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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

17 min read. Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya
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The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.

Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago

For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.

Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.

The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.

According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”

The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.

The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.

Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.

These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.

When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.

Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.

These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.

The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.

Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya

 The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.

One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.

Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.

The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”

It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.

The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.

Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.

During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.

Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.

The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.

In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.

When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.

The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.

East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.

The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.

The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.

Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.

Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.

When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.

For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.

The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.

“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.

“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”

That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.

Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.

The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.

Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.

Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back

At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.

The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.

The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.

We all know what came next.

The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam

7 min read. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to cancel the tender for the construction of the Kimwarer dam but to allow for the Arror dam project to proceed at half the original cost has been viewed as a commendable action in the fight against graft. However, ALESSANDRO DA ROLD and LORENZO BAGNOLI suggest that there could more than meets the eye in what is known as the “dams scam”.

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The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam
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Since the 1970s, Kenya has been considered by convicted Italian criminals as a safe haven – a place to hide from justice. A recent tide has, however, occurred and now some of these criminals have been extradited after spending years enjoying the “good vibes” of the Kenyan sea shores, especially in their stronghold Malindi. It seems to be the end of an era marked by impunity as Kenyan authorities have started pursuing alleged felonies committed by Italians living in Kenya. The authorities are not just going after individuals, but companies as well.

On the 29th of July this year, the Milimani Chief Magistrate’s court in Nairobi allowed Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, to issue an arrest warrant for the Italian citizen Paolo Porcelli, the CEO of CMC (Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti) from Ravenna. Porcelli is charged with abuse of office, bid-rigging and misuse of public funds and could face jail time if he returns to Kenya. With him on the list of the indicted there is also the Italian joint venture between the Italian companies Itinera (Gavio Group) and CMC.

Porcelli declined to appear in court twice. “Porcelli is a fugitive. Despite being given the opportunity, he hasn’t presented himself in court for a second time,” DPP Special Prosecutor Taib Ali Taib told the court. “The Italians think they can break the law and get away with it contemptuously. They believe nothing will come out of it.  Don’t allow it, your honour”.

Porcelli’s lawyers have a different opinion on his judicial status in Kenya: they explained that the indictment has charges only against the Kenyan top officials involved in the case. “It is not clear, and it is not explained [by the investigators] why Mr Porcelli and the joint venture CMC-Itinera could be indicted for the only charges they have, namely cashing in the deposit on the construction as it was agreed upon the contracts.”

The arrest warrant issued to the Italian manager is the latest development in a long saga reported in the international media as the “dams scam”. This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya (CMC declines any involvement, claiming its innocence); the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The CMC’s long nightmare

CMC is a giant company in the field of construction globally. Wherever there is an important tender, the company is among the bidders. However, the glorious history of the company didn’t guarantee CMC’s success – construction is a competitive sector around the world. Sometimes to be awarded a tender, managers have to cross the line between lobbying and corruption.

In 2014, CMC signed a consultancy contract with Primo Greganti, a businessman and former politician who was arrested for alleged corruption: he would have helped some companies to be granted tenders for the construction of the site of Expo Milan 2015, the world food exhibition hosted in the Italian city.  The trial ended in a plea: in the Italian judiciary system, it means there is no verdict on the culpability of the defendant.

This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya; the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.

The company was effectively granted a six million euro tender for the recovery of the land of the so called “plate”, the foundation for the exhibition facilities. At the end of the work, the final cost skyrocketed to 30 million euros because of differences caused by unexpected changes in the project. These extra costs were heavily criticised by the Expo 2015 board members because there were no grounds for justifying them. But because time for the construction at the site was running out, nobody within the board could reject the CMC’s requests. CMC was also awarded the tender for the construction of one of the French pavilions at the exhibition.

In May 2018, the company issued a press release on its financial situation. Under “total turnover” it reads: “Decreased from €289.0 million to €258.2 million. In particular, construction revenue decreased from €278.0 million to €236.7 million, due to a €23.0 million reduction overseas and an €18.3 million reduction in Italy. A significant increase is expected from certain projects achieving full production stage and from the start of the new project secured in recent quarters.”

In another press release issued in November last year, the company stated: “The Board unanimously concurred that, in a market context that was already structurally problematic, for reasons that arose spontaneously without any predictability, linked to non-receipts of orders and/or the state of progress of work, the Company is facing a moment of cash-flow tension.”

The main “non-receipts of order” at that time was Anas, the Italian company partially controlled by the state and in charge of maintaining and managing Italian highways. With the Kenya dams tender, it seemed that the cash flow problem might be solved. Kenya and Nepal were at that point considered as possible anchors that could recover the company’s accounts. One of the primary goals of the managers, therefore, was to immediately cash in on the advances made on work yet to be carried out. And this is when new problems arose.

The masterminds targeted by the investigation

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta. Both projects were expected to provide water to the population of the Rift Valley. According to the 2017 annual budget of CMC, Kenya was among the list of countries that contributed to expand the productivity of the company. Two years later, the situation is totally different.

In Italy, the authors of this article have since March been investigating the Kenyan dams case for La Verità, a right wing newspaper. The newspaper discovered a contract signed in 2013 between CMC and Stansha Limited, the company associated with the Lamu West MP, Stanley Muthama who was arrested on 28th June for tax evasion. It is a consultancy contract granting Muthama a fixed fee of 3 per cent in case CMC signs a contract with local development authorities in Kenya.

CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In that case, it was the Itare dam, another project to supply water in the Rift Valley, which apparently is not included in the current investigation. The investigation went silent until 22nd July when 28 other people were arrested on a different charge: international corruption. Among them was the Italian CEO, Paolo Porcelli, and Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich. The Italian prosecutor Lucia Lotti is handling the case in Rome, with the option to file a new investigation in Italy as well.

As is everything in Kenya now, this case could be framed as the battle between Uhuru and his number 2 in the 2022 election campaign, William Ruto. It has been suggested that Ruto could be using the Italian company for political support. Ruto’s daughter, June Chepchirchir, holds a senior position as the second counselor at the Kenyan embassy in Rome, Italy.

A key moment in diplomatic relations

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was abducted on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County. But since then there has been no substantial information on her situation, apart from the trial of Gababa Wariu and Moses Lwari Chende, who confessed to aiding Romano’s abduction. But the investigation so far has not resulted in finding her.

In Italy the absence of updates on Silvia Romano’s health conditions are considered very alarming. At the same time, there is a new ongoing effort in Italy to have Romano released. The Kenyan head of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and Italian prosecutors in Rome are discussing a common strategy on the issue. If no positive results are achieved, the predictable outcome could be the cooling down of business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in the initial stages.

The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was kidnapped on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County.

While Italy is grappling with the dams scandal and the search for Silvia Romano, France is trying to find a foothold in East Africa by signing new contracts with the Kenyan government. Rivalry in bilateral relationships in Africa is always a hot issue within the European Union (EU) member states, who have been unable to come up with a single comprehensive strategy for how EU member states should deal with African governments.

A possible read on the dams case is that William Ruto was the guarantor for the Italians and he can’t assure them anymore because he is currently dealing with bigger challenges related to his re-election campaign, which has been marred by corruption scandals implicating individuals from his political camp.

 

Editorial note:

For additional information on the Arrow and Kimwarer Dams saga see links below.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Kimwarer Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/39/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture signed on 5th April 2017 for works on the Kimwarer Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Kimwarer.

Contract Agreement between KVDA and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture for Arror Dam
A contract agreement (KVDA/RPF/36/2014-15) between Kerio Valley Development Authority and CMC di Ravenna – Itinera Joint Venture signed on 5th April 2017 for works on the Arror Multipurpose Dam Development Project on River Arror.

A consultancy agreement between C.M.C. di Ravenna South Africa Branch and Stansha Limited (a company registered in Kenya) for the general purposes to provide consultancy services for the Itare Dam and Ruiru II Dam project under Athi Water Service Board.

DPP’s press statement on investigations concerning KVDA and Rift Valley Water Services Board
Following complaints to the Government of Kenya has been exposed to the loss of billions of shillings arising out of manipulation of the tendering process of several dam projects including the Arrow dam, Kimwarer dam, Itare dam, Embobut multi-purpose dam, Lower Turkwell irrigation scheme et.al the DPP’s office constituted a team of prosecutors to ensure the investigations of the aforementioned projects were carried out.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe

8 min read. Admired by Pan-Africanists for his anti-imperialist rhetoric but loathed at home for his authoritarian tendencies, Robert Mugabe was a man full of contradictions. TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA reflects on the controversial life of Zimbabwe’s longest-serving leader.

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Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe
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Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for nearly four decades. died on the 6th of September 2019 in a hospital in Singapore. Mugabe’s death, like his life, has generated animated debate, the very first irony being that after nearly four decades in office he died in a foreign hospital. Some have praised Mugabe for being a “liberation icon”, and a “great Pan-Africanist”. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called him “a fellow combatant”. Others have charged Mugabe with being a “tyrant” who collapsed his country and fanned “genocidal” ethnic divisions.

However, in order to fully understand this complex character, we have to put Mugabe into a broader historical purview. Mugabe was educated by Jesuit Catholics. Initially trained as a teacher, he would remain deeply religious his entire life. It was in the maelstrom of liberation contests that Mugabe’s oratory skills came to the fore and he became the target of the vicious Rhodesian state that threw him and other nationalists, into detention.

Mugabe used his time in jail to get qualifications in law and economics. With his release from the Rhodesian jail, after almost eleven years, he headed straight to the liberation war front by escaping the country and crossing into Mozambique. There he became the voice on Radio Zimbabwe, and fronted media engagements. His star was shining as he became the forceful voice leading liberation delegations first at the failed Geneva Conference of 1976 and then at the Lancaster House settlement in 1979 in London.

When Mugabe was prime minister and then president, there were geopolitical factors that worked against the success of Zimbabwe. South of the Limpopo, apartheid South Africa destabilised the whole region. Importantly, the Rhodesian political economy was constructed for a few white settlers and the black majority government that Mugabe led had inherited an economy that was stable but very parochial.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience. Young men labelled “dissidents” were tortured, murdered in cold blood, and buried in mass graves. The violence was so macabre it brought nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to near tears. He escaped to London and wrote The Story of My Life (1984). This was only settled in Mugabe’s favour when they signed the Unity Agreement of 1987.

That sordid part of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history provided a script into the 1990s and 2000s. But what most political biographers of Zimbabwe leave out is that the Rhodesian settler-state inherited by the nationalist movement was a war machinery built to defend white settler interests. Ken Flower, who was the first director of the vicious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), wrote about the “exploits” of the white-security state apparatus in a book titled Serving Secretly. The 1980 Lancaster House Constitution at Zimbabwe’s independence left this state-security apparatus unreformed and years later Mugabe would boast that “he had degrees in violence” and that the “gun was mightier than the pen”.

The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience.

The ruling political class dealt with opponents ruthlessly and Mugabe’s rise and demise as leader was tightly linked to the military. Professor Jonathan Moyo argued that Mugabe was the victim of Zimbabwe’s “militarists”’. It was a military declaration in 1975 called the Mgagao Declaration that put Mugabe at the apex of the liberation movement in Mozambique. It was the military that kept him in power and that took him out of power via the putsch of November 2017. He was replaced with a man chosen by the military – Emerson Mnangagwa aka the crocodile, a name bequeathed to him because of his ruthlessness.

Scattered ideological orientations

Mugabe blundered from one political ideology to another but at the core of the project was power retention at any cost. In the 1970s Mugabe preached socialism and dabbled in some incoherent half-understood Marxist-Leninism. But when young guerillas attempted to build a Marxist political movement, they were thwarted and thrown into prison.

One young military commander from then, Wilfred Mhanda, wrote about the experience in his memoir Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (20011 – Weaver Press). In the early 1980s, Mugabe articulated variant forms of socialism and Marxism but only to court allies, given the global geopolitical contests of the Cold War era. The ZANU-PF manifestos of the 1980s discussed socialism in theory but there was no attempt to build a socialist economy and by the end of the 1980s any pretence to building socialism was abandoned – the road to socialism was closed off. In another memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006), Fay Chung would state that Mugabe was a devoted Roman Catholic and it’s possible that this closed off any concrete inclination towards Marxism or Maoism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements. The crisis of falling incomes, unemployment, inflation, adventure into the DRC war and the increased debt levels knocked the economy down. This was made more acute by the seizure of white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the agriculture sector.

Mugabe then veered into a radical indigenisation programme. To keep all these threads from exploding, he entrenched a political system of shredding the Constitution and making himself an imperial, almost feudal-aristocratic president. Zimbabweans mass migrated into the region and a passport, to escape anywhere, became a prized possession in a country that has become what Dambudzo Marechera called “The House of Hunger”.

The 2017 coup and the militarists

When Zimbabwe’s generals staged a coup in 2017, they pointed out that ZANU-PF was corrupt and needed to be rescued from itself. The whirlwind that consumed Mugabe was in the seeds that he had sown. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 1999, he had allowed the chief of defence forces to say “the presidency was a straightjacket” and in 2008 he had allowed the military to take over the running of the election under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a relic of the Rhodesian military state.

The political nose that Mugabe had used to strangle the opposition and to brutalise civil society into subjugation was now turned on his neck. Professor Jonathan Moyo, now in exile, has argued that Mugabe was a mere “spokesperson” of the military system that harbours, in his words, the “repugnant ideology” that the “gun commands politics”. To claim that Mugabe, after almost half a century at the helm of the nationalist movement, was a mere “mouth” of the military is the grandest of revisionism.

In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements.

But Mugabe also went beyond violence as a means of political rule. Using his oratory skills, he presented himself as a Pan-African liberation fighter, and often riled against imperialism and stirred the ideological support of nationalist movements. In Zimbabwe, the political system became dominated by what Professor Ranger called “patriotic history”. In a way the system of political rule was a complex combination of authoritarianism, ideological narrative and patronage networks. Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman have pointed out more clearly that “authoritarian regimes rely on ideas, not just guns”:

“The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures where state resources are cascaded down chains of patron-client links. In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of communities who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.” (Mail and Guardian, 6 November 2019)

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history. Mugabe compared the nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to “a snake whose head must be crushed”.

In the 1990s, when his former comrade Edgar Tekere opposed the “one-party state”, he was thrown out of the party and his supporters were accusing of “courting death”. Years after that the famed guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first army general, died in a suspicious fire. Rex Nhongo was suspected of first supporting Simba Makoni and then his wife Joyce Mujuru to challenge Mugabe. A few years later, Emerson Mnangagwa was kicked out as Mugabe played one political faction against the other in Machiavellian style. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders were charged of “subversion”. (Morgan Tsvangirai has written about his trials and tribulations is his memoir At the Deep End.)

When Mugabe was president, the opulence of his and his family’s lifestyle was on display at their home called “The Blue Roof”. Nepotism and cronyism were rife. Those networked with the Mugabes worked their way into economy. In Mazowe, just outside Harare, poor farmers who had been allocated land were kicked out and some were only saved by High Court orders. Nephews, nieces, uncles, children and the president’s immediate family amassed vast amounts of wealth. Mining claims, multiple farms, fuel cartels and contracts with the government is how this wealth was amassed. One of Mugabe’s nephews boasted “if you want to be rich join ZANU PF”. Public enterprises were looted with reckless abandon. Before being deposed, the Mugabes were going to build a Robert Mugabe University to the tune of US$1billion. Even in death Mugabe will be buried in a mausoleum possibility costing millions.

Of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela 

Robert Mugabe left no condensed publication of his thoughts, which means his intellectual footprint is only found in speeches and scattered interviews. For a president whose education varied from law, economics and education, this is rather disappointing.

In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history.

It was at continental and global forums that Mugabe attracted the affinity of Black Africa, and where he mesmerised the Global Pan-African movements and other social and political forces. He went to United Nations General Assembly meetings religiously. There he made scathing comments about racism, demanded equality at the UN Security Council, railed against economic exploitation of Africa and raised his voice to throw spears at imperialism. An articulate black president from a small former African colony who repossessed land, who was placed under sanctions, and who made stinging statements against inequitable global power relations is what the Pan-Africanist movement was lacking and some sections praised Mugabe for this.

Compared to the other towering intellectuals, theorists and revolutionaries of Pan-Africanism, Robert Mugabe’s legacy withers. Kwame Nkrumah was a thinker and an intellectual who penned treatises that dealt with the African condition. Mwalimu Nyerere was a nation-state builder who forged the disparate social groups of Tanzania into a cohesive stable polity and who retired into a modest life. Nelson Mandela pulled the strands of a nation traumatised by the violence of apartheid into a “Rainbow Nation”. Having had a “long walk to freedom”, Nelson Mandela subjected the country to constitutional democracy. Thomas Sankara forged an everlasting revolutionary legacy. He placed women at the centre of politics and development, tackled illiteracy, and invested in health. The young captain lived a modest life, shunned decadent opulence and boldly set into motion the belief that the “future can be invented”.

Broad strokes of history

They say history is written in broad strokes. Mugabe’s anti-colonial credentials will shine; he stayed in prison for over a decade, the radical land repossession will also burn bright but this will be blighted by the brutality, the ruthlessness, the corruption and the repugnant politics of polarity authored by Mugabe. Of Mugabe’s politics, the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem had this to say:

“Zimbabwe and President Mugabe are a situation we cannot in all good conscience continue to pussyfoot about anymore. It is indefensible that one man, no matter his contribution to the country, should be holding the people to ransom…Mugabe is no longer the part of the problem of Zimbabwe: he is now the problem (Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards, 2010)

Mugabe built a surveillance state of Stalinist proportions that was littered with impunity, arrogance of power, extrajudicial killings, a rapacious propaganda system, and a personality cult that exacted worship and fear from the man and woman on the street. The long motorcade, ambulance in tow, imported cavalcade of cars, gun-toting soldiers, loud police sirens, police motorbikes, traffic cleared from the road and armoured cars that ferried Mugabe have died down. The putsch of 2017 ushered in the country’s militarists who remain in control of a vicious perpetuum mobile ­­– a kleptocratic military class that has melted away any respect for the constitutional edicts of the country.

We from Zimbabwe will remember Mugabe for a dream that could have been possible but instead was collapsed into what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu called “grotesque nationalism”.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law

8 min read. A law to allow the seizure of white-owned land could have a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences could be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors in South Africa.

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Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law
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Some time has passed since South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s highly controversial announcement of a new land reform law that would allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Accused by some of racism, and by others of populism, the president is trying to address the pressing requests of the vast majority of blacks who still feel oppressed after white minority rule ended in 1994. According to a recently released parliamentary media statement, this bold move should fix “the historical wrongs caused by arbitrary dispossession of land, and in so doing ensure equitable access to land and further empower the majority of South Africans to be productive participants in ownership, food security, and agricultural reform programmes.”

Apparently, in a country where the white minority account for just over 9 per cent of the population but which owns over 70 per cent of the land, such a law seems to be a fair way to balance the scales of social justice. However, on the other side of the barricade, there are thousands of white Afrikaners descended from Europeans who colonised South Africa who claim that they worked hard to obtain that land. These people are human beings as well, and many of them are only paying the price of a segregation regime imposed by their fathers and grandfathers.

This bitter battle between these two sides is rooted in apartheid, a terrible word that does more than just bring back bad memories. It is an ugly concept that speaks to us of racial segregation, and inhumane treatment. And even if now the faces (and colours) of the protagonists may have swapped, the dehumanising cruelty behind it has probably not.

The controversial amendment to section 25 of the Constitution

To date, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s leading political party since the end of apartheid, has redistributed land following a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In a nutshell, the government buys white-owned farms and then redistributes them to black farmers. The idea was to return at least 30 per cent of the land that was expropriated from black farmers to their legitimate owners by 2014. However, today less than 10 per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed. Exponents of the South African Homeless People’s Association claim that the “willing seller, willing buyer” model only widened the social divide, bringing more poverty to the masses.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

This law was supported by a small radical party led by Julius Malema, the newly-created Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, not all the white owners got their land by means of coercion during the previous century. Many claim they legitimately bought it through the hard work of their ancestors and defined this law as grossly immoral and inhumane. Some threatened to wage war to defend their farms, bringing back the sad memories of the recent land expropriation policies enforced in Zimbabwe. Some other “softer” reforms have been proposed, such as paying “just and equitable” compensation that is well below market price to landowners, or banning foreigners from buying agricultural lands.

Racism: the legacy of a century of apartheid in South Africa

Unlike other countries where racism is a tremendous plague that crawls hidden in the very fabric of society, in South Africa racism and discrimination against blacks were explicit laws. During the last century, European colonialists simply institutionalised them as part of the nation’s legal infrastructure. Similar to the racial laws that forced Jews to lose their jobs just because of their heritage, during apartheid in South Africa, a series of laws were put in place to enforce white dominance. It was the Parliament itself that decided that black people had to be inferior human beings and had, therefore, limited access to rights.

In 1913, the South African’s colonialist administration passed the Natives Land Act, a law which stripped nearly all black people of their right to own land. Although 72 per cent of the population consisted of black people, this law limited land ownership among blacks to a mere 8 per cent of the country. White South Africans literally gave land to themselves, a capital offence that created a terrible precedent as many black people were forcefully evicted from their farms.

The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.

Other laws, such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 and the Group Areas Development Act of 1955, further reinforced these policies of segregation. Blacks were forced into unproductive land and underdeveloped regions, which excluded them from amenities such as parks, schools, and hospitals that only whites could access. Blacks could not obtain formal training for skilled jobs, which denied them the right to study, and barred them from equal employment and development opportunities. Together with many other racial laws, apartheid drove the black community into poverty, prevented them from expressing their opinions freely, and stripped them of their properties.

When the apartheid formally saw its end in 1994, many who suffered from these disparities imposed by this regime rejoiced, hoping for reforms that would bring back some justice in their lives. However, as often happens in politics, many of these promises of equity and equality quickly turned into empty words and vain declarations. The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget. Racial inequalities persist in many sectors, including in the mining and industrial sectors, which constitute the backbone of the nation’s economy. The majority of the most profitable companies remain controlled and managed by whites, and the whole labour market still suffers from substantial polarisation.

Growing inequalities

The snowball effect of nearly 400 years of colonialism left the black community in dire poverty, ripe with nearly-illiterate individuals who had no chances to become competitive in the upcoming century of globalisation. According to the World Bank, 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2017, the unemployment rate was still high and growing at 27 per cent, with many people lacking tangible prospects for a better life. Race still has a tremendous impact on an individual’s chances of finding a job, as well as on the wages received once employed. A bitter divide between white Afrikaners and black people has kept growing and has become the core of all social or political debate in this tormented country.

Despite the country’s huge potential for growth, the economy kept stagnating during the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Characterised by rampant corruption and continuous scandals, Zuma’s administration came under pressure as the masses started asking for policies that would address unemployment, disparities, and poverty.

The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget.

Eventually, after an extremely unpopular cabinet reshuffle, Zuma was forced to resign and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. The new president cracked down on corruption and kicked out many inept ministers while Zuma was indicted for money laundering and racketeering. However, the damage that Zuma inflicted to the party’s credibility was so severe that it had to rely on radical parties such as the EFF to gain some traction.

The ANC lost so many voters in the 2016 local elections that the 2019 ones may be in jeopardy. Some argue that Ramaphosa is simply pushing the Land Expropriation Act as a populist ploy aimed at recovering a significant portion of the voters’ trust. The nation’s poor, in fact, make up the majority of the electorate, and addressing their plight will certainly provide him with the political stability his government needs so much.

The human, social, and economic consequences

ANC’s and EFF’s new land reform tastes like nothing but a bloody policy of revenge inspired by populism and driven by a desperate need to win the elections. But blood always calls for blood, and may easily throw South Africa into a new civil war, no matter how justified this law may seem. The French Revolution, the recent Zimbabwe land expropriation laws, and even the Communist Revolution all teach us a fundamental lesson – that legislation that allows a state to violate property rights only creates new privileged elites rather than equalising the social fabric.

A law to allow the seizure of land has a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences can be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors as well, and neighbouring Zimbabwe is a prime example. Just like Venezuela, another country where land was redistributed from the rich to the poor, today Zimbabwe needs to import nearly all the food it needs rather than producing most of it, as it did 20 years ago.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture unless they have access to the latest methods and technologies. Yet, once again, has the government thought and planned a strategy to provide these future landowners with the necessary means to survive in such a harshly competitive environment? Worst case scenario: this may lead to large-scale deforestation by owners who will start selling their wood cheaply to foreign companies – a process that has already devastated Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

However, we may have a very different scenario – one where land is handed down to a smaller amount of black people who will quickly become rich at the expenses of others. A new handful of privileged individuals who will simply substitute former white owners with other newer sons and daughters of uncontrolled capitalism. Their faces may change, but the inequality will bring the country to its knees in the same exact way. Whether their skin tone is darker won’t make them any better than their colonialist predecessors, nor will make the whole act of seizing land be more just or justifiable by any means.

On top of all that, a scenario of harsh social tensions and violent clashes is a bomb that is about to explode. Following some cases of brutal and murderous attacks of white farmer that got the attention of the media, some Afrikaners called out for international aid, claiming there was a “white genocide” going on. And while smart people may easily understand that the numbers are no way as high as to justify the choice of this vastly exaggerated terminology, this alarmist rhetoric is bound to have serious global consequences.

Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture…

In an era where the rise of neo-fascism, fake news, gross misinformation, and distorted nationalisms represent a serious threat to all societies, this may be a spark that would ignite an uncontrollable chain reaction. Black people around the world are often unjustly identified as enemies by organisations and parties who willfully manipulate information. Knowing there’s a country where a murderous government justifies their violent persecution will only fuel a hate that is certainly more detrimental than beneficial to the black cause.

Conclusion

History cannot be corrected by doing the wrong thing, and the ANC’s policy means nothing but repeating the same mistake over and over again. South Africans deserve having the right to cultivate their lands once again, they deserve to live in a fair country, they deserve peace. It is totally understandable that poverty must be fought with all means, and that the current situation is all but just or fair.

But enforcing the rights of black people with violence won’t restore the justice and equality this country so desperately needs. It will only open a gaping wound across the nation that will widen the divide even more. It may reach the point of breaking any bridge built so far between all those human beings whose sole difference is the colour of their skin and the heredity of their ancestors.

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