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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins

16 min read.

In this final part of a three-part series, PAUL GOLDSMITH traces the rise and fall of the lowland-coastal regions of East Africa and the Horn and examines why water management in these regions exemplifies the imbalance between the centre and the periphery. He argues that the Kenyan government’s failure to adopt indigenous knowledge and technological innovations has resulted in white elephant projects that have done little to solve the country’s water crisis.

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OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: The secret life of ASAL river basins
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Major river systems are intrinsic to the long economic histories of the regions they transect. However, although the Tana River basin covers 20 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, the river itself, in terms of water volume and vital economic functions, is not the kind of waterway one associates with the world’s famous rivers. This, however, does not diminish the Tana River’s historical importance, which is critical to understanding the larger background against which the High Grand Falls Dam project is being framed.

Insofar as the three major rivers spanning the eastern highland-lowland gradient share the same highland water catchments and are also linked within the Vision 2030 policy framework, the case of the Tana cannot be examined in isolation from the Athi-Galana and Waso Nyiro North systems. The Athi-Galana takes a route similar to the Tana, skirting the contours of Kenya’s eastern highland-lowland gradient, but is often only a trickle by the time it reaches Malindi. The flow has been further reduced following the establishment of the one-million-acre Galana irrigation scheme bordering Tsavo East National Park. For people depending on Malindi’s tourism sector, this is a positive development as the drop in volume reduces the siltation of local beaches, a problem that contributed to the rise of Watamu as an alternative beach holiday destination. Before the scheme started, tourism sector stakeholders were advocating a plan to reroute the river to an outlet north of Mambrui.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river, judging by the large watercourses like the Malgis laga (Swahili for dry watercourse) descending from the highland areas of Samburu and Marsabit that fed into it and the channels it carved out north of Magogoni in Lamu. Both Magogoni and Dodori, both of which are next to the site of a proposed coal-powered plant, are much larger than the channel where the present-day Tana River meets the sea. This may also be due to the fact that some of the lower Tana’s waters disappear into the lakes and wetlands of the Tana Delta. The Delta is a uniquely varied ecosystem that supports a wide variety of habitats, including riverine forest, grassland, woodland, bushland, lakes, mangroves, dunes, beaches, estuaries and coastal waters.

The historical evidence indicates that most of the seasonal streams of northern Kenya and the coastal hinterland were permanent rivers before Africa’s shift to the drier climatic regime that occurred around the middle of the 13th century. The Waso Nyiro was once this region’s mightiest river…

The Waso Nyiro now terminates at the Lorian swamp near Modo Gashe, but this too has changed over the past three decades. Its water often fails to reach Lorian due to the expansion of commercial farms and small-scale irrigation upstream. During most years, it often ends at a small outpost called Gotu; during extended droughts the flow is so reduced that animals in Samburu, Shaba, and Buffalo Springs reserves upstream can be seen drinking from puddles along its banks. The 1000-kilometre-long Tana River’s greatest attribute, against this backdrop, may be that it continues as a permanent watercourse transecting a long stretch of semi-arid lowlands before reaching the coast.

The rise and fall of coastal settlements 

The current condition of the three rivers linking Kenya’s eastern gradient to the Indian Ocean and the current focus on exploiting them close to their highland sources distract both from their important role historically and equally critical contribution to the livelihoods of the diverse communities downstream.

A thousand years ago, the region these rivers bisect were connected to the Shungwaya economy, whose main hub was located at Bur Gao, now a small town across the Kenya-Somalia border. Although colonial historians described Shungwaya as a kingdom, later work established that it was actually a trade network that linked the early Swahili city-states to the African interior as far as Lake Turkana.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

The volume of water these rivers carried was less important than their role as conveyors of people and their domestic animals, and trade. The Shungwaya economy catalysed the shift of coastal settlements to a maritime culture around a thousand years ago, when they became part of the growing Western Indian Ocean economy. All of this contributed to the process of creative syntheses giving rise to the Swahili language and culture, a distinctively African urban society characterised by its strong tradition of co-evolutionary interaction.

The decline of Shungwaya, attributed to the climatic shift mentioned above, coincided with the 13th century rise of the Ajuran Sultanate, a centralised state that exploited the Juba and Shebelle rivers to develop Africa’s only case of a hydraulic empire. The Ajuran presided over extensive irrigation works and constructed an extensive system of wells and cisterns that allowed them to control their nomadic Somali and Orma neighbours and a swathe of territory extending across much of southern Somalia to eastern Ethiopia. The Sultanate, whose capital was located at Afgoye, collapsed during the 17th century, but the system of agricultural production and taxation remained in place until the 19th century.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The wealth and reputation accompanying the growth of coastal settlements arising across the eastern Africa littoral between Mogadishu in the north and the Rovuma River in the south attracted the interest of the Chinese. The forty-ship fleets of large vessels commanded by the famous Admiral Zheng He, who led two expeditions between 1417 and 1422 to the region the Arabs dubbed the Land of Zinj, was significant even by today’s standards.

The large volume of agricultural produce and other commodities supported the rise of Swahili port towns like Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa on the Benadir coast. The inland networks that expanded through the influence of Shungwaya and the Ajuran Sultanate funneled a range of products to coastal towns that were exported to metropolitan hubs like Baghdad and Cairo; before long the commodities began reaching India, and eventually found their way to Venice and Lisbon. The codification of mercantile capitalism under Islam was an important enabling factor in both cases.

The rivers also played a role in the migrations of the proto-Meru, who abandoned their settlement on Manda Island following the onset of Portuguese hegemony. Their migration up the Tana covering several generations, and the interactions en route and after their crossing of the Tana into what is now Tharaka, underpinned their own process of creative syntheses, leading to the development of what is arguably Africa’s most sophisticated agro-permaculture system based on a multigenerational concept of environmental resource management that predated the Western embrace of sustainability by over two hundred years.

In his insightful 1989 book, Identities on the Move, Gunter Schlee documents how similar dynamics influenced pastoralist clans and niche adaptations in northern Kenya. Herders in the Lake Turkana area established contacts with the coast centuries ago, and following a large environmental calamity overtaking present-day Marsabit County over five hundred years ago, a number of clans sought refuge on the coast. This interaction left an imprint on the indigenous orientation of coastal Islam, which in turn is reflected in the religious practices of the Gabra and Rendille, who integrated the five daily Islamic prayer cycle into their own monotheistic belief system. There are three Bajuni clans of northern Kenya origin, and the Bajuni sorio purification ritual is a variation of the Rendille ceremony known by the same name, even though there has been no contact between the two communities for several hundred years. By the same measure, when Meru miraa traders began showing up in Lamu after independence, the Bajuni welcomed them as watu wa Pwani in recognition of their coastal origins.

The false Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy

The details of these historical interactions preserved in the traditions of these communities are indicative of the dynamic qualities of the cultural ecologies and pre-colonial political economy that developed in the river basins linking the coast to the mainland. The coast-mainland divide instilled during the colonial interlude is a false dichotomy in contrast, and these examples are also cited in order to posit that there is an alternative developmental model to the top-down planning imported by the colonial state.

The Tana River inscribes a long arc defining the border separating modern Kenya from the vast lowland expanses of “Kenya B” (a terminology used by the inhabitants living north of the river to describe themselves when making a distinction between them and “Kenya A” inhabitants south of the river). The region’s diverse cultural groups formed an economic mosaic that was beginning to enter a phase of proto-state formation during the late pre-colonial era. Similar developments were beginning to gather speed across much of what is modern day Kenya during the latter half of the 19th century. Imperial intervention short-circuited these processes, and with far-reaching ramifications for the inhabitants of Kenya B.

In the case of the coast and the lower Tana River hinterland, the unremarkable village of Kipini is emblematic of the lower Tana hinterland’s decline following the destruction of the Witu Sultanate and its satellite settlements in 1895 by a British expeditionary force. The population living within Witu’s fortified town walls was more than 50,000 at the time. The prosperous Sultanate welcomed slaves running away from the plantations run by the pro-Busaidi Lamu elite, and minted its own currency and postage stamps.

The irony of the Sultanate’s fall is that its demolition was triggered by the death of German loggers during an altercation that broke out after they racially abused their Swahili co-workers. The British were not happy that Witu had engaged their imperial competitors, but the killing of Europeans was a precedent they could not allow to go unpunished. Eliminating the Witu Sultanate solved two problems: it eliminated opposition to their imperial intrusion, while the agricultural collapse that followed allowed the British to annex the Lamu mainland as Crown Land.

The reduction of Witu’s population to just a few thousand people a century after its destruction is indicative of the malaise that spread across the larger region following the imposition of colonial rule. Decades of stasis became the basis for the region’s post-colonial marginalisation and social exclusion.

A similar trend overtook the ecologically and historically similar Juba River basin to the north in Somalia, with the exception of the commercial banana production that became Somalia’s only agricultural export industry. While traditional pastoralism dominated the large expanse between the Tana River and northern Somalia, these island ecologies contributed to the symbiotic relationships sustaining the livestock economy.

Prioritising dam building and state irrigation schemes over the livelihoods of communities long present in the region is a variation on the mono-culture developmental model Syad Barre attempted to implement in Somalia’s Juba River basin. Michael Maren elucidated the resulting conflicts in his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, and things went further downhill after its publication in 1997.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record. It manifests in the problematic record of large-scale projects and other planned interventions across the region. The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

There are indications that the larger region bordering the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands is recovering its mojo. However, many of the problems and historical injustices addressed by Kenya’s new constitution could have been avoided if the policy prioritising investment in high potential areas had been extended to the high potential economic sectors in Kenya’s neglected regions. But they were not, and if the Vision 2030 Big Water policy dominates the template for the area falling north of the Tana River, it may turn out to be a case of the worst is yet to come.

The current highland-lowland division symbolised by the Kenya A-Kenya B dichotomy is an anomaly in regards to the socio-economic dynamics illuminating the historical record…The simple fact of the matter is that the larger lowland-coastal economic landscape discussed here once attracted settlers and refugees from across the seas rather than being an incubator for famines, clan warfare, and political turbulence. This explains one observer’s speculations that life in southern Somalia may have better four hundred years ago than it is now.

We can only imagine the counterfactual scenarios that may have occurred if the local societies were in a position to manage the transition on their own terms.

Hydraulic states and rain-based social organisation

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water. Hydraulic states gave rise to impressive public works and statuaries that remain up to this time, and transformed kings into demi-gods and pharaohs.

OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Kenya’s misguided Big Water policy

Read also: OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Why the High Grand Falls Dam project is a bad idea

The hydraulic state is best understood as an ideal type based on environmental determinism. Debates generated by the concept led critics to argue that the hydraulic empires of antiquity were based on pre-existing central political organisation that enabled the rulers to expand their power through irrigation and water infrastructure. Marx and Engels’ Asiatic Mode of Production is another variation on the theme that emphasises a rigid and impersonal state’s monopoly of land ownership, political and military power, or control over irrigation systems.

Water has been used as a mechanism of control since the rise of the earliest state systems. In a book called Oriental Despotism, Karl August Wittfogel developed the concept of hydraulic empires, which were expansionary states that flourished in the ancient world. Hydraulic states emerged in ancient Mespotamia, the Indus Valley, pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, and Egypt. These states’ power was based on their control of water.

Regardless of the order of events, domination through the control of water is a recurring idea that has resurfaced in science fiction like the Dune series and post-Apocalypse scenarios like Mad Max: Fury Road and contributes to the growing genre of eco-disaster films and other works of fiction.

Areas dependent on rain, in contrast to these examples, tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities. Range scientists have associated the problem of unpredictable rainfall and high levels of uncertainty with the opportunistic exploitation of natural resources—a proclivity that comes with an obligation to share and redistribute. While this opportunism is embedded in pastoralist societies, variations on the same “make hay while the sun is shining” meme, is also observable among their neighbours, and in discussions with civil servants and politicians.

Economies conditioned by rainfall dominated across most of eastern Africa and the Horn, the exception being the secondary states represented by the intra-lacustrine kingdoms. The configuration of small states in present-day Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi were the product of agro-pastoralist syntheses that, consistent with our discussion, were enabled by stable environmental conditions and plentiful water.

Areas dependent on rain..tended to give rise to decentralised social structures based on clans, segmentary lineages, age-set organisation, local councils, and other horizontal structures. This kind of organisation supported mobility, resilience, and the sharing of risk-spreading and coping strategies across diverse communities.

Such variations highlight the influence of environmental forces and shared social orientations on regional political economies. Hard-nosed planners and developmental experts will dismiss the narrative presented here as a historical fairy tale with no relevance for the present. There are, however, multiple examples of how the forces of nature and historical pathways reassert themselves during periods of system transitions, and there are multiple signs from all over the region that the region’s periphery is entering a phase transition that will render many of their plans and projects irrelevant.

Gunnar Myrdal released his influential book, Economic Theory and Under-developed Regions, around the same time Wittfogel published Oriental Despotism. In his analysis, the same elements of resource control central to hydraulic empire also guided Europe’s colonisation of much of the global South. Colonies were resource-rich areas located on the periphery, and the imperial project focused on the extraction and control of these resources. This was accomplished through a type of agro-managerial despotism that parallels the example of hydraulic empires.

The post-colonial states in this part of the world have become vehicles for a maladaptive combination of the opportunism embedded in rain-fed systems and the rigidity of hydraulic states. Kenya’s water management is symptomatic of the larger imbalance between the center and the periphery. This helps explain the militarisation of northern Kenya and why the Tana Delta became one of the primary incubators for the Mombasa Republican Council’s secessionist agenda.

Following the present state-based pathway is likely to lead to more of the same – not a good idea when alternatives exist.

Post-colonial water hangover

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

The designation of water as a basic human right guaranteed by Article 43(1) of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution replaced that ambitious technocratic objective with a lofty principle but one that will not be attained because the operationalisation of water rights is a function of four factors: availability of the resource; investment in delivery and distribution systems; technological innovation; and the policy and planning process.

During the late 1970s, the Government of Kenya announced that it was committed to delivering potable water to every Kenyan household by the year 2000. This goal proved elusive and the target date passed without comment or controversy. The task appeared simpler than it actually was, and acknowledgement of this now comes with the awareness that management of water from above can also be a source of disease, death, and regime change.

Nailing the process should be the easy part, but this has not been the case as the first two installments of this series documented. Lessons learned for developing water resources cited in one USAID case study highlight the importance of exposing decision makers to alternative institutional arrangements and successful models of service delivery involving local stakeholders, embedding frameworks for mediating conflicts, and devolving management to local institutions.

The Kenya government’s US$25-billion LAPSSET corridor scheme, whose objectives include the transformation of the lower Tana River basin, is a product of the exact opposite mentality. The problem is not the roads and the infrastructure, but the hegemonic policies that have long treated the larger region as an unproductive expanse requiring developmental planning from both without and above.

The High Grand Falls Dams project on the Tana River reinforces this assumption by minimising the import of the project’s impact on the communities downstream, and failing to acknowledge the value of livelihood strategies fine-tuned to the region’s environmental and infrastructural conditions. The lack of consultation with minority communities appears to be standard procedure, even for non-controversial projects, like the expansion of geothermal electricity generation at Ol Karia.

Unlike electricity, water cannot be generated, only conserved. In the case of Kenya, the water is there. Developing the delivery and distribution infrastructure and maintenance is the hard part. Constructing local dams where appropriate is obviously an important option; to this end, the government identified a number of Arid and Semi Arid (ASAL) sites for water storage development.

Marsabit is an important highland island in the middle of a large desert. Residents suffer from protracted water shortages aggravated by degradation of the mountain’s cloud forest. The Badassa Dam was initiated in 2009 to alleviate the problem. It is an example of a worthy project that enjoyed the full support of the local community, especially after some 1,000 goats keeled over and died after drinking water from an old well. Like in the recent case where eleven rhinos died after being moved to the Tsavo, the problem was due to seasonally high concentrations of minerals, according to subsequent analyses. The dam became another case study of how badly things can go wrong.

Construction of the Badassa Dam, which is designed to hold 5 million cubic metres of water, stalled in 2011. Design flaws and the shoddy work of the government-appointed contractor led to a court case in 2013. Contrary to the ruling of one of several court cases, the wealthy Marsabit businessman who filed the suit ended up taking over the project. Things went badly again, resulting in major losses for the new contractor, who was forced to sell property in Nairobi to survive after being forced to go into hiding. In another stroke of irony reminiscent of the Tana River’s shift away from the Hola Irrigation Scheme, The Standard reported in 2014 that Badassa Dam’s source of water had dried up.

These finance-draining dam stories continue to pile up across the country. The Crocodile Jaws Dam in Isiolo presents another variation on the same theme. There’s no need to describe it – just watch the Oscar-winning animated film Rango. The movie shares the same water-grabbing plot line – the diversion of precious water away from the town to support the big money resort, or the LAPSSET tourist city in this case, but probably without the Hollywood-style ending.

Meanwhile, the flooding of the towns next to the Tana River earlier this year was not due to the heavy rains, but due to the siltation of the Masinga dam that has proceeded at a rate six times the level anticipated when the dam was built.

Smart technology and precision agriculture

The problem remains. A 2017 study reports the proportion of Kenyans with access to clean water is declining, in part due to population growth outstripping the government’s capacity to provide. This highlights the array of small-scale water catchment solutions now taking root in places like Makueni, Isiolo, Samburu, and even in Kusa along the shores of Lake Victoria that feature enhanced rocky outcrop water catchments, sand dams, and home water storage tanks and dams. Such scale- appropriate developments and growing pace of technological innovations across the world are revising path-dependent approaches to water.

The Slingshot water purifier can turn the water from Lake Turkana or the from the polluted Nairobi River into super purified medical quality water. The machine, which is the size of a crate of soda, can purify 1,000 litres per day and costs US $35. There are inexpensive nano filters for water bottles with pores small enough to catch viruses. This tech is the best bet for eliminating the ubiquitous plastic water bottles that actually do not guarantee safe water and are choking the oceans. Even the traditional toilet, a water wasting device that has not changed for 130 years, is being redesigned to recycle the water and to use the waste to recharge your mobile phone while sitting on the thrown.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization. The future of Kenya’s food security is precision agriculture, not large irrigation schemes. Large farms on the slopes of Mt Kenya are implementing precision agricultural methods, enabled by the growth of companies offering the requisite support services. Players in the contract-farming sector are introducing precision agricultural practices to medium-sized growers in the lower zones, and it is only a matter of time before this spreads to areas like the lower Tana River with its untapped potential for small- and medium-scale agro-pastoral development.

Agriculture consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. Experts predict a range of innovations from smart grids and self-repairing pipes to high-tech irrigation systems that will reduce the water used by over 30 per cent. These developments are fast tracking the growth of precision agriculture, an approach to production that utilises an array of components ranging from sensors to soil surveys and variable rate fertilization.

Ari.Farm is an exemplar of developments of the new economy emerging in war-torn areas after decades of stasis and conflict. Using a very original business model based on subscriptions from the community, the firm is a magnet for diaspora capital that has established greenhouse farms and camel dairies in Somalia’s riverine area to supply Mogadishu. Ari.Farm also has a farm in Kenya that is delivering camel milk to Nairobi. The ubiquitous goat, which is resistant to capital-intensive mass production, is becoming the high-end animal protein of the future, and Ari.Farm just may turn out to be the dryland’s version of Eastleigh’s Garissa Lodge phenomenon.

Fourteen counties on Kenya’s periphery have come together to form The Frontier County Development Council, predicated on a “holistic and integrated approach to promote and strengthen inter-regional linkages”. The Council is one example of developments behind the region’s shifting system state. Human capital investment and provision of basic infrastructure in these high potential but historically marginalised zones, together with symbiotic linkages to pastoralist capital, can transform the larger region. The lower Tana and its invisible stakeholders should be given the chance to become part of the process leading over time to a new diversified river valley economy, and a sanctuary where all the bird watchers of the world will congregate.

This is only the beginning. The road will be difficult, but a dynamic confluence of capital, culture, and technology will see the influence of the post-post-colonial African mode of production in the former Shungwaya region become water under the bridge. This is the point in the process when the stakeholders can determine what form of upstream water management should be undertaken.

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

Politics

Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia

Since November last year, Ethiopia has been fighting a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Hibist Kassa argues that the scale of misinformation on the war, lack of context and attempts to impose false narratives is deeply troubling and pervasive. Kassa calls for a nuanced and historically grounded approach to properly analyse the course of events.

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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia
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Since 4 November last year Ethiopia has been caught in a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which has been marked by escalating genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia. The scale of misinformation and disinformation on the war, brazen lack of context, shameless and downright dangerous attempts to not only impose false narratives, but also impose a narrow human rights agenda skewed to ignore abuses by Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is deeply troubling and pervasive.

At the moment, a dangerously simplistic and false narrative labelling the federal government as having an agenda for centralisation, as opposed to the TPLF which is pushing for federalism, is being spread in mainstream media outlets and through scholarly networks. This is drawing on a further over-simplification of the history of empire building and contestation, and the nature of cultural and language identities and their relationship to class stratification.

This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a historic defeat of a European imperialist power by Africans, with the unification of divided peoples. Lords, serfs and slaves, women and men, mobilised an army of about 100,000 to defeat Italian troops in a matter of hours. The aftermath of the victory also laid the basis for further empire consolidation and forging of the modern state, a contested historical process that has been foregrounded in the current conflict. A nuanced and historically grounded approach is needed to analyse the ways the centre-periphery tensions shaped autonomy in Tigray, recognise the wide spectrum of debates within the TPLF and how elites have deployed this in the current conflict (I examine this in some detail in the Agrarian South Bulletin here).

While the need to get the analysis right on the crisis is important to inform interventions, we also need to understand the nature of the accumulation strategies of elites, the contradictions in these strategies and where this leaves the working class and the advancement of a progressive alternative from below.

What are the competing narratives?

At the moment, mediation is being proposed as was recently advocated in a statement by African intellectuals, that eerily followed the line of the United States and TPLF on the crisis. A robust response by the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink have highlighted the problematic nature of the statement, and the need for an understanding of what is really at stake in the volatile Horn of Africa region, where a realignment of geopolitical relations between Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia, with South Sudanese solidarity, is potentially decentring US domination in the region, and sealing the decline of TPLF. Understanding the tricky and complicated context of the changes underway, demands also for careful attention to what is left out of the dominant narrative of the crisis.

For instance, it was shocking to hear pro-TPLF commentator, Martin Plaut, and now visiting researcher at Kings College Department of War Studies, declared boldly on 5 February this year, that even though a massacre in Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray was terrible, ‘I don’t care who carried them out’ (see 30:00-31:21). This was a genocide of about 1000 men, the elderly and children who were identified as ethnic Amhara by TPLF youth groups. As the men were being slaughtered, women overheard them say they would come for them next. Zelalem Tessema, Co-Chair Ethiopian Association in the UK, who was on the same panel as Plaut said that this was the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Ethiopia. Accountability which was so important for Plaut when examining Amhara militias, Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrea’s involvement, was suspended in the case where TPLF militia and its youth members, who later escaped to join refugees on the Sudanese border. The TPLF has continued to commit atrocities in its vicious expansion into Afar and Amhara regions displacing up to 4 million people.

Meanwhile, a coherent campaign sympathetic to TPLF by the US, EU and UN, including the IMF and World Bank, have focused on aspects of the Tigray crisis pressuring the Ethiopian Federal government to revert to mediations with the TPLF. Even when a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the government, the TPLF has continued to encroach upon other provinces in Amhara and Afar provinces, temporarily occupying Lalibela, and slaughtering civilians, destroying historic Churches in Gondar, there was still no universal condemnation of the TPLF except for the instance where the USAID Director in Ethiopia cited widespread TPLF looting of aid goods.

There has also been complete disinterest in the killings of ethnic minorities elsewhere which have been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), openly allied to TPLF. In principle, violations by any state and non-state actor in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia should be investigated, victims provided care and culprits held to account. But the geopolitical power struggle that is ongoing has no interest in this kind of accountability agenda. Instead, human rights violations, whether they be genocide, widespread rape, recruitment of children as combatants and violations against Eritrean refugees, have been ignored when TPLF forces have been identified culprits. Talk of accountability and human rights is just a game in a bigger geopolitical battlefield.

Getting the facts right is key!

To make sense of what is an intensely complex crisis, it is important to focus on the following key facts:

  1. On 4 November, after the Federal Government of Ethiopia had transferred US$281 million to the Tigray provincial government, a ‘lightning strike’ so described by TPLFs’ spokesperson, was unleashed on federal troops who were undertaking joint operations with the Tigray provincial forces. Unarmed soldiers and generals were slaughtered in their pyjamas and their bodies left to rot, while other troops were taken as prisoners. Soldiers with specialised training were later summarily executed, ran over with trucks, and women soldiers were raped. When the news of this shocking attack trickled in, it horrified the general public and ended all attempts to mediate tensions between the Federal government and the TPLF.
  2. Prior to the above attack, tensions had been building between the Federal government based in Addis Ababa and the TPLF. The loss of TPLFs almost three-decade dominance of power in the federal government had aggrieved the committee members. To recall, TPLF itself was a political party, with its own hierarchies and membership drawing from various constituencies within Tigray province.
  3. Normalisation of relations with Eritrea was an extremely significant change introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. This significant change in foreign policy of Ethiopia was made possible under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition with new leadership under Abiy Ahmed as a member of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). It was a decisive break from TPLF foreign policy which had treated the Eritrean government as a lethal enemy. The latter which has acted as a bulwark against the expansion of the United States’ AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa, and retained some semblance of sovereignty over its national policy space. These former allies who waged war against the Derg (the military regime that ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1974 to 1987), soon turned into foes over the TPLFs ethnonationalist agenda entrenched in the Ethiopian federalist system, redrawing provinces and the entire governance system on the basis of ethnicity. Each province formed standing armies of their own and entrenched the right to secede in the constitution.
  4. Tigray province is in the northern most part of Ethiopia and shares a border with Eritrea, over which war was waged from 1998-2000, when Abiy was then on the frontline as a solider. A peace treaty was only signed in 2018 once the OPDO under Abiy was in power after a wave of popular protests against TPLF. According to Iqbal Jhazbay (former South Africa ambassador to Eritrea) since the Peace Treaty was signed, this provided Eritrea, ‘a previously isolated regime which has stubbornly resisted being turned into a pawn by foreign powers’ a bridge with which to expand its foreign policy influence in the volatile Horn of Africa. Asmara has resisted a regime change agenda, a challenge now facing Ethiopia, under the new Progress Party (PP) under Abiy, which has now had to resist pressure from foreign powers to dictate its relations with Eritrea.
  5. The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been resisted not only by Egypt and Sudan, but also with backing from the US and Israel. Although GERD was conceptualised and initiated by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, its successful implementation did not have full backing of his heirs in the TPLF. The Metal and Engineering Corporation, a mega-parastatal, which was charged with manufacturing parts of GERD, manufactured them below expected standards. This delayed the project and has been suspected as an act of subversion instead of incompetence on the part of the parastatal. The combination of Egypt and Sudan, and the realignment of interests with internal actors, like the TPLF (and now OLF), has created another deadly alliance that threatens stability in the Horn of Africa.
  6. Ethiopia is on the brink of national self-sufficiency in wheat production within two years. The Abiy government has also been setting up bread factories to ensure affordability for the urban poor and working people (especially in a time when food prices continue to skyrocket). In addition to the GERD and its potential to provide renewable energy resource to the Horn of Africa and beyond, these developments should be seen as efforts to strengthen productive capacity in the region and hopefully also address energy poverty that falls on the back of women. It is also a case that the infrastructure investments and Industrial Parks especially in the garments industry, have had keen interest from global brands, but also significantly drawn upon domestic resource mobilisation. All these are signs that concrete gains are being made in the country.
  7. Nonetheless, in spite of the Ethiopian governments commitment to liberalisation, this has not enamoured the regime to donors and the Bretton Wood Institutions. Sanctions have been imposed on government officials to travel to the US. Conditionalities for loans are being attached to ensure mediation with TPLF. The interest of the IMF, primarily influenced by the US, in this conflict is noteworthy.
  8. Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF, have been attaching conditionalities to assistance obliging the government to make concessions to the TPLF. This hard-line towards the PP government is puzzling given that it has declared the country open for business, liberalising one of Africa’s last heavily regulated economies and allowing competition with State-Owed Enterprises, electricity and the telecommunications. The Abiy government has also been a very consistent partner in the War on Terror, especially as it relates to operations against Al-Shabab in Somalia.
  9. This indicates that there are higher stakes in Ethiopia’s forging of alliances with Eritrea and Somalia and the broader goal to stabilise the Horn of Africa in a manner that has not centred Washington and its ‘War on Terror’. Lawrence Freeman, on a panel on Ethiopia Television, “Addis Dialogue”, argues that a global political oligarchic faction that maintains neo-colonial control of African countries in particular, sees any actor operating outside US control as threatening their dominance and needing to be dealt with as a threat. Deacon Yoseph Tafari, Chairman of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, concurs and emphasises that the US had initially misread the Abiy government in the beginning of its tenure, and had to confront the reality of its more autonomous approach to foreign policy and its persistence with state led developmental initiatives such as the GERD. It is this aspect that has informed a regime change agenda.
  10. The TPLF which was the dominant force in the previous coalition government had been able to control the security and governance arms of the state and considerable investments in SOEs. It is an open secret that the TPLF had amassed offshore accounts of US$30 billion. At its height, foreign aid reached US$3.5 billion a year. Two to three billion dollars were lost annually through under and over invoicing of imports. Parastatals had become effective vehicles for accumulation of wealth by the top tier of the regime, with varied forms of patrimonial relations with less powerful actors within the party machinery. Proximity to power had its benefits, but none compared with the accumulation of wealth and deepening inequality that was apparent over the last three decades.

Q & A between Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hibist  Kassa which reflects on the state of the working class in Ethiopia today.

MG: The emergent Ethiopian working class was a key player in the 1974 revolution that eventually ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. The wave of strikes helped inspire the popular protests of students, peasants and the junior soldiers. The later eventually wrested power led by the [Marixst Leninist] Derg, provoking a nearly two-decade period of Civil War and instability.

What happened to the Ethiopian working class in this period, in the struggles that ensued… Was class militancy and organisation crushed by repression and war?

HK: As the parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC)  case highlights, trade unions have struggled, and continued to struggle to organise in Ethiopia. IndustriALL Federation has been making important interventions especially in industrial parks. Important analytical work has been done  on the super exploitation of women workers has drawn attention to how the accumulation strategy of the state that relies on cheap wage labour and the creation of an enabling environment for foreign direct investment, demands the repression of organised labour.

In response to high turnover of the workforce and a wave of wildcat strikes, there have been some moderate reforms to create a means for workers to raise concerns through the Labour Department inspectors and the provision of district offices. In spite of this, trade unions still need to be able to organise workers on the shopfloor. Resistance to this persist.

Moreover, the tension between the focus on large scale foreign direct investments as a means of enabling industrialisation places this strategy in tension with the dynamic and diversified economic activities by smallholder producers in agriculture, cottage industries and the retail sector. Ethiopia has a history of cooperative associations traced to the Derg regime, but these were demobilised by the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime.

MG: Ethiopia is amongst the top five performing economies in Africa in the last decade with annual growth rates of over 10%. A new, younger and expanded working class must therefore have emerged. If the working class retreated in this period leaving the petite bourgeoisie in charge, was there not a significant growth and re-emergence of the working class in the period after 1995? Quantitatively and qualitatively especially after 2000?

What is the degree of organisation, class consciousness, and militancy of this new expanded class? How does it compare to the leading role played by other working classes in the region recently, in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya for example and does it provide a counter to the petite bourgeoisie and their ethnicity – region based politics and mobilization?

HK: A new, younger and expanded working class has emerged, and its face is that of women migrants. The new subjects arising out of the industrialisation process is that of women workers, who are being superexploited as part of the country’s development strategy. Rural-urban migration, and now with covid-19, urban-rural migration, has become significant.

I think if we are to consider the primarily informal character of the labouring classes or working people (as Issa Shivji says) we needs to use different approaches to analyse the forms of resistance to capital and the state, and the ways in which people are building autonomy from below through their livelihoods and even survival strategies. This expanded approach to resistance and understanding of class helps us better draw the connections between the urban poor and dispossessed masses, and rural communities who in carrying the burden of social reproduction even as a gendered cheap wage labour strategy is imposed from above become a basis for drawing  organic linkages with ‘wage workers’ in the formal sector. I think this is an opportunity to think in an interlinked manner and develop a more holistic understanding of what organising interventions can be made by trade unions working in alliance with women’s groups, farmers associations, artisanal miners and casual workers.

Elite wealth accumulation and the gendered working class

It is crucial to also reflect on the nature of corruption facilitated via illicit financial flows and how this has fed into the wealth accumulation strategies of elites in the TPLF dominated ethnic coalition government prior to its removal in 2018. A prime example of this is the mega parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).

With about seventy SOEs, seven military hardware manufacturing entities, about 12,500 employees, MetEC is a significant force in the Ethiopian economy. Under the TPLF, it successfully disbanded trade union organising on the shopfloor. In 2014, labour unions confronted the then CEO Knife Dangew and they were dismissed for being focused on rights bargaining and of being wedded to the legacy of the previous ‘Marxist Leninist’ military dictatorship. Instead, the trade union federation was expected to focus on the objective of attaining middle income status. In 2018, a parliamentary review revealed extensive graft, with overpricing of domestic and international procurement of up to US$2 billion, in some cases 400% higher than market prices. He was arrested in November 2018, and charged over the procurement of two shipping vessels, two hotels and a plastics factory.

The description below by Tim Hall of an industrial park, in Hawassa, now in the newly established Sidama province, gives us a glimpse of the pre-Covid situation:

Over 17,000 young women from predominately rural areas and a variety of ethnicities have, from 2017, migrated to work at the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), employing around 120,000 mainly women workers at potential full capacity. They face long shifts, low salaries given living costs between 800 to 2000 BIRR a month (US$27–68) and new challenges in an unfamiliar urban context, which are exacerbated by their status and dislocation from familial networks.

The brief description Hall offers above is that of women who form self-help groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

While there is a case for understanding ethnicity (or kinship as Archie Mafeje argues) in terms of how it can be an organising element in the labour process, the rigid and impervious colonial conceptions of ethnicity institutionalised by the TPLF cannot be underestimated. As relevant as this is to understand the reproduction of inequalities, in the Ethiopia case, it is also important to weigh how these have been entrenched as an organising principle of society.

The ability to render some groups as vulnerable as in the case of the non-Sidamo women migrant workers in Hawaasa or the migrant farmworkers massacred in Mai-Kadra also needs to be treated with caution. TPLF as a dominant force in the EPRDF coalition had almost three decades with an effective machinery to entrench this in the everyday forms of social, political and economic spheres of society, from ethnic development banks to redrawing provincial borders as in Raya to subsume areas where Amhara ethnic minorities can be disenfranchised.

Beyond this, there is also a dangerous oversimplification of vast periods of history and the association of repressed classes with specific language and cultural groups has fed a dangerous and divisive propaganda. This labels certain language groups as exploiters and oppressors and others victims of dispossession and oppression without a grounded understanding of complex and fluid categories, alongside complex economic and historical processes. These claims have also justified horrific violence by the OLF against the Amharic speaking people such as the disembowelment of pregnant women, the slicing off of the breasts of women and rape.

Progressive scholars, the working class and Ethiopia

Progressive scholars have to build bridges to engage with the intelligentsia in Ethiopia who have persevered through military dictatorship under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, and through 27 years of TPLF-dominated rule. Ethiopian scholars have been speaking out, as in this speech in 1994 by Mammo Muhcie in London that is an eerily precise analysis of TPLF as it is today.

In the midst of this conflict, Ethiopian scholars have been repeatedly trying to get their voices heard by the Ethiopian government and the international community. The statement widely shared by African intellectuals (including on roape.net) that presumed Ethiopian scholars cannot speak for themselves therefore came across as deeply condescending. If there is genuine interest in supporting Ethiopian scholars to get their perspectives and analysis on the crisis, and build bridges for meaningful interventions, the first step has to be through a serious and deliberate process of engagement.

There is also a need to pay attention to the accumulation strategies of elites and the manner they fit (or do not fit) within imperialism. Within this, an expanded understanding of a gendered working class is needed, recognising the strategically important role of women’s labour as a source of cheap wage labour. In addition, it is still important to not lose sight of how a liberal government like the PP, in pursuing its own ambitions to assert sovereignty over foreign policy and natural resources, has fallen from grace and is facing the age-old colonial/imperialist strategy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics both at the national level and regional levels through the TPLF, OLF and external actors such as Sudan and Egypt.

This also gives us insight into the accumulation strategy of the EPRDF, which still operates under a constitution and governance system setup by the TPLF dominated government. This draws out a broader lesson to the challenges arising out of an ambitious developmentalist elite in Africa. Although, the TPLF has been subjected to accountability processes after their removal from control of the federal government, there is still a broader lesson here for development in Africa, and this demands further interrogation.

Some on the left have admired the capacity of the ruling class in Ethiopia to pursue developmentalist ambitions with industrial parks as a strategy, for instance. But the limits of this strategy also need to be highlighted, as this also has relied on cheap wage labour and migrant women workers who have been rigidly constrained from organising in trade unions. Wildcat strikes and high turnover of labour has meant this is not a stable accumulation strategy, even on their own terms. It begs a broader question, what is the nature of a viable developmental strategy?

In addition, the pressures arising out of a gendered understanding of working class dynamics lays a basis to consider what developmental alternatives can be fought for. Such an alternative also demands a rupture from the existing imperialist architecture of power to assert control over resources which destabilises the global financial and geopolitical arrangements that the emerging Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia relations pose. Failure to recognise this is akin to enabling the catastrophic outcome of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the reason why there has been a robust and vociferous rejection of any possible intervention by the likes of Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink.

Progressives have a responsibility to centre an understanding of imperialism and the national question, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros pull together in Reclaiming the Nation, to navigate this terrain and build bridges with the radical intelligentsia and popular formations in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa who want to construct a transformative agenda themselves. A first step has to be rejecting the ethnonationalist, genocidal agenda of TPLF, OLF and their allies.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession

The effects of the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.

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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
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Two years have gone by since we last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.

It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.

“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had  carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.

One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.

“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.”  The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.

For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”

The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.

The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.

At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.

Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.

“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”

Return to Kasighau

The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.

It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.

According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.

No land, more problems

In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.

“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”

According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.

Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”

However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.

“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.

“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”

“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”

Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.

“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”

Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.

“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.

It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.

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Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid

In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.

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The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.

The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.

The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace

Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.

Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.

Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.

This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.

Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter

Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.

The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.

The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.

From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.

Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.

Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.

Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.

Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.

The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku

Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:

1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.

2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:

  • It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
  • The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
  • It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
  • It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.

Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.

This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:

  • Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
  • Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
  • Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.

Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:

  • The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
  • The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent

Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.

Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.

Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya

Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.

He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:

  1. Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
  2. A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.

He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.

ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market

According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.

Moving beyond the state?

The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021

In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.

Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.

Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’

This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal. 

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