during its transitional phase (2004-2012) and in its post-transitional period since 2012, mainly because the country is not yet equipped to carry out such an election, given the countless challenges facing the country, including lack of a voter registration system and insecurity.
Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.
Elections in Somalia are also usually marred by vote buying, intimidation and violence. Prior to the 2017 election, for example, a Somali official claimed that the more than 14,000 so-called “Electoral College” delegates who were voting for members of parliament were voting for the highest bidder; votes were apparently being bought for between $5000 and $30,000 each. The election of Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo last year raised hopes that he would succeed in eradicating both clannishness and corruption within government, but these hopes are increasingly being dashed by in-fighting and myriad other challenges.
The Italian connection
Some say that Somalia will take years before it has a functioning government because the country has little experience in representative democracy and because recent attempts to revive a democratic culture are coming a little too late. Many blame Italy, Somalia’s colonizer, for failing to leave a legacy of functioning governance structures and institutions in its Somali colony.
Very little is known about the Italian colonial period in Africa because the Italian government restricted access to colonial records for most of the post-Second World War period, which led to a widely circulated myth that Italian colonisation of Eritrea in 1890, of Somalia in 1908 and of Libya in 1912 was much more gentle and inclusive than the colonisation of Africa by Britain, France, Belgium or Portugal.
Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration, led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.
Italy’s intentions in Somalia were to create a settlers’ colony, which were in sharp contrast to Britain’s intentions in Somaliland, which were to protect the vital sea trade routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and not to settle as such. Thus in the south, “Italians pursued a policy of social engineering, including an education system and missionary work intended to prepare the territory for Italian settlement”, rather than a policy of “civilising” and training the colonised people who could be relied on to provide skilled labour to the colonial project. Although many of Italy’s Somali subjects learnt to speak Italian, formal teaching of Italian, and indeed all schooling, was very limited, unlike in neighbouring Kenya, also a settlers’ colony, where the colonial project was accompanied by – and indeed, propped up by – the many missionary and other schools that were set up to educate not just the white settlers’ children, but also the “natives”, who were expected to become future colonial administrators.
Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.
Under Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, Somalia was governed by a fascist colonial government that failed to install democratic structures and institutions that would carry the country forward to independence. Italy’s rule over Somalia was also disrupted after World War Two when Somalia became a UN-administered trusteeship. After Italy lost the Second World War, the Italian colonisers were replaced by a British military administration. In 1950, Britain transferred authority over what was known as the Trust Territory of Somalia back to Italy. However, because Italy’s colonies in Africa were seized by other European powers after the Second World War, they did not undergo a successful “decolonisation” process that would entail a smooth transfer of power to local elites and to the establishment of institutions that would govern the newly independent states.
The Siad Barre era and its aftermath
From 1950 till independence in 1960, there were attempts to “Somali-ise” governance. The first municipal elections were held in 1954, where 20 parties competed for 318 seats in 35 councils; 281 of these seats were held by Somalis, 23 by Arabs, 10 by Italians, 3 by Pakistanis and 1 by an Indian.
However, one decade of democratic governance was not enough to prevent Somalia from descending into political turmoil. Somalia’s relatively peaceful and democratic first ten years after independence were abruptly disrupted by the assassination of President Abdirashid Sharmake in 1969, just two years after he had taken over from the first post-independence president, Adan Abdulle Osman (also known as Adan Adde).
Barely a week later, Siad Barre gained control over Somalia through a bloodless military coup. Barre suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, banned political parties and nationalised the economy. Parliament was replaced by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, the ultimate decision-making authority in the country.
Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.
In 1977, when Barre ordered his army to invade Ethiopia in a bid to claim the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia, Soviet-backed Cuban troops marched in to support the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Maryam. The Soviet Union, which had been supporting Barre militarily until then, quickly switched sides, which proved to be a major blow for Barre’s government. (Soviet withdrawal of support to Somalia gave an opportunity to the Unites States to play a more influential role in Somali affairs.)
After losing the Ogaden war, Barre became more hard line and paranoid, and began arresting, torturing and killing his opponents, including the Isaaq in Somaliland who responded to his repressive tactics by declaring independence from Somalia. By the time he was ousted in 1991, the country was fragmented, and no one, not even the Americans, could prevent the mayhem and destruction that followed. This set the stage for Barre’s ouster in 1991 by the United Somali Congress (USC) led by Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, who, depending on who you ask, are seen as either heroes who liberated Somalia from the clutches of a dictator, or brutal warlords who unleashed violence and lawlessness in the country.
Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.
When a power struggle between Aideed and Mahdi ensued, UN peacekeepers were brought in to stabilise the situation, but they too withdrew after American soldiers were killed in the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident in October 1993. Lawlessness and anarchy reigned supreme as Somalia returned to what Somali-Canadian commentator Mohamud Uluso calls a “precolonial fragmentation”, where clan warfare and predatory competition over scarce resources (particularly foreign aid) became the norm and where people sought safety in kinship and clan affinity.
After more than a decade of anarchy and increasing religious extremism, a transitional government backed by the United Nations was instituted in 2004. But, as we have seen, even it could not deliver the much-needed peace and stability as it proved to be weak and ineffectual. The ouster of the Islamic Courts Union (a conglomeration of Muslim clerics and businesspeople who were keen to restore security in Somalia and who sought to replace the Transitional Federal Government) by US-backed Ethiopian forces in 2006 made the situation worse; its recalcitrant offspring, the terrorist group Al Shabaab, gained control of most of southern and central Somalia, making governance difficult, if not impossible.
Some argue that state-building efforts in Somalia have been hampered by a “pastoral ethos” characterised by competition, inter-clan rivalry, disdain for authority (except for traditional elders or religious leaders) and a deep mistrust and suspicion of outsiders. In his seminal book A Pastoral Democracy, first published in 1961, I.M. Lewis claimed that Somali society lacked “judicial, administrative, and political procedures which lie at the western conception of government.” While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy to Somalia. In Somalia’s lineage politics, he argued, “the assumption that might is right has overwhelming authority and personal rights…even if they are not obtained by force, can only be defended against usurpation by force of arms”. Are the current clan-based leaders with their own armed militias a manifestation of this thinking, where political power, once obtained, must be secured through the threat of violence?
While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy.
Critics of this “Somali exceptionalism” thesis argue that Lewis and other Western anthropologists fail to recognise that other pastoralist societies have successfully adopted modernisation and democratic forms of government and that by blaming pastoralism for Somalia’s woes is to assume that Somali society is stagnant and incapable of reinventing itself.
Donors and foreign interests
One of the challenges facing Somalia, which the international community is reluctant to admit, is that any government that is put in place in Mogadishu under the current circumstances will remain a puppet government with no real authority and little capacity to carry out governance functions or to provide services. Manipulation of Somali politics by foreign countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and some Arab countries, has hindered the development of a national vision on the way forward and generated suspicion and resentment.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and increasingly Turkey, have been financially supporting various factions and politicians in Somalia for their own political and economic interests. (The recent rift between Qatar and its neighours Saudi Arabia and UAE also spilled over to Somalia, where President Farmajo was expected to take sides.) It has also been claimed that some of these countries have exported religious fundamentalism to Somalia to appease radical factions within their own territories.
Some donors, particularly Turkey, have done a commendable job in rebuilding Somalia’s broken infrastructure and institutions. However, overall, donor support to Somalia has had a mixed record – much of the donated funds have found their way into individual pockets or gone towards supporting the donor countries’ Somalia operations in Nairobi, not in reconstructing Somalia. While security is currently being provided by Amisom forces, this support is also likely to dwindle in the near future.
There is also the issue of vested commercial interests of donor countries, such as Britain, that are keen to exploit Somalia’s largely untapped oil reserves and the United States, whose “war on terror” has Somalia at its epicentre; these interests often play out in the politics of the country. In 1999, Matt Bryden wrote that attempts by foreigners to fix Somalia have ranged from the “mediocre” to the “disastrous”. Some of these attempts, he said, have been sinister, some benign, others simply incompetent, but all have been ultimately unsuccessful.
Donor-dependency is unlikely to diminish as domestic revenue collection remains a challenge. Since the UN-backed transitional government was installed in 2004, no transitional or post-transitional Somali government has had a credible revenue collecting authority or well-functioning ministries. Most Somalis rely on charities (many of which are based in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates) or local entrepreneurs for services such as water provision, healthcare and education. Somalia does not even have a national curriculum for its schools; donor countries supporting schools introduce their own curricula, which had led to the bizarre situation where Somali children are sitting for exams set in Doha, Ankara or Riyadh, not at Somalia’s Ministry of Education.
Oil discoveries have made these foreign interventions more complicated in recent years. There is widespread suspicion that oil looms large in Britain’s dealings with the Somali government, and that the former may be willing to overlook corruption and bad governance in the latter in order to preserve its economic interests. Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Puntland, have already been granting licences to oil companies. Competition over an oil block that stretches across Somaliland and Puntland has increased tensions in these regions. In the absence of agreed-upon legal frameworks, the oil factor is likely to be a source of conflict in Somalia’s oil-producing regions in the near future.
While it is becoming increasingly apparent that foreign interests are to blame for much of the mayhem in Somalia, laying the bulk of the blame on foreigners is unfair and insincere. If the Somali government had used foreign aid and its vast natural resources to rebuild the country and taken it to the next level, Somalia might have emerged from the ashes.
Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.
What’s worse, none of Somalia’s notorious warlords and corrupt politicians have been made to account for the atrocities and plunder that they carried out. No national or international institution has charged them with any crime. The International Criminal Court, which has vigorously pursued suspects in other African countries, is mute about the crimes against humanity that have been occurring in Somalia for the last three decades. Its silence lends credence to the assertion that the ICC is only interested in selective justice.
Ultimately, the Somali people themselves have to fight for the government they desire. Having experienced only nine years of peaceful democracy from 1960-1969, maybe it is too much to ask Somalia to be fully fledged functioning nation when it barely has the institutions or the resources to run a government, and where clan rivalries and fiefdoms have entrenched a culture of “winner takes all”.
Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.
Islam could have been a unifying factor in Somalia, but it is unlikely that an entity like the Islamic Courts Union will be allowed to take root again, especially because it would be associated with Al Shabaab (which is generally loathed by the majority of the country’s citizens who blame the group for carrying out attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent Somalis in Mogadishu and other places) and also because the United States and its allies will not allow it.
Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation that is emerging from nearly five decades of dictatorship and anarchy a “fake democracy”? Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the ones in Somaliland, which has managed to deliver relative peace and stability to its citizens for almost 30 years? These are the million-dollar questions no one has been able to answer adequately.
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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
The effects the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.
Two years have gone by since I last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.
It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.
“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.
One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.
“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.” The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.
For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”
The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.
The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.
At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.
Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.
“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”
Return to Kasighau
The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.
It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.
According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.
No land, more problems
In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.
“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”
According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.
Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”
However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.
“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.
“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”
“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”
Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.
“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”
Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.
“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.
It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.
Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid
In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.
The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.
The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.
The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace
Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.
Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.
Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.
This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.
Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter
Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.
The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.
The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.
From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.
Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.
Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.
Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.
Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.
The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku
Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:
1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.
2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:
- It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
- The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
- It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
- It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.
Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.
This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:
- Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
- Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
- Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.
Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:
- The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
- The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent
Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.
Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.
Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya
Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.
He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:
- Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
- A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.
He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.
ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market
According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.
Moving beyond the state?
The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021
In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.
Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.
Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’
This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal.
Omissions of Inquiry: Kenya and the Limitations of Truth Commissions
Gabrielle Lynch provides a radical analysis of the mechanisms of transitional justice. Looking at the case of Kenya, Lynch argues that truth commissions which hope to achieve truth, justice and reconciliation also require ongoing political struggles, and substantive socio-economic and political change. While reconciliation and justice may be goals which truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, they cannot be expected to achieve them.
In today’s world, it is almost expected that a truth commission will be introduced in the wake of conflict or a period of authoritarianism to try and consolidate a transition to democracy and peace. A truth commission generally understood – as per Priscilla Hayner – as a temporary state-sanctioned body that investigates a pattern of past abuse, engages ‘directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences’ and which aims to conclude with a public report.
The underlying idea is that societies need to confront and deal with unjust histories if they are to establish a qualitative break with that past. Proponents of modern truth commissions thus ‘look backwards’, not as interested historians, but as a way to ‘reach forwards.’ As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained in his foreword to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report:
The other reason amnesia simply will not do is that the past refuses to lie down quietly. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt one … However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them, so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past. It is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future.
Motivated by this desire to render the past ‘passed’ in the substantial sense of being ‘dead’ or ‘over and done with’, modern truth commissions dedicate most of their time to two activities: the holding of public hearings and production of a final report.
This is a relatively recent development. Early truth commissions did not hold public hearings and were largely fact-finding bodies. However, ever since the South African TRC of the 1990s, truth commissions have held hearings as a stage for various actors – victims, perpetrators, political parties, state institutions and so forth – to present their account of past wrongs. The underlying idea is that people will have a chance to speak and be heard, and thus regain their humanity; that a wider (and engaged) audience will bear witness to a new human rights-conscious regime; and the overview provided will feed into, and help legitimise, a final report. The latter in turn intended to record and acknowledge past wrongs and provide recommendations that can help to promote truth, justice and reconciliation.
However, while much hope is often placed, and much time and money expended, on truth commissions and their hearings and final reports, it is evident that these processes generally fall far short of ambitious goals and high expectations. But what explains this gap between aspiration and reality?
This is one of the questions that I address in a new book – Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya – which analyses several transitional justice mechanisms introduced following Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8 when over 1,000 people were killed and almost 700,000 were displaced.
This includes the establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Significantly, the Commission’s mandate recognised that, while the 2007/8 post-election violence was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems. In turn, the Commission was tasked with investigating a wide array of injustices – from state repression and causes of political violence to perceptions of economic marginalisation and irregular land acquisition – between Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in February 2008.
Established through an Act of Parliament in 2008, and operational from 2009 to 2013, the TJRC sought to meet its mandate, in large part, by collecting statements (with over 40,000 collected in total), holding public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country and adversely mentioned person (AMP) hearings in western and Nairobi, and publishing a substantial final report that runs to over 2,000 pages.
Despite such achievements, the Commission was soon mired in controversy with calls for the chairman – who was soon linked to three injustices that the Commission was meant to investigate – to resign, while the public hearings attracted little media attention, and the final report is yet to be discussed in parliament let alone implemented.
The Kenyan experience highlights a range of lessons and insights. This includes the fact – as recently outlined in a piece for The Conversation – that transitional justice mechanisms are not ‘tools’ that can be introduced in different contexts with the same effect. Instead, their success (or failure) rests on their design, approach and personnel – all of which are incredibly difficult to get right – but also on their evaluation and reception, and thus on their broader contexts, which commissions have little or no control over.
However, the lessons that can be drawn go beyond reception and context and extend to the inherent shortcomings of such an approach.
First, while victims appreciate a chance to speak and be heard, the majority clearly submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken to redress the injustices described. As one woman explained after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken and how, having told her story, the Commission would ‘come in and help.’
To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included ‘justice’ in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations and institutional and constitutional reforms.
However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated that ‘recommendations shall be implemented.’ However, such legal provisions proved insufficient. Amidst general scepticism about the Commission’s work, parliament amended the TJRC Act in December 2013 to ensure that the report needed to be considered by the National Assembly – something that is yet to happen.
Moreover, to document and acknowledge the truth requires that one hears from both victims and perpetrators. However, the latter often have little motivation, and much to lose, from telling the truth. This was evident in Kenya where, during the AMP hearings I attended, where I heard little that was new and not a single admission of personal responsibility or guilt. Instead, testimonies were characterised by five discursive strands of responsibility denied: denial through a transfer of responsibility, denial through a questioning of sources, denial through amnesia, denial through a reinterpretation of events and an assertion of victimhood, and denial that events constituted a wrongdoing. However, while AMPs denied responsibility, none denied that injustices had occurred. As a result, while the hearings provided little clarity on how and why a series of reported events may have occurred, they simultaneously drew attention to, and recognised, past injustice. In this way, they provided a public enactment of impunity: Kenya’s history was replete with injustice, but AMPs were unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for it.
This ongoing culture of impunity points to another issue, which is that – for most victims – injustices clearly do not belong to the past but to the present and future. The loss of a person or income, for example, often constitutes a course that now seems beyond reach – from the hardship that accompanies the loss of a wage earner to the diminished opportunities that stem from a child’s extended absence from school. However, the past also persists in other ways, from the injustices that never ended, such as gross inequalities or corruption, to fears of repetition and experiences of new injustice.
Unfortunately, the idea that one can ‘look backwards to reach forwards’ downplays the complex ways in which the past actually persists, and possible futures infringe on the present. This is problematic since it can encourage a situation where small changes dampen demands for more substantive reform. At the same time, it can facilitate a politicised assertion of closure that excludes those who do not buy into the absence of the past, the newness of the present, or the desirability of imagined futures and provides a resource to those who seek to present such ‘difficult people’ as untrusting, unreasonable and unpatriotic.
This is not to say that truth commissions are useless and should never be considered. On the contrary, many view speaking as better than silence, while the commission’s report provides a historical overview of injustice in Kenya and a range of recommendations that activists and politicians are using to lobby for justice and reform.
However, when introduced, truth commissions should be more aware of the importance of persuasive performances and how their initial reception and longer-term impact is shaped by broader socio-economic, political and historic contexts. Truth commissions also need to adopt a more complex understanding of the ways in which the past persists, and possible futures infringe on the present and avoid easy assertions of closure.
Ultimately, such ambitious goals as truth, justice and reconciliation require not Freudian ‘talk therapy’, although catharsis and psycho-social support are often appreciated, but an ongoing political struggle, and substantive socio-economic and political change, which something like a truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, but cannot be expected to achieve.
This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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