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AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump

10 min read.

The current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals in Trump’s America are futile argues MKAWASI MCHARO. The recent concluded mid-term elections, she posits, have shown that the Cinderella story in America’s politics will occur with the shifting racial demography and Generation Z who more than any previous generation have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity.



AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump
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When I was growing up in Kenya, I was taught that my ancestral land was the only place I was allowed to call “home”, whether I lived there or not. Anywhere else that I lived was a house. It was near sacrilegious to call a house in the city “home”.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I decided to resolve that post-colonial cultural disorder for myself. While living with my aunt and going to college at the same time, I consciously decided to defy the elders, the ancestors, and the feared keepers of cultural dogma. I started calling my aunt’s place “home”.

I had no knowing at that time how much that decision would help me find belonging in lands far away. Kenya is home, the land that has refused to surrender my first belonging, and where I continue to sow seeds of unwanted civic agitation. America is home, the stolen lands that have soaked in the sweat of my brow and sprouted the sprigs of my second belonging.

The road to voting

A few days ago, I joined the long early voting queues at the American mid-term elections and voted for the candidates I felt would best serve the interests of my State. A couple of days later, I checked in at a polling precinct where I was assigned to serve as an election judge. There, I spent sixteen hours with fellow officials helping run the voting process and ensuring the integrity of the vote.

On my way home, I reflected upon my service in this role. This was the third election I had served at the polls, and like always, I left with a sense that I had partaken in the serving of sacrament in a temple – to the rich and the poor, the old and the new initiates, the cautious cynics and faithful believers in democracy. I had come a long way too from the village that raised me.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades. We bring with us an already educated mind, most of us having finished high school or a first degree in an African country. We are the F1 student visa careers that got caught up in the change of immigration policies soon after 9/11, because most of the hijackers had also come in as students. Renewing one’s visa was no longer that easy, and working odd jobs was heavily restricted. Many felt stranded, unable to leave or to continue with their education.

This change in policy inadvertently led to many African immigrants staying much longer than they had hoped because they were determined to return home with some measure of success. History records the stories of American immigrants in the 1800s – men who left their families with promises to return. They went west in search of gold and lands and riches told in tall tales, and when they lost it all in life’s gambles, they chose not to return home. The shame of failure was too great to bear.

The face of the latest wave of new Americans is little understood by those who now seek to protect this country against an influx of non-Caucasian immigrants. I represent the African immigrant population that has been ballooning significantly in the past two decades.

African immigrants have also done what all immigrants who have come to the United States have done for centuries past – survive through shame, tears and tatters and eventually thrive. For many of them, seeking American citizenship was not an ambition they came in with; it became so with time, out of unforeseen necessity. They too have become builders of this land. They are the latest patch on the American quilt.

The African caravan

A smart government knows that immigration policies that allow for a fluid traversing of documented populations is the safest and most beneficial way to build a 21st century nation. It means you know where people are. The U.S. government can track my goings and comings, my toil and my taxes, because I leave a citizen’s footprint wherever I go.

The millions of undocumented and out-of-status immigrants in the U.S. simply present a conundrum that has to be addressed at some point, not by clamping down and purging, but by offering legal freedom of movement. You would be surprised at how many immigrants living in the shadows would leave the country if they had the legal means to do so. It would allow for a citizenry as physically fluid as what technology has wrought upon the world. They would also invest more as transnational citizens, a trend seen from Diasporas that have become Americanised.

It is confounding why the American power structure keeps going through this repeated cycle of fear of new immigrants when it is clear that immigrants have made America the industrial superpower it became. This fear and suppression has been happening with each new wave since the 1880s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Then came the National Origins Formula that restricted the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe as they were deemed unskilled and influenced by Russia. The legislation also gave preference to immigrants from ethnic Caucasian countries.

It wasn’t until the 2000s that African immigration to the U.S. shot up dramatically. The Refugee Act of 1980 opened the doors to a huge influx of Africans into the U.S., so much so that by 2018, Ilhan Omar, a 37-year-old Somali woman who had migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1995, was elected to the United States Congress. The large population of Somalis in Minnesota no doubt gave wind to her sails. It is worth noting that Ms. Omar lived part of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya, having fled from war-torn Somalia with her family. She would probably love to go back and make a difference in Somalia.

A Liberian refugee was also elected as mayor in the deep Trump country of Montana in 2016. He too had come in as a refugee.

However, the African home countries that have held our dreams of return have betrayed some of us as life there has become more difficult to knit into desired destiny. The suitcases that were never unpacked upon arrival in the U.S., awaiting triumphant return, were finally emptied of their content after lengthy years of study and surrender to American belonging. The continental African diaspora continues to develop the countries of their foreign abode, including in Europe where more are also taking up public office.

While many Africans in America will never feel truly American, they continue to thrive and grow in numbers. In an article published this year, the American reporter Molly Fosco identified the Nigerian diaspora in America as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. A Migration Policy Institute report also states: “Most members of the Kenya diaspora in the United States were well educated and more likely than the U.S. general public to have completed a university degree [and] to be in the labor force: 80% versus 64%.”

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

American-born second generation continental Africans identify with their countries of cultural origin only when they grow up to discover the value of claiming a cultural identity. However, this identity is only seasonal. Among Kenyan-American youth, for example, you will only see this identity on display during festivities organised around Kenyan public holidays, such as Madaraka Day or Jamhuri Day. It is the kind of seasonal pride displayed by Irish youth on St. Patrick’s Day. But both are bound by the common identity of being American. And it is in America where the Kenyan-American, the Irish-American, the Chinese-American, the Hispanic-American will run for office and shape the future of the United States. If this diverse ethnic make-up of America is a foregone conclusion, then the current rising wave of white nationalism and its attendant supremacist goals are futile.

The Pew Research Center places continental Africans as the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S., with a growth rate of 41% between 2000 and 2013. Meanwhile, African governments continue to suppress diaspora civic engagement in their home countries. Most have completely failed to recognise the strategic power of their diaspora. At best, they seek to milk their hard-earned wealth without engaging with them.

White fury, brown fruit

There is rising fury of white nationalism in America that is based on a fear of extinction. Immigrants are accused of needing healthcare, food, housing and education at the expense of American taxpayers who themselves have few opportunities.

This unfounded argument has been used on every new wave of immigrants. The white race at the top of America’s social pyramid is more afraid that their kind will be “browned out”. But the face of America is slowly changing, as is the face of the world. Robert Wuthnow, author of The Left Behind, reminds us that 90% of rural America is white, a population that brought Trump to power. It is also the population from whence this wave of white nationalism has steadily risen. But this 90% white rural America base is slowly eroding, especially with the ever-increasing Hispanic population.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe. The raging storms of white supremacy seen in Charlottesville and in the rise of the lone white male terrorist are all a waste of good energy that would be better used figuring out how to make amends for past injustices that have contributed greatly to a world of resentment between the privileged and the hoi polloi. It is not lost on the world that in the past several centuries our world has been shaped by a dominating race that enslaved, colonised and plundered other nations.

America’s current president recently came out openly as a nationalist. It is unclear how this helps America’s future. America’s diverse races cannot be exterminated. A continental African who arrived here in 1998 and voted as an American citizen in the recently concluded U.S. mid-term elections has the rights and responsibilities to ensure a just and equitable American society as much as the descendants of the Pilgrims who arrived from Europe in the 1600s escaping religious persecution, the grandchildren of those who escaped war, poverty and famine from 19th century Czarist Russia and Ireland, the progenies of Chinese labourers who came in the 19th and 20th centuries; the children of Jews who escaped the Holocaust in the 20th century, and many others who formed the United States of various peoples, all seeking a home away from home.

The United Nations projects that Africa’s population will grow to 2.5 billion by 2050, making 1 out of every 4 humans on earth an African. There is no escaping the browning of the globe.

There is some sorrow and irony in the burden of racial superiority. This became clear to me upon reflecting on an encounter I had when I had just started my graduate studies in New York. A white male student struck up a conversation with me at the college library and told me all about his woes as a student immigrant from Poland. He had come on an F1 student visa but had fallen out of status. I knew little about immigration woes then. Like most of my African student peers, I had no interest in staying in America beyond graduation. My mind and soul were still tethered to my country of birth. Of course, American life would later on slap me silly and awaken me to the need for new belonging. It wasn’t until I ventured out beyond my college cocoon that I began to encounter other immigrants with legal status issues.

The Polish student’s story went in one ear out the other. He might as well have been telling me about cheese. He was the first “illegal” immigrant I’d ever met, and for a while, the people I thought of anytime I heard about “illegal” immigrants were white people from Europe stuck in limbo in America. There are many white immigrants grossly alienated because they choose the comfort of blending in with their race at the top of the pyramid even when they do not have the legal papers they need to survive and thrive in America. But they don’t get called names, they don’t get go-back-to-your-country spat in their face with disdain, and they don’t stick out like a sore thumb and get punched at Trump rallies.

Dismantling America’s caste system

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

It gets worse when the name on your résumé is strange and definitely not white. Once, after receiving a letter of regret for a job I had applied for, I submitted the very same résumé with the whitest name I could think of, and I got a call for a phone interview immediately. My accent, however, didn’t do me any good. It is no different from Rwanda’s past when citizens were required to have their ethnicity on the national ID. After the genocide, they got rid of this tribal identifier, and it helped build a new nation.

American society has a big self-inflicted festering wound. In every application form in the U.S., be it for employment, school or what-have-you, one is asked to check the box that identifies one’s race or ethnicity. These categories are officially determined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The official reason for including them is to ensure equitable opportunities and distribution of resources, but it is no secret that this is a caste system that constitutes institutionalised racism.

In the United States, those with access to race and ethnic data easily use it to remap legislative districts in a way that is favourable to the person or party wielding the power of manipulation. Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot. This was never more evident than in the recent mid-term elections that led to the recount of votes in at least three races.

The manipulation in Georgia’s recent gubernatorial race had been done systematically and over time by the person who had the means to manipulate voter registration – Brian Kemp. As Georgia’s Secretary of State, he got the upper hand and paved the way for himself to win the governor’s seat, and this affected the integrity of the vote. Calls for Kemp’s opponent, Stacey Abrams, to challenge the election in court have been reminiscent of Kenya’s bitter election in 2017. It is likely that Kemp will preside over a bitter people, half of whom will not recognise him as a legitimate governor. Political rancor that looks an awful lot like third-world politics has become the norm in America since 2016.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression is America’s system of rigging the vote. While African countries rig at the ballot, America rigs before the ballot.

If there’s a dim light in the sinking story of American politics, it is that American society still highly values the Cinderella story. If a person deemed least likely to succeed dares to conquer all odds, chances are that a wave of support from all races is going to cheer this person on until he or she reaches the mountain top. In the mid-term elections, the Obama phenomenon has been repeated in the wave of minority candidates – women and Muslims who had been bartenders, refugees, and socialists are now headed to Capitol Hill.

Even more evidence of the browning of America and the hope of the future is the Generation Z phenomenon. In a New York Post article, Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, describes this generation as diverse and only 55% white, making them quite likely the tail-end of white majority America. “And they have the most positive outlook toward the nation’s growing diversity of any previous generation,” wrote Professor Brauer.

Brauer sees this generation as likely voting for Trump if they had a chance, simply because they find him authentic and disruptive of the status quo. However, I disagree with this opinion. Generation Z is an equally politically diverse group, which was evident from the protests of the high school students whose power recently shook America following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. They marched to the capital, took to the media and linked arms with racially diverse students across America whose voices were heard for the first time. It was a show of solidarity that challenged the impenetrable conservative wall of power that shields gun lobbyists. If this is the future of America, then the future is bright.

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Ms Hall is a freelance writer based in the USA


Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?

Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.



Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.

During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.

To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.

One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.

Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.

The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.

Infrastructure development

Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.

Political stability and governance

The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.

Economic development and trade

Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.

Security Concerns

Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.

Economic Disparity and Compatibility

Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.

Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.

The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.

Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes

The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.

Conflict in South Sudan

The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.

Assessing Readiness

Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.

Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.

Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.

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2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?

It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.



2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.

This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.

The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.

The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.

What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).

But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.

By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.

Challenges facing the plaintiffs

Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.

Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.

We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.

What happened in court

The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.

The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.

Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)

Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.

In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”

Contemporary African resistance

Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.

Enduring myths

The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).

The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.

Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.

Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.

Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?

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Who Is Hustling Who?

In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.



Who Is Hustling Who?
Photo: bennett tobias on Unsplash.
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There should be no doubt that Kenya is in an intractable economic crisis. Filling up gas for a drive from Nairobi to my hometown in Limuru cost 10,000 ksh (about USD70). As a result of the high gas costs prices for everything else have gone up, including public transportation. And those who cannot hike up operating costs, such as the hordes of boda boda motorcycle taxis, are hardly making anything or operating at a loss.Tax hikes mean those who are employed are taking less money home. And no point in kidding ourselves, in a corrupt country some of that money being generated from the higher taxes is going to the politicians. As will the promised 1 billion USD loan from the IMF on whose behest the new austerity measures are being implemented. It is a form of madness to think that a corrupt government will only steal money generated by taxes and do public good with the IMF loan. In short, in a country where close to half the population lives on less than USD2 a day, Kenya is simply unaffordable and the promise of relief is a lie—certainly a convenient lie for the government and IMF officials but a devastating one for Kenya’s majority poor.

My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.

We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.

But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.

Voting with the middle finger

But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.

I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.

I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.

I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.

My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.

But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.

Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.

Cuba as Kenya’s north star

Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?

The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?

I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.

Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US,  but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.

But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp.  Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.

In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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