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THE ROAD TO HELL: The Kibera evictions and what they portend for human rights and ‘development’

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The demolition of structures in Kibera to pave way for “development” has left in its wake shattered lives, broken dreams and a bitter distaste for Kenya’s politicians and institutions. By DAUTI KAHURA

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THE ROAD TO HELL: The Kibera evictions and what they portend for human rights and ‘development’
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A responsible government takes care of its poor people until they are strong. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere: 1922–1999.

On the fifth day after the surprise dawn evictions at the infamous Kibera slums that lay in the path of a new road that is being constructed, I visited the area to witness first-hand the scorched earth policy that the government had employed to rout out the hapless slum dwellers. It was a bright sunny mid-morning with a clear blue skyline above but the area was eerily silent: From the District Officer (DC)’s offices, one could look yonder, as far as the eye could see, where once upon a time, there were structures and those structures housed human beings and their pets – cats, dogs, chicken, doves and rabbits, but now, all one could see was flattened land. The only movement was that of the Caterpillar bulldozer rumbling along like a military tank detecting land mines.

Kibera shares a border with the Nairobi Royal Golf Club, which is near former President Daniel arap Moi’s home, Kabarnet Gardens, and runs all the way down towards the Langata area. I met three elderly women who were watching the earthmover as it levelled the land where once stood their structures.

“I have lived here since 1969, and in my close to 50 years, I’ve never seen such a brutal, cold and calculated demolition from such a cruel government,” Mary Gikunda, a landlady whose structures (she declined to say how many she had) were flattened in a matter of seconds. “Those structures were my income, as well as my financial support for my children,” reiterated Ms Gikunda, who told me that all her (many) children were born in Kibera. Now in her mid-60s, the landlady seethed with fury against politicians, against state bureaucrats, against the security apparatus, against journalists, against anybody associated with the Jubilee government.

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians,” posed Ms Gikunda. “Trust me, I will never vote again, I’m done. I’ve ran the course of my voting life. These people should leave me alone now. A road is a good thing – nobody in his right senses would oppose such a development. But is a road worth the wanton destruction you’ve just witnessed? Is it more important than people’s lives?”

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians”

She and the two women were eating dry githeri (boiled maize and beans). “I was born here in Kibera,” said Josephine Munee. “I’ve spent all my life in Kibera, I know no other home. In all of my 65 years, we grew up being threatened by demolitions and evictions, but we fought back and we survived. Somehow, the past governments would perhaps think twice and have mercy on us, but this Jubilee government is something else.” Ms Munee observed that as the “wretched of the earth”, slum dwellers anywhere in Nairobi city were not the “owners of the land”, and so, the powerful and the mighty could do whatever they deemed fit, “but at 65-years-old, where would they expect me to go?”, she wondered aloud.

Rhoda Muthei, 87, was the oldest among the women: Because of her advanced age, her colleagues had looked for a plastic chair for her to prop up her back and rest on. In her Kikamba mother tongue, she asked them who I was and what is it that I wanted.

“I’m not in a mood to speak to anyone,” she told them. Persuaded to talk to me because I was not a state officer, she came to life and said, she came to Kibera via Langata in 1963, settling in her current abode proper in 1972. But now, it was no more and she did not know what to do and where to go. “I witnessed Jomo Kenyatta (the first President of the Republic of Kenya and the father of the current and fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta) being sworn in as the country’s first black leader in Langata and we ululated throughout the night, ecstatic in the knowledge that we could now henceforth self-govern ourselves. In the sunset of my years, I have no place to call home because the government does not have time for poor, old and dying women like me.”

However, even in the worst of adversity, people can have something to smile and live for. I walked 20 metres from where the three women were, navigating huge boulders to where Rachel Kerubo was, and found her preparing lunch on an open makeshift three-stone hearth. Charming and welcoming, she heartily invited me to lunch: ugali and omena (sardines) with kunde (indigenous bittersweet greens leaves). A delicious and nutritious dish, eaten mostly in low-income households, the meal is a mouth-watering combination that fills the stomach and is very pocket-friendly.

“I came to Kibera a decade ago after I was displaced by the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley,” said Kerubo. “There’s no respite for the poor and the weak in this country. Now it looks like I’m on the run again.” Her house in Kibera had been flattened, but she counted herself lucky: She was just in time to rescue her wooden chicken coop, part of her income-generating project when she came to Kibera. Her three-week-old chicks were scrounging the rubble for food with the help of the mother hen. In her mid-50s, Kerubo is as enterprising as they come.

Besides rearing chicken, she grew tomatoes on a 20X10 plot that she had rented next to where she lived. The tomato plants too had been flattened. With a group of other seven residents – five women and two men – Kerubo and her group had fund-raised to buy 10,000- and 5,000-litre plastic water tanks, where they stored water which they would sell to their fellow slum dwellers for a marginal profit. She also used part of the water to grow her tomatoes. “We were given two alternatives – we pour all the water and therefore save our tanks – or the bulldozers crush them,” Kerubo narrated to me. I found the water tanks lying on their belly on their raised wooden support, proof indeed that their contents had been rendered to the ground.

Across the field, on the other side of the wall, about 60 metres away, I found Halima Burhan cleaning dishes. Her ageing great aunty and daughter sat close by on the ground crossed-legged, their backs leaning on a semi-demolished mud wall. Tall and ebony black, Halima, at 63-years-old, is as energetic and as active as ever. Looking a little rugged, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of slum life, she still retains a trace of the impossible beauty that Nubian women are known for. “The Monday [July 23, 2018] morning demolition took us by complete surprise,” said Halima in proper Kiswahili sanifu (formal Kiswahili language).

“On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter. They assured us nothing untoward would be done without our prior knowledge. Little did we know they had come for a last reconnaissance tour to confirm that all the intended houses and buildings to be demolished were clearly marked, as they duped us that nothing sinister was in the offing.” In hindsight, said Halima, it was the calm before the storm.

On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter.”

The KURA officials had gone down to the three affected villages of Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi that would be razed down on Monday to pave way for the link road between Langata Police Station and Karanja Road in Kibera, ostensibly to enumerate and take the slum dwellers’ particulars for what the dwellers were made to believe would result in restitution. Four days later, KURA sent out a WhatsApp message and copied both Amnesty Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). The message read as follows: “A multi agency team has successfully completed the Kibera enumeration process on 20th July 2018. The team is now analysing the data collected and once the process is complete, the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) report will be availed to the public.”

Yet, perhaps, unlike many of her slum mates, Halima should have been aware of the demolitions, “if only I had not brushed away my grandchild’s naggings.” On Sunday [July 22] evening, her grandson Masud Talib was playing football near the DC’s offices, when he saw the bulldozers being parked at the compound. Eleven-year-old Masud, acting on a child’s instincts, ran back home and called out his grandma: “Bibi, bibi, tutavunjiwa, nimeziona matrekta zikipaki pale kwa DC. Nimewasikia wakisema watabomoa manyumba.” (Grandma, grandma, they will demolish, I’ve just seen the bulldozers being parked at the DC’s compound and I overheard them saying they will demolish our houses. “We Masud nawe acha hayo,” (Please Masud stop that) Halima responded. There was nothing usual about the presence of bulldozers at the DC’s place – the road (Karanja Rd) connecting to Ngong Road was still under construction.

About 12 hours later, at around 6.00am, Halima was woken up by earth tremors beneath her house and wondered what possibly that could be. The demolitions had began and people were scampering from their houses. Because her house is 500 metres from the DC’s offices, the bulldozers’ earthshaking movements were audible from far, and her house was among the first ones to fall under the hammer. “Alhamudillahi my grandson is alive,” said Halima in supplication. Inside her house was her 90-year-old great aunty, grandson Masud and her daughter and her 12-week-old newborn baby. “Since demolitions, we have been sleeping outside, Allahu Akbar [God is great], the elements have so far not affected the baby.”

“I was raised on my paternal grandfather’s land – this land that they have just evicted me from,” recalled Halima. She had now stopped doing the dishes and we were standing next to the ramshackle ruins – a crude reminder of what she once called home for more than half a century. Her grandfather, Marjan Sakar, a soldier of the British army, was among the first Nubians to be settled at Kibera.

Nubian origins

Kibera, which for the longest time has been synonymous with the Luo people, owes its existence to Nubians’ bravery and diction. Kibera is a corruption of Kibra, Ki-Nubi for forest or a bushy area. The Nubians came from Sudan, around the Nuba Mountains. They were identified first by the Egyptian ruler Emin Pasha and later by the British imperial government as brave soldiers. At different times, they were enlisted by both Pasha and the British to wage wars on their behalf.

Modern Nubian history records them as having been settled in Kibera around 1897, just before Kenya become a British protectorate. Those that were settled in Kibera were part of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s African Rifles who formed the bulk of the soldiers who had been deployed to fight for the British Empire. By 1900, Kibera was already a military reserve. This designated area, next to the railway, was surveyed in 1917 and was gazetted the following year. The land was estimated to be 4197.9 acres. From 1912 to 1928, Kibera was administered as a military area under the direct control of the army authorities. Anybody who wanted to settle in the area needed a special pass and one of the requirements was to have served in the army for at least 12 years.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

In 1963, Kibera was fully incorporated into the city boundaries of Nairobi. By 1970, the original area of 4197.9 acres had been reduced to just 500 acres. Today that land is just under 300 acres. Large portions of Kibera were swallowed by middle-class estates, like Ayany, Jamhuri, Langata and Ngei, along Ngong Road, leaving the Nubians to be concentrated at Lindi, Kambi Aluru, Kambi-Lendu, Kambi Muru and Makina and along Karanja Road. In the fullness of time other ethnic communities, such as the Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Luo and Luhya, settled in Kibera.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the Gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

“In 2016, Nubian elders took the government to court,” Halima told me. “They were seeking to stop the road passing through our land and the intended demolitions and evictions.” On August 5, 2016, the “Abdulmajid Ramadhan & 3 Others V Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) & 4 Others” case was filed at the Environment and Land Court in Nairobi (Petition N0.974).

The court ruling

On April 28, 2017, Justice S. Okong’o ruled on the matter and directed KURA as follows: “In the interest of justice and in order to avoid human suffering, I order that the petitioners herein be included in the Langata/Kibera Roads Committee and be actively involved in the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) for the Project of the Affected Persons (PAP). I order further that the 1st, 2nd, and 5th respondents shall not evict or demolish the houses belonging to the petitioners until the agreed resettlement plan for the persons affected by the road project in question is put in place.”

In essence, what Justice Okong’o had done in his ruling was to order the Attorney-General, KURA and the road contractors, H.YOUNG, to enter into a preparation of the relocation action plan. From the time of the ruling in April 2017 to July 16, 2018, when KURA showed up with the eviction notice, they did not do anything to obey the court orders: they did not involve the Nubian elders or its committee; they did not come up with a discernable relocation action plan; and, in truth, they did nothing to show that they respected the law of the land.

Then, suddenly, KURA got caught up in a flurry of activities: On July 13, 2018, it requested a meeting with Nubian elders, KNCHR and the Mohammad Swazuri-led National Lands Commission (NLC) at its offices located at the Ministry of Roads offices ostensibly to convince these bodies to come up with the relocation action plan as per Justice Okong’o ruling. An official who attended that meeting told me, “The July 16 enumerations was a way of showing that KURA was keen on honouring the court’s ruling with the ‘false’ promise of giving something small to the people as compensation.”

The official told me that it was very odd that KURA would summon, among others, an independent body such as KNCHR to its offices and “KNCHR, unashamedly would troop to another body’s offices to scheme on how to bend and obstruct the constitution, while disobeying a court’s ruling. I had along chat with KNCHR commission members and I did not mince my words,” the official said to me.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official. The official explained to me how KNCHR is entrusted with quasi-judicial powers to summon the minister in charge of roads to explain eviction notices. He said the commission can equally go to court to secure an injunction on behalf of an aggrieved party and exercise powers to collect data, and even enforce corrective action.

Forced evictions: A violation of human rights

On my second day in Kibera, I met up with 61-year-old Joseph Omondi. Born and bred in Kibera’s Katwekera village, he is tall and sturdy and is always up and about and laughter is his second nature. When elated, he breaks into uproarious laughter and can crack your ribs with his practical jokes. “But on the day they demolished Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi, I broke down and wept,” said a reflective Omondi. We were at the backyard of Kabarnet Gardens. At the Administration Police (AP) camp inside the stately home, there is a makeshift food kiosk, where food affordable to the security officers and their retinue is sold.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official.

In between a meal of ugali and matumbo (fried intestines), Omondi told me he had witnessed forced slum demolitions over time in Nairobi – in Soweto (next to Spring Valley suburbs), in Kibagare (next to posh Loresho), in Muoroto (that used to be next to Country Bus Station) and in Mathare 4A. However, according to him, “This Kibera one ranks among the most horrendous, perhaps only to be rivalled by the brutal Muoroto slum eviction which took place at 3.00am and which resulted in some people losing their lives. How can a government be so brutal, merciless and conniving against its own people like this? In a post 2010 new constitution?”

“The state had come prepared to mow down the people in case they resisted or became violent,” pointed out Omondi. “But on this day the people did not resist. They watched, dazed, as their structures went down with their earthy belongings, with no time to salvage anything. With a 1000-strong force of regular police, AP, the brutal and inhuman paramilitary GSU (General Service Unit), it was going to be a futile resistance. So the people stood aside, the earthmovers roaring, flattening anything and everything on site, much like a military operation.”

I found Oscar Indula and David Lwili, both in their late-20, seated on a bench and pensively looking over the horizon beyond the site that they had once called home as residents of Kichinjio slum. “The state had come fully armed and it was a stealth operation. They had taken us by surprise, there was no time to mobilise. They came at dawn and many people were just waking up. Confused by the attendant commotion and seeing the encroaching excavators, the people panicked. Then, they became lost and bewildered. But even if we could have mobilised, we would have been completely pulverised. It was a full army battalion, we stood no chance. We were gazing down at a massacre.”

Omondi told me he could only liken the Kibera evictions to the brutal demolitions that had razed down people’s homes and businesses in Zimbabwean cities and towns a dozen years ago. On May 19, 2005, the then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government security forces rolled down on the capital city Harare’s informal settlements and flattened homes and businesses. It was a violent affair, overseen by the police and army, and soon spread to other major cities and towns.

Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) was dubbed “Operation Tsunami” because of the speed and ferociousness with which it attacked the settlements. According to the “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe”, an assessment carried out by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka between June 26 and July 8, 2005, about 700,000 people across cities in Zimbabwe lost homes, sources of income and sometimes both.

“The Kibera demolition affected between 30,000 and 35,000 families in the three villages,” George Odhiambo told me. “The exact figures are not known, but for those talking about 30,000, they should know that that is a very conservative estimate.”

Odhiambo is the founder of Adventure Pride Centre, a school that catered for pupils from pre-school to Class VIII and which was located in Kichinjio village. He took me to the precise place where the school had stood. It is difficult to believe that a stone building with a cemented floor once stood erect at Kibera’s ground zero. The only sign that learning used to take place here were the scattered text books and some completely new and unused exercise books. Nothing was spared in the wake of the demolitions.

“Adventure, alongside two other schools – Egesa Children’s Centre and Makina Self-Help Primary School – rested on Nairobi Royal Golf Club’s private land, contrary to the popular belief that everything that was demolished was on government land,” said Odhiambo. “The management of the Club had had an understanding with the schools’ owners to operate on its land, as long as they used the premises as learning institutions.”

I asked Odhiambo what would happen to the Class VIII pupils who will be sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) this year. “The pupils are very confused, distraught, disturbed and will need counselling,” observed Odhiambo. “Currently, all the pupils are at home, as we think of what to do next. For the Class VIII, we have to quickly find alternative centres where they will sit for their exam. Already, as it is, they learn under some of the harshest conditions that one can possibly imagine and yet have to compete in the same exams, with kids going to exquisite schools, laden with textbooks, learning materials and whose teacher-student ratio is at most 1:15 and where teachers are always present.” In total, there were eight schools in the three villages that were brought down: Adventure Pride Centre, Egesa Children’s Centre, Love Africa Primary School, Mashimoni Primary School, which had been there since the 1970s, Makina Self-Help, Mashimoni Squatters, Mashimoni SDA and Saviour King School.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.” Chief among its recommendations were:

  1. Evictions should be carried out when appropriate procedural protection are in place
  2. These protections are identified by the UN Commission as Economic and Social and Cultural Rights
  3. An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected
  4. Adequate and reasonable notice for affected people prior to the eviction
  5. Information on the proposed evictions must be fully provided
  6. Government officials and/or representatives to be present during the evictions
  7. Evictions are not to take place in adverse weather or at night.
  8. Government to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights as a consequence of evictions
  9. Adequate alternative housing and compensation for all losses must be made available to those affected prior to eviction, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land in question.

“The saga of the Kibera-Langata link road is very puzzling. There are too many shortcuts, too many loose ends and illegalities,” observed Omotto. “And they are being let to pass, while in fact, we have a precedent to follow.” He reminded me of the Kwa Jomvu evictions in 2015 and how the Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) redeemed itself by owning up to orchestrating forceful eviction of the Jomvu houses and business premises without following the due process of the laid out stipulations.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.”

On May 17, 2015, more than 100 inhabitants of the Kwa Jomvu informal settlement along the Mombasa-Mariakani Highway were woken up by a bulldozer trampling on their structures at night, between 11.00pm and past midnight. The bulldozer, escorted by armed police, flattened their houses and business premises. “Driven Out For Development: Forced Evictions in Mombasa”, a report by Amnesty International, says the people complained that they had not been consulted beyond being given a January 2015 eviction notice. They had not received any information on eviction process, resettlement, or compensation.

On August 13, 2015, KeNHA organised a public sensitization meeting and owned up to carrying out the forced demolitions. The roads authority asked the people to form a committee to tabulate their losses and present the same to KeNHA. It also educated the people about the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) for the project. In September 2015, KeNHA took responsibility for the evictions and agreed to pay compensation till the end of 2015.

Then last month, once again, one of the most famous slum colonies in Africa was in the international news: On the days I was there, the slum had attracted its usual voyeuristic suspects – local and international news corps, “development” workers and NGO crusaders, all hoping to share a piece of the slum’s soul.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
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Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.

One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.

The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.

The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.

Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.

Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.

The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.

Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:

  • Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
  • Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
  • Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
  • At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds

Hacking the System

Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.

“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”

The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.

Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.

Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.

The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.

For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.

Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.

“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).

Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.

“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.

It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.

“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.

They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.

“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.

Masking the Setup

Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.

Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.

Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.

Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.

According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.

Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.

Family LinksMrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.

Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.

It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.

“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.

Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.

Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.

Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.

Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia

We can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia
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In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nick Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.

Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s.

Misleading aid narratives distract from rebranded structural adjustment 

On the first point, Cheeseman establishes his argument early on by stating ‘that international donors have become increasingly willing to fund authoritarian regimes in Africa on the basis that they deliver on development’. In support of this assertion, he cites a table from the World Bank that shows net Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by Ethiopia surging to USD 4.93 billion in 2018, up from just over USD 4 billion in 2016 and 2017, and from a plateau oscillating around USD 3.5 billion from 2008 to 2015.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

These aggregated data are misleading because ODA received by Ethiopia from western bilateral donors in fact fell in 2018 (and probably continued falling in 2019 and 2020). The World Bank data that he cites are actually from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) statistics, which refer to all official donors (but not including countries such as China). If we restrict donor assistance to DAC countries – which is relevant given that Cheeseman only refers to the US, the UK and the EU in his piece – disbursed ODA to Ethiopia fell from USD 2.26 billion in 2017 to USD 2.06 billion in 2018 (see the red line in the figure below).

 

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019Source: OECD.stat, last accessed 30 December 2020.

There was a brief moderate increase in DAC country ODA starting in 2015 and peaking in 2017. Cheeseman might have been referring to this. However, contrary to his argument, it was likely that the reason for this increase in aid was primarily humanitarian, responding to the refugee influx from South Sudan that began in 2015 and to the severe drought and famine risk in 2016-17. It was also probably related to attempts to induce incipient political reform following the major protests in Oromia in 2014, which Cheeseman would presumably condone given that conventional measures of democracy and freedom improved in 2018. Indeed, it is notable that committed ODA from DAC donor countries fell even more sharply than disbursed aid in 2018, from USD 2.49 billion in 2017 to USD 2.07 billion, reflecting the context in which these countries were negotiating hard with the Ethiopian government at the time.

Instead, the sharp increase in ODA in 2018 came entirely from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank Group, which increased its mixture of grants and loans to the country from USD 1.1 billion in 2017 to USD 2.1 billion in 2018. This subsequently fell to USD 1.8 billion in 2019 (the dashed green line in the figure).

Such ODA has been explicitly tied to the World Bank’s long-standing goal of liberalising, privatising and deregulating the Ethiopian economy, thereby ‘reforming’ (or disassembling) many of the attributes that have allowed the Ethiopian state to act in a developmentalist manner. These attributes include state-owned enterprises, state control over the financial sector, and relatively closed capital accounts, in strong distinction to most other countries in Africa (including Rwanda).

For instance, in October 2018 it approved USD 1.2 billion from the IDA in support of ‘a range of economic reforms designed to revitalize the economy by expanding the role of the private sector… to gradually open up the economy and introduce competition to and liberalize sectors that have been dominated by key state-owned enterprises (SOEs)’. The support aimed to promote public-private partnerships in key state-owned sectors such as telecoms, power and trade logistics as key mechanisms to restructure these sectors, as well as broader deregulation and financial liberalisation. It is also notable that the World Bank prefaced this justification by emphasising the political reforms that had already been embarked upon, and the promotion of ‘citizen engagement social accountability’ in Ethiopia.

In other words, contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017. The World Bank pulled up the slack in 2018, and in December 2019 both the World Bank and IMF promised more funding in support of ongoing economic reforms. The economic liberalisation has in turn undermined political liberalisation and has been a key source of political destabilization.

The bargaining hand of these donors has been reinforced by the economic difficulties faced by the Ethiopian economy – in particular, a hard tightening of external foreign-exchange constraints. Balance of payments statistics reveal that the government had effectively stopped external borrowing after 2015, a policy that it was advised to adopt in its Article IV consultations with the IMF in 2016 and 2017 as its external debt distress levels were rising. As a result, the government became excessively reliant on donor grant money as a principal source of foreign financing. Yet the country continued to run deep trade deficits, in large part because its development strategies, as elsewhere in Africa, have been very import and foreign-exchange intensive (e.g. think of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, requiring more than USD 4.6 billion to build, the bulk in foreign exchange). Significant capital flight appears to have taken place as well; for example, errors and omissions reported on the balance of payments were -USD 2.14 billion in 2018. In order to keep the ship afloat, the central bank burnt through over USD 1 billion of its reserves in 2018 alone.

Contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017

This severe tightening of foreign-exchange constraints needs to be understood as a critical structural factor in causing the development strategy to stall. Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting. Again, the point is not to apologise for authoritarianism, but rather to emphasise that the current situation is rooted deeper within a conjuncture of systemic crises that go far beyond any particular form of political administration.

Indeed, Cheeseman commits a similar oversight in ignoring the previous systemic crisis that the present is in many ways repeating. Later in his piece, he asserts: ‘The vast majority of African states were authoritarian in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost all had poor economic growth.’ This is an ahistorical misrepresentation of the profound global crisis that crippled Africa from the late 1970s for about two decades and which was the source of the poor growth he mentions. Then, as now, economic crisis was triggered throughout the continent by the severe tightening of external constraints, which neoliberal structural adjustment programmes exacerbated in a pro-cyclical manner despite being justified in the name of growth. The combination crippled developmentalist strategies across the continent regardless of political variations and despite the fact that many countries were performing quite well before the onset of the crisis. Such historical contextualisation is crucial for a correct assessment of the present.

Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting.

In this respect, there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse. Most countries that descend into deep protracted crises (economic or political) generally stop being nominally democratic, and yet this result becomes attributed as a cause, as if authoritarianism results in crisis or poor performance. Cheeseman cherry-picks two papers (one a working paper) on democracy and development performance in Africa (which like all cross-country regressions, are highly sensitive to model specification and open to interpretation). However, drawing any causality from such studies is problematic given that states tended to become more authoritarian after the global economic crisis and subsequent structural adjustments of the late 1970s and 1980s, not the other way around. For instance, 16 countries were under military rule in 1972, compared with 21 countries in 1989 during the height of adjustment. Faced with crippled capacity under the weight of severe austerity and dwindling legitimacy as living standards collapsed, many states responded to mass protests against the harsh conditionalities of adjustment with increasing force. As such, economic crisis and adjustment plausibly contributed to the rise of political instability and increasingly authoritarian regimes. Other factors include the Cold War destabilisation, which western countries fuelled and profited from. In other words, the political malaise across Africa at the time was driven by as much by external as internal factors.

Aid as a lever of regime change

This leads us to our second point concerning Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Cheeseman is at pains to emphasise that rigged elections and repression of opponents have contributed to the recent emergence of conflict in the Tigray region. While these are important features, Ethiopian intellectuals have also emphasised that conflicts in contemporary Ethiopia have taken place against a history of imperial state formation, slavery and debates about the ‘national question’, or what has sometimes been called ‘internal colonialism’. These conflicts are shaped by the system of ethnic federalism, in which ethnically defined states control their own revenues, social provisioning and security forces. They have been affected by foreign agricultural land grabs, which interact with older histories of semi-feudal land dispossession. Most recently, there have been concerns that regional tensions over the Renaissance Dam and agricultural land may help draw neighbouring countries into the conflict.

In the face of this highly complex and rapidly changing context, no one person can identify the optimal response. It plausibly requires regular collective deliberation by people who are deeply embedded in the context. In particular, the brief political liberalisation of 2018 was followed by a sharp uptick of political violence on all sides, rooted in fundamental tensions between different visions of statehood. Such situations cannot be solved simply by ‘adding democracy and stirring’; they require deliberative governance.

Yet, Cheeseman’s piece seeks a reimposition of the very political conditionalities that were a primary factor in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the first wave of structural adjustment and its attendant Good Governance agendas. Such conditionalities work by constraining the open contestation of ideas and the process of informed consensus-building. They undermine the sovereignty of key institutions of the polity and the economy. And by doing so they degrade the historical meaning of development as a project of reclaiming social and economic sovereignty after colonialism.

Indeed, as Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’. Such ‘disempowered new democracies’ are incapable of responding to the substantive macroeconomic demands of voters and thereby undermining substantive democracy, deliberative governance and policy sovereignty.

In particular, the idea of a democratic developmental state is meaningless in the absence of policy sovereignty. The institutional monocropping and monotasking of the type that Mkandawire wrote about does not merely prevent key institutions, such as central banks, from using broader policy instruments to support the developmental project. It also involves the deliberate creation of unaccountable policy vehicles, such as Monetary Policy Committees (MPCs), which operate outside of democratic oversight, but have considerable hold on the levers of economic policy. MPCs are in turn wedded to neoliberal monetarism. The message to such disempowered new democracies is that ‘you can elect any leader of your choice as long as s/he does not tamper with the economic policy that we choose for you.’ Or as Mkandawire wrote in 1994, ‘two or three IMF experts sitting in a country’s reserve bank have more to say than the national association of economists about the direction of national policy.’

As Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’

In such contexts, the prospect of a democratic developmental state is severely diminished. Ensuring significant improvements in people’s wellbeing is important for the legitimacy of democracies. Yet the subversion of policy sovereignty significantly constrains the ability of new democracies to do so, setting them up for a crisis of legitimacy.

If democracy is to be meaningful it should involve the active engagement of citizens in a system of deliberative governance. Civil society organisations, in this context, are meaningful when they are autonomous institutions of social groupings that actively engage in boisterous debate and public policymaking in articulating the interest of their members. Yet, donor clientelism in Africa has wrought civil society and advocacy organisations that are manufactured and funded by, and accountable to, donors, not the citizens. This is a substantive subversion of democracy as a system of deliberative governance.

In this respect, we can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible. In particular, it does not take into account the destructive, anti-democratic role of western-backed regime change and policy conditionality across the Global South during the era of flag independence. Even recently, these donor countries have disastrous human rights records when pushing for regime change in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Their support for military dictatorships, such as in Egypt, has been a central pillar of foreign policy for decades. And several of these donor countries worked hard to uphold apartheid in South Africa. They have no moral high ground to push for regime change, and little record to ensure that they could do so without causing more harm than good.

Moreover, external actors attempting to enforce their narrow view of democratisation in contexts of deeply polarised and competing visions of statehood, and in the midst of economic instability reinforced by already burdensome economic conditionalities, austerity and reforms, could well be a recipe for disaster. As a collective of intellectuals from across the Horn has emphasised, the people of Ethiopia in particular and the Horn in general must be at the forefront of developing a lasting peace. This would likely require a developmental commitment to supporting state capacity and deliberative governance, not undermining it through external interference and conditionalities.

This article was first published in CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 2, January 2021 Page 1

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Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.

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Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.

Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?

We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.

Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.

According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.

Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.

But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital

Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.

After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.

At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.

Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy

Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.

While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.

Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’

When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.

Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.

Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.

After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?

Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.

El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’

Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.

Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.

Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology

The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.

Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.

‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.

On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.

Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.

The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.

Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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