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Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart

14 min read.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.



Not My Brother’s Keeper: Forces That Have Kept the Luyia People Apart
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The Luyia community has produced more vice presidents than any other Kenyan community. Musalia Mudavadi was appointed vice president in 2002 for 90 days, Wamalwa Kijana in 2003 for seven months and Moody Awori was also Mwai Kibaki’s vice president between 2003 and 2007. But has this ever translated into any political clout or force? That has always been the big question of the day.

Luyias have never been able to take advantage of their numbers to gain or forge strong, collective political mileage. They have been unable to put their eggs in one basket to negotiate for their community. To understand the story of the Luyias of Kenya, one has to analyse their history from pre-colonial days to date, and particularly the impact of colonial events, ideology and administration.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu. This history does not make any of the clans less Luyia. Indeed, the entire community is an amalgamation of Bantu and Nilotic genealogy, bound by a common linguistic and cultural orientation acquired through adoption or assimilation. There are more than 800 Luyia clans to date, existing as units with fluid boundaries, joined together by a thin mosaic band of cultural and linguistic similarities.

Before the Luyia nation was cobbled together as a political necessity in 1943, several Luyia clans, such as the Bukusu, Banyala, Batsotso, Idakho, Isukha Kisa, Marama and Wanga, were originally Luo, Kalenjin or Masaai. In fact, a whole community like the Tachoni was originally part of the highland Nilotes who were incorporated through inter-marriage with the Bantu.

The political union between these clans has eluded them since the formation of the word “Abaluyia” in 1943. In essence, Luyia ethnicity did not exist before then. British ethnographers called all tribes in western Kenya “Kavirondos”, a pejorative term resented by the Luyia, Luo, Kalenjin, Kisii, Kuria, and Teso. The fight by these communities to redeem their respective ethnic pride was somewhat achieved when the name Kavirondo was expunged from official use and replaced by “Nyanza”, which in some Luyia dialects means “a large water body”. What we refer to as Western Kenya was then called North Nyanza.

Most of these clans that shared closely related ethnic polity did not have a centralised system of traditional governance. Around the Second World War, traditional leaders in pre-colonial Kenya realised the world had changed, and with it political parameters. Only organised societies with definite ethnic identities could survive and possibly benefit politically by bandying together. The so-called Luyia communities were not spared the effects of this political idea.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word Luyia was first proposed by the local African Mutual Assistance Association in 1930 and adopted by the North Kavirondo Central Association in 1935, although some sub-communities’ elders rejected it. Their opposition gradually waned and the name started gaining currency.

In 1940, the Abaluyia Welfare Association was born, partly to popularise the name “Abaluyia” as a first step to creating a super ethnic identity. Shortly afterwards, a language committee was formed, and following its recommendations in 1943, the Luyia nation was born. It was formally adopted to describe a federation of lexically- related Bantu sub-tribes as a distinct tribal group living in the western part of Kenya.

According to Shadrack Bulimo, a Kenya-born ethnographer based in Edmonton Canada, “midwifing the super tribe was the easy bit; nurturing and developing socio-cultural institutions to anchor an impregnable system with national ethos, has evaded Abaluyia tribesmen for three generations. Over the years, talk of Luyia unity has waxed and waned depending on prevailing political temperatures, in a cyclical pattern that continues even today especially during electioneering.”

“Luyia unity is a favourite subject among politicians whenever elections are looming, but the same leaders are unwilling to jump into one political vehicle to harmonise the region’s socio-economic interests,” Bulimo argues.


The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters. If a stranger joined them, they would ask, “Which Oluyia do you belong to?” to establish where the person was from in order to guard against threatening strangers or enemy infiltration.

Besides a family hearth, each clan had a common village gathering place where elders assembled to honour a village summon. This way, Oluyia also served as a village court where important matters were discussed, argued and adjudicated. It derived a different meaning but for a similar purpose. The village’s largest tree replaced the individual family’s hearth and became the focal point of Oluyia during the day. Gradually, when people said they were going for a meeting at Oluyia they meant the village common ground, rather than the literal fireplace. (Note the spelling of the word “Oluyia” without the “h”. The first Arabs encountered by Luyias are to blame for being unable to pronounce the word “Luyia” hence corrupting it by adding the letter “h” in their writing. Eventually, the new spelling came to be and was gradually adopted by scholars.)

The word Luyia is derived from Oluyia (the variation being Oluhya), which generically means a fireplace or hearth. It is believed that in pre-colonial Luyialand, members of a family, lineage or clan congregated around a bonfire in the evening to exchange the day’s news, or simply tell stories about war or clan matters.

The other meaning of Oluyia is both micro and macro. Those who share a fireplace as a lineage or clan belong to the same Oluyia (micro meaning). Thus when a group of clans come together they form Aba-luyia (sub-tribe) or Aba-luyia (macro-tribe). Nowadays the Abaluyia or Luhya generally means people who speak any of the closely- related 18 dialects found in Busia, Kakamega, Bungoma and Vihiga counties.

However, this group of 18 related nations have had distinct experiences under colonialism, and specifically under the various Christian missions. The missionary church played a huge role in the politics of the Luyia community and in the developments and cleavages of Luyia identity.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway reached Kisumu (then known as Port Florence) in 1901. Two years later, the Quakers (Friends Mission) started a mission hospital and primary school at Kaimosi in Tiriki. The Quakers would quickly become dominant in the area because, apart from evangelising, they introduced vocational training that imparted employable skills like carpentry, tailoring, masonry and machining to the natives.

A defining moment in the political history of Luyias had just been established. And somehow, the seed of discord among the community had also been sowed.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

Under this pact, the Church Missionary Society – later called Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK) and today the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) – was assigned to evangelise among the Luo and the Marama. The Church of God was assigned Bunyore, Kisa and Butsotso. Friends African Mission (Quakers), with its headquarters in Kaimosi, was assigned Maragoli, Bukusu and Tiriki. Catholics were to concentrate on Wanga, Isukha and Idakho; the Mill Hill Fathers – also Catholic – anchored their mission at Mukumu in Isukha. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG) from Ontario, Canada, through Otto Keller, later established the mission at Nyangori. (Nyang’ori is located about 15km from Kisumu at the confluence of Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Province.) Keller soon became very popular because he introduced drumming, which attracted locals to his church and annoyed Quakers who were already dominant in the area.

In the early 20th century, the various missionary societies active in the area concluded that competition for native souls was unhealthy and confusing, so they agreed to carve out spheres of jurisdiction in the region, just like during the “Scramble for Africa” when European powers did the same.

The Church Missionary Society (Anglicans) started a mission at Maseno, led by James Jamieson Willis and Hugh Saville, to preach to the Luo people. Maseno School later developed into one of the best centres of academic excellence in Kenya. Having been established at a borderline, many neighbouring Luyia boys were enrolled into the mission alongside Luos. After all, inter-marriage between the Luo and Luyia had existed along the Maseno borderline.

The British appointed Nabongo Mumia as paramount chief of the region in 1913. Nabongo Mumia acquired the first bicycle in 1910, making him the first Luyia to do so, and since then, the item has remained a precious possession amongst the Luyias. Mumia was also the first Luyia to own a motor car. He retired in 1926 and died in 1949 aged 100 years, and was buried at Itokho in Mumias. The first sewing machine was introduced in 1916 by the Singer Company, which sold it to the Irish CMS Missionary at Butere. Modernity or “civilization” had arrived in Luyialand.

The Bukusu were the only Luyia community to openly resist the colonialists in 1895. They built Chetambe Fort in Webuye to reinforce their battle with the white man. The British fought back their warriors in 1895, ending the Bukusu resistance. To date, Bukusus perceive themselves as brave warriors.

The Quakers and their mission

Islam was also present in Luyialand, and was brought to Wanga by Arab traders en route to Buganda in 1902. Beyond Wanga, there was little success in spreading the religion to the rest of Luyialand. Since Swahilis raided Bukusus for slaves, they met stiff resistance and hence few Bukusu converted to Islam. In Nabongo Mumia’s court, the Swahili occupied an envious position in the colonial administration. They were employed as tax collectors, informers and circumcisers of Wanga Muslims convertees, despite being associated with cunningness and corrupt practices. Today many Luyias refer to Abawanga as Abaswahili (implying cunning and untrustworthy people).

But it was the American Quakers Mission, which was dominant in the area, that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism. Their arrival marked a radical approach that was different from that of earlier evangelists who only preached the gospel without investing in vocational and educational infrastructure.

Kaimosi was established in Tiriki where believers did not initially resist the American missionaries. (They especially enjoyed and appreciated the health facilities.) Yet things took a turn for the worse when the Quakers began to question the traditional Tiriki way of life. The backlash was so severe that by 1910, only eleven Tirikis remained as converts. With time, the missionary efforts were combined with other colonial instruments like schooling, waged labour, taxation, property laws and urbanisation. Christianity disrupted traditional social practices like marriage and circumcision.

But it was the American Quakers Mission…that became the site of major social transformation. The mission at Kaimosi was situated on a hill called Hill of Vision, which the locals referred to as Javujilachi (holy hill). The Quakers’ vision was premised on four pillars: education, health, industry and evangelism.

The Tirikis found themselves in a deep quagmire when their land was forcefully acquired by the missionaries, and when their culture was maligned and disrupted. They coexisted as uneasy neighbours with the Quakers, who they now disliked for their stand on polygamy and traditional culture. It meant that other Luyia communities gradually found refuge at the Kaimosi mission. Girls who sought refuge after running away from forceful suitors arrived at Kaimosi. Another sticking point was the presence of many non-Tiriki, especially Maragoli, as workers to the missionaries. This fostered the feeling that the mission favoured “outsiders”.

Where the Tiriki lost, the Maragoli gained. With a huge population occupying a small area, they migrated in droves to live among the Tiriki in Kaimosi, becoming a sizeable minority. As early as 1904, the Maragoli made up the majority labour force at Kaimosi, a trend that has continued to date.

At this point, Kaimosi was the only intermediate school in Luyialand where the rest of the sub-clans had to go for education past Standard 3. On arrival, they came face to face with the perceived Maragoli dominance at the mission, which caused resentment. Led by the Bukusu, the other communities felt that they were “there to be seen and not to be heard”. Most of the leading schools in Luyialand were either established or affiliated to Quakers; these included the Musingu, Kaimosi and Lugulu schools. However, the first government school (Kakamega High School) was built in 1932.

In any case, the Maragoli were the first Luyia to take advantage of the new economic and social opportunities presented by colonialism. They were among the first to join schools, so the Quakers found it easier to work with them as opposed to the Tiriki. Consequently, the Quakers, led by Emory Rees and his wife Deborah, arrived at Vihiga from South Africa, and between 1903 and 1926 they learnt the Maragoli language and translated the Bible and school texts. This made conversion to Christianity among the Maragoli much easier. To date, most Christian hymnals among the Luyia are written and sung in their language.

The Maragoli started drifting from their traditional ways after 1910 with the arrival and influence of the Quakers. They for instance gradually started to drift from traditional circumcision ceremonies altogether, preferring western medical practices. Their purview of customary belief systems also changed dramatically. Conversion to Christianity or adoption of Western values had no negative social backlash among them. Maragolis, hence, became the first amongst equals in the eyes of the missionaries and other Luyias.

In Kaimosi, the Quakers mission would gain even more prominence in 1927 when it was the centre of a Pentecostal revivalist rebellion led by native Africans. The discontent simmered until the missionaries met with rebels and they had no choice but to expel some members who went ahead to establish the African Spiritual Church (Dini Ya Roho). In 1942, Daudi Zakayo Kivuli also founded his own church: The African Israel Nineveh Church. He installed his wife Rebecca as the High Priestess and when she died in 1983, her grandson John Mweresa Kivuli, took over as the current High Priest. Their followers are noted for wearing white turbans.

In 1946, Dini Ya Musambwa (Religion of Ancestral Spirits) was established by Elijah Masinde as a protest movement against Christian churches, which preached against ancestral sacrifices and polygamy. The Bukusu revere him as a prophet (omung’osi). In 1957 another splinter group led by Saulo Chabuga formed the African Divine Church in Maragoli. By 2008 they had around 25,000 churches spread out in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

After several misunderstandings and clamour for autonomy, the Kaimosi Quakers transferred the boys’ school from the Tiriki and Maragoli to the Bukusu, renaming it Friends School Kamusinga in the heart of Bukusuland in Kimilili. The seeds of future disunity were planted by that simple action. Bukusus started seeing themselves as equal to Maragolis, at least on the education (read civilisation) front.

Meanwhile, the Catholic missionaries tolerated local customs like polygamy, drinking alcohol and dancing at funerals. Locals in Isukha and Idakho who wanted to continue with this way of life found refuge amongst the Catholics, who did not condemn these practices too loudly. When they tried to replicate their success in Maragoli, they met stiff resistance – the Maragoli were already firmly embedded with the Quakers. The only Catholic mission arrived in the form of Maragoli Girls’ Secondary School at Mbale set up by Mill Hill Missionaries, and this was as late as 1971.

The Tiriki resistance to Christianity was finally broken when Chief Paul Amiani joined the Salvation Army in 1932, and by the sheer force of his personality built strong followers, offering the much-needed alternative to Quaker dominance. Through him, the Tiriki elders accepted their youth to undergo both Christian and traditional initiation ceremonies. They also embraced education as an engine for personal and economic development. But as they did this, the horse (read Maragoli) had already bolted with the diadem of “modernity”.

In fact, when the idea of forming an “Abaluyia” identity was mooted in 1943, resistance came from the Maragoli community, who made it known to all and sundry that the Maragoli were not part of the Luyia nation – they were simply Maragoli. Nevertheless, the Maragoli never formally or officially asked for the name to be expunged from the list of communities that form the Luyia nation, leaving them firmly included.

Pulling apart

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas: Cluster one – Logooli, Nyole, Tiriki; Cluster two – Isukha, Idakho, Kisa, Wanga, Batsotso and Marama; Cluster three – Bukusu, Tachoni, Kabras, Abanyala (Kakamega); and Cluster four – Samia, Marachi, Abakhayo, Abanyala (Busia). According to scholar Abraham Mirimo, “all Luyia dialects share a core lexical structure and only minor inflection in suffixation and prefixation divided them”.

Talk of Luyia unity and two groups strongly come to mind – the Bukusu and the Maragoli, who are always believed to be pulling apart. Is it a coincidence that they are also the most migratory and daring of all Luyia sub-nations? Sample this. The Bukusu are mainly found in Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. They are the most populous of the Luyia sub-nations, forming about 20 per cent of the estimated six million Luyia population. (The name Bungoma is derived from Bongamek, a Kalenjin tribe that originally occupied the territory.) In the 10th Parliament, they had seven MPs representing their domiciled interest in Kanduyi, Bumula, Webuye, Sirisia, Kimilili, Tongaren, Kwanza and Saboti. Their presence is spread out and overlaps into Trans-Nzoia, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu counties.

Culturally, attempts to have what is often referred to as spoken standard Luyia have often hit a snag because no single dialect is understood by all sub-communities. Still, those who live in close geographical proximity tend to understand each other more easily, creating a pattern which can be sub-divided into four cluster areas…

Maragolis are also found beyond the boundaries of Vihiga County. In 1927 they ventured into Uriri in Migori County. The international language encyclopedia Ethnologue, Issue no.16, even lists the Maragoli as a tribe in Tanzania, across the border from Migori. A contingent of Maragoli immigrants settled in Bunyoro, Uganda in 1958 following an agreement between the British colonial government and the Kingdom of Bunyoro. Now estimated at around 35,000, the Maragoli were even allocated land at Kigumba in Kiryandogo district but are now spread to Ntoma and Masindi. They have an unofficial pressure group led by one Eliakimu Adola pushing for their official recognition as a fully-fledged Ugandan tribe, having settled there for over half a century.

Masinde Muliro, a Bukusu, proved quite a principled and fair leader who earned respect across the community. Born at Matili near Kimilili in 1920, he was among the founders of the FORD party, which struggled against President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party tyranny. Muliro instantly became the quintessential Luyia leader and is immortalised by a university in Kakamega, the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). On August 27, 2011, the government declared him a national hero.

Muliro came from the Bakokho clan, and his political defining moment came in 1975, when he voted against a government report into the murder of JM Kariuki. He was the only cabinet minister to do so. Peter Kibisu, an Assistant Minister for Labour and MP for Vihiga, also voted against the report. An angry President Jomo Kenyatta sacked both Muliro and Kibisu, tossing them into the political wilderness. Once again the Bukusu and Maragoli had proved their political mettle within the Luyia nation.

After Muliro’s sacking, Moses Substone Budamba Mudavadi stepped into his large shoes. By virtue of his close association with President Moi, Mudavadi – a Maragoli – wielded immense power that was felt across Luyialand and beyond. Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi has followed as a titular Luyia leader, but his “gentle” mien attracted detractors who until today feel he lacks “fire in his belly”. Musalia, though, proved them all wrong in 2007, when under the ODM party he delivered 18 seats as the party’s torch bearer. So far he has cut his own apron strings by launching the Amani National Congress (ANC).

Another leader who earned respect across the Luyia community was the late Michael Christopher Kijana Wamalwa. Though raised a Bukusu, his roots can be traced to the Sabaot. Wamalwa’s father, Senator William Chemayek Ngeywo, was a Sabaot who changed his name to Wamalwa to get a missionary education as the Sabaot suffered discrimination in those days. (“Chemayek” in the Sabaot and indeed Kalenjin language is “alcohol” and its equivalent in naming is “Wamalwa” in Lu-bukusu.) Michael’s mother, Esther Nekesa, however, was a Bukusu from the Baengele clan. His Sabaot roots did not matter as he was raised Bukusu, underscoring that the Luyia nation is a confluence of Kalenjin, Maasai, Luo and Bantu ethnicities

Although political unity has been a slippery path for Luyias, their most astounding success has occurred outside politics. The Abaluyia United Football Club (AFC Leopards) was formed in 1964. All teams under the sub-tribal banners agreed to merge and form one team. You can be sure everything was smooth until the Maragolis opted to remain autonomous by keeping their Maragoli United Football Club. Still, the club remains the only veritable symbol of Luyia unity where leading personalities have always sought to be elected chairman or patron. Player unity on the pitch helped it to succeed in the East African region.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically. They actually came from different directions and met within the boundaries of the so-called Western Province. Since they do not trace their lineage to one ancestor, like the Gikuyu with Mumbi or the Luos with Ramogi as their patriarch, it was arguably a convergence for convenience.

The Bukusu and Maragolis are undoubtedly great achievers among the Luyia sub-nations. Compared to other Luyia sub-nations, they know how to position themselves politically. Whereas Bukusus consider themselves warriors, Maragolis carry themselves as the elites of Luyialand who were the first to “see the light” when others were still in darkness. The two communities are also perceived to be haughty and domineering, a trait that repels both Maragolis and Bukusus from other Luyias. They have nowadays morphed into two great, conjoined siblings and none is ready to let go.

The Luyia have adequate social tools to unify them into one coherent force: inter-marriages, esikuti dance, Ingwe (leopard) as a tribal totem and other symbols. However, that all Luyias actually found themselves conjoined by colonialists makes it very difficult to lump them socio-culturally, politically and economically.

Indeed none is ready to be seen as subordinate to the other. They both have produced Vice Presidents in Kijana Wamalwa and Musalia Mudavadi, and in community leaders Masinde Muliro and Moses Mudavadi, and it appears as if they are always on a permanent ‘check-mate alert mode’. The recognition of Muliro in the naming of the biggest university in Luyialand located in Kakamega the headquarters of Luyias was perceived to be a scoop of sorts for the Bukusus. In addition, the biggest public park that convenes political rallies – Muliro Gardens – ‘the biggest Oluyia’ was also named after the great son of Bukusuland.

After all these years of push and pull based on historical and post-independent seeds of discord, it is clear that the elusive Luyia unity is still a long shot.

My friend James Wasike says, “as long as the Maragoli are always on standby to throw a spanner in the Bukusu works and vice-versa, Luyia unity will still remain a mirage”. Alternatively, as long as the Bukusu still harbour the Kaimosi grudge, where they were looked down upon by the Maragoli who are in any case their historical competitors, the Luyia nation will not be able to truly say: ‘I am my brother’s keeper’.

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Bethuel Oduo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya


The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya

The quantities of recycled plastic in Kenya remain insignificant, but the long-term ecological cost of disposing plastic waste in the environment will be immeasurable.



The Myth That Is Plastic Waste Recycling in Kenya
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One aspect of modern Kenyan urban living that takes getting used to are the regular, well-timed garbage collection days. Miss your day and you will have to keep the trash a week longer awaiting the next collection date when the beaten-up lorries full of garbage labour through city estates in mid-morning collecting the waste produced by city dwellers.

Should you find yourself in the central business district at around midnight, you may run into these rickety trucks collecting food waste from city restaurants, discarded cartons from offices, and empty drink cans from the city’s clubs that they ferry to the few landfills scattered around the city.

The barely roadworthy trucks are part of the more than 205 lorries working at the city’s many collection points in a hectic bid to keep Nairobi County hygienic. So profitable is the waste collection business that private contractors and cartels have infiltrated the trade.

In Nairobi alone, the county’s garbage collection service is complemented by nearly 150 private sector waste operators who also serve this city of over 4 million residents. Private investments have done a lot but not nearly enough to address the garbage crisis that plagues Kenya’s towns and cities.

Kenya’s urban households produce the bulk of the country’s solid waste, including a major share of the estimated 24 million plastic bags that are used and discarded every month. A significant portion of the plastic waste ends up in dumpsites alongside scrap metal, paper materials, glassware, and medical and toxic waste. Plastic waste constitutes a significant portion of this trash, and poses the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Kenya.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 73 per cent of all plastic waste generated in Kenya goes uncollected. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) reports that between 2 and 8 per cent of the plastic waste is recycled while the rest is disposed of at dumpsites such as Dandora and Ruai in Nairobi, Kachok in Kisumu, and Kibarani at the coast. In Mombasa alone, some 3.7 kilogrammes of per capita plastic waste end up in the ocean, contributing to the 1,300 billion pieces of plastic that find their way into the Indian Ocean every year. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish species in all the oceans globally by 2025.

Kenya banned plastic carrier bags in 2017, at the same time that the United Nations Environment Programme was launching the Clean Seas campaign to reduce marine litter. From June 2020, visitors entering game reserves, forests, beaches, protected areas and conservancies are no longer allowed to carry plastic water bottles, cups, cutlery, plates, drinking straws, and packaging within the protected areas.

On the production end, there are industry-led plastics initiatives such as the Kenya Plastic Action Plan and the creation of the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), whose mandate is to ensure that plastics are mapped, ferried, sorted, and where possible, put back into circulation. Given the low garbage collection rates, and the even lower sorting rates, recycling has been misleadingly touted as the key to managing plastic waste.

For context, the cumulative global plastic waste produced since 1950 is estimated at 8.3 billion tonnes — half of which was produced in the last 13 years alone — at an average of 300 million tonnes annually.

In Kenya recycling doesn’t work    

Recycling has its limitations. Despite being cited as a major solution to the problem of plastic waste, a solution that has been taken up by 34 of the 54 African states,  numerous reports have proven that it costs more to recycle than to dispose of the waste. That of course begs the question: costlier for whom?

While disposing plastic is cheaper than recycling, the long-term ecological cost to Kenyans living close to landfills and downstream is provably much higher. Kenyan plastic manufacturers are in the business for profit and, for the most part, recycling does not offer them value for money.

According to Kenya’s PET plastic industry’s joint self-regulation effort, once plastic waste enters the recycling conveyer, it is assembled and packed into bales that are sold as industrial goods and sent to the dozens of recycling plants around the country to be sorted by quality, industrial variety, texture and colour. The waste is then shredded, sanitized, melted down, and moulded into smaller, smoother plastic pellets.

These pellets, known as nurdles, are bought and once again melted down and fashioned into other plastic products, ready for re-use by industries. This form of recycling is the optimal pathway for plastic waste, but it rarely is feasible. Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

To put it in context, less than 45 per cent of Nairobi’s overall waste is recycled, most of it undergoing what is referred to as down-cycling, open recycling, or cascaded recycling.

Cascaded recycling refers to the process of using recycled plastic waste to make an item of a lower quality than the original product. These items typically have reduced recycling potential, which destines them for the landfill after use. Models of cascaded recycling in Kenya’s informal settlements therefore turn the triangular recycling loop into a one-way direction to an incinerator or landfill.

Recycling plastic waste is a lengthy and costly process that is avoided by many plastic producers.

Global research led by plastics expert Dr Roland Geyer claims that only 9 per cent of all the plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Kenya’s cascaded recycling rates are harder to quantify but an authoritative plastics report states that only 14 per cent of global plastic packaging waste was collected for recycling in 2013. Only 8 per cent of that amount was down-cycled, of which 4 per cent atrophied during the process while only 2 per cent was recycled into a product of equal or higher value.

Even locally, recycling plastic is a costly process and sorting it, many experts assert, is unfeasible, which means that there is no way out when dealing with plastic waste other than banning the production and use of plastics.

Kenya and the global dumping of plastic waste 

The non-feasibility of recycling plastic waste has been an open secret among plastics industry insiders since as far back as the 1970s. As early as 1973, senior executives of plastics multinationals had already ruled out plastic waste recycling on a large scale. Instead, these multinationals paid for misleading big-budget advertisements extolling the virtues of plastic products, and lying about the ease with which plastics could be recycled for other uses, while also placing the responsibility of recycling or disposing plastic waste on the end-user. However, the mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

Old industry memos and library archives show that as far back as the mid-1980s Kenyan scholars like Kamau Hezron Mwangi had begun to call for a serious look into the efficacy of recycling  while, in the mid-1990s, researcher Dr J.N. Muthotho and his team demanded for greater research across specific plastic products supply chains. The growing concerns linked to plastic products, their quality, disposability and the economics of the industry paint an image of an industry that has always been well aware of the problems caused by plastic waste but has lacked the motivation to address the issue. In an increasingly consumerist society, plastic has continued to be affordable, readily available, cheap, convenient, and yet very difficult to dispose of.

Ending Kenya’s relationship with plastic

A radical behavioural shift by producers, packaging firms and end-users is required in order to rid the Kenyan environment of plastic pollution. The ban on plastic carrier bags has had an estimated 80 per cent efficacy rate. Industry insiders including manufacturers and distributors now say that the ban should be extended to disposable tableware, plastic straws, plates and cutlery.

The mounds of plastic waste that are now an eyesore in many urban areas belie the claim that recycling is the solution.

This, the stakeholders say, will reduce the amount of single-use plastic in landfills, reduce waste, minimize animal deaths, improve human safety, and save our water systems. However, a concerted effort is needed to ban single-use plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic packaging and replace them with organic, biodegradable plastic (BDP) alternatives.

Most BDP products in the Kenyan market are made of thermoplastic starch that uses a polyester similar in material strength to plastic. Currently there is only one manufacturer in the country. However, researchers are coming closer to finding organic alternatives to plastics.

Reimagining a post-plastic country

In Kenya, the stakeholders have to begin to reimagine new models of ridding the country of plastic waste in the everyday life and habits of Kenyan citizens. Nairobi and its environs alone is estimated to produce between 2,400 and 3,000 tonnes of general waste every single day, an estimated 20 per cent of which is plastic waste.

“People don’t want to stop using plastic. It is cheap and easy to use so I understand why people like [it]”, says Kinuthia, an unlicensed collector in Uthiru.

A consumer culture that creates an ever-increasing demand and use of plastic products ought to be overhauled, reimagined, and refashioned.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon. As far back as the late 1980s, the World Bank President Barber Conable recognised that the ecological cost of economic production has to be accounted for. “Current calculations ignore the degradation of the natural-resource base and view the sales of nonrenewable resources entirely as income . . . A better way must be found.” he wrote.

Kenya’s plastic producers and importers have to begin to consider how to shift the society away from plastic products and integrate the alternatives in the marketplace. Kenyans have the opportunity to have a national conversation around local plastic producers and importers, if we are to work effectively towards phasing out all plastic products sold in the market.

With imports valued at an estimated US$883 million, Kenya’s plastics sector has a critical duty to phase out plastic products so as to, at the very least, ensure that the end-user does not have to choose between affordability, disposability, and sustainability of the packaging when making a purchasing decision.

The plastic waste crisis calls for Kenyans to design products with their life cycle and their end in mind at the outset. Therefore, designing products with their utility and disposal in mind is critical. For example, utilizing snap-together parts in appliances minimizes the use of screws, making the end product easier to disassemble, recover, and recycle at the end. This evolution in design proactively shapes the journey of a product in order to ensure that as much material as possible is recycled back into the production conveyer.

Even within economic circles, the focus on GDP as a measure of economic progress while ignoring the social, ecological and cultural impacts is increasingly frowned upon.

On 24 March 2021, Kenya’s Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJD) held a consultative forum with 24 grassroots Civil Society Organisations in the waste management sector with support from Break Free From Plastic. The members used the existing legislative framework that bans single-use plastic carrier bags in the country to launch the CSOs for Zero Plastics in Kenya network that integrates the input of stakeholders in the affected sectors. Still, this push by CSOs towards a wider ban seems to have created a policy tension between the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and multi-nationals that rely on plastic products for packaging.

In 2018, NEMA tried to extend the ban on plastic carrier bags to single-use plastic containers such as bottles made of PET. However, the companies involved in the production of PET products instead proposed a self-regulated, industry-led solution under PETCO.

Despite NEMA’s pledge in 2018 to make PETCO membership mandatory for all plastic industry players, its membership remains voluntary. This lapse has slowed the acceptance of membership by stakeholders and by industry players and minimized compliance. Kenya currently has eight PET converters, but only one of them is a PETCO member. Moreover, an estimated 900 bottling plants use PET containers but only eight (1 per cent) are members of PETCO.

The future of a post-plastic Kenya requires consolidation of existing industry efforts, ramping up scientific research on alternatives, a shift in consumer behaviour and robust incremental policies in enforcing the bans and restrictions. Only then can Kenya secure its ecology, manage the diverse interests of the stakeholders involved and still manage its ecological health with posterity in mind.

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Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy

Even as Kenya’s land-based resources continue to shrink because of a rapidly growing population, microplastic pollution of Kenya’s Indian Ocean is putting in jeopardy the country’s maritime resources.



Microplastics: the Destruction of Marine Life and the Blue Economy
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Five scientists, Joyce Kerubo, John M. Onyari and Agnes Muthumbi from the University of Nairobi, Deborah Robertson-Andersson from the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, and Edward Ndirui Kimani from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), undertook a research study last year that returned a harsh verdict of a high presence of microplastics (MPs) in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

MPs are plastic pellets, fragments, and fibres that enter the environment and are less than 5mm in dimension. The primary sources of MPs are vehicle tyres, synthetic textiles, paints, personal care products, and plastic products that have disintegrated into tiny particles because of environmental turbulence.

The study by the five scientists, Microplastic Polymers in Surface Waters and Sediments in the Creeks along the Kenya Coast, Western Indian Ocean (WIO), identified four polymer types in Kenya’s Indian Ocean. High-density polythene is the most abundant at 38.3 per cent, followed by polypropylene (34.6 per cent), low-density polythene (27.1 per cent), and medium density polythene (17.1 per cent). The research findings were published in the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research on 18 October 2021.

The concentration of MPs in the surface waters along the Kenyan coastline was higher compared to other parts of the world, the study warned. The findings of the study also confirmed those of previous studies on the presence of MPs in Kenya’s Indian Ocean.

The scientists also cautioned that the documented information on the specific polymeric composition of these particles in seawater and in the sediments along the Kenyan coast was insufficient. The findings, the study offered, demonstrated the extent of exposure to MPs in Kenya’s ocean ecosystems, therefore justifying policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste, and the protection of the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

It drew testing samples from three creeks: Tudor and Port Reitz in Mombasa County and Mida in Kilifi County. Tudor Creek covers an area of approximately 20 square kilometres and is fed by two seasonal rivers—Kombeni and Tsalu—that originate around Mariakani, about 32 kilometres northwest of Mombasa. The two seasonal rivers collect runoff containing plastic and other waste from the mainland and discharge it into the creek.

Surrounding Tudor creek are several densely populated informal settlements that include Mishomoroni and Mikindani that may add MPs to the ocean. According to the study findings, the majority of the MPs were fibrous materials from textiles and ropes, probably from wastewater from washing clothes and from fishing activities.

Other key facilities that could contribute to the pollution include shipping activities at the Port of Mombasa, meat processing at Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), Coast General Hospital, Container Freight Stations (CFSs) and Kipevu Power Station. Before it was rehabilitated, Mombasa County Government dumped a lot of waste at Kibarani, near the two creeks and just next to the ocean.

Tudor Creek recorded the highest pollution, also as a result of rain runoff from Kongowea market and Muoroto slums, and Mikindani sewage effluent. Moreover, according to the study, which could, however, not determine the proportions, many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

Mida Creek was used as a control in the study as it does not have river inflows. In addition, the creek is in a marine reserve that forms part of the Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve. However, MPs from different polymers were found in sediment and surface water samples from all the sites—including Mida Creek which is within Watamu National Marine Reserve—which the researchers had thought to be safe from pollution by industrial effluent, sewage disposal, and fishing activities.

Many industries on Mombasa Island release their effluent into the sea, increasing MPs in sediments.

The study attributed the pollution at Mida Creek to high tourism activities, boat and dhow fishing activities, densely populated villages such as Dabaso, Ngala, and Kirepwe and the mangrove vegetation cover of tall trees that binds soil particles thus favouring the accumulation of MPs.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report released in March 2019, plastic—which makes up a sizable proportion of marine pollution—can now be found in all the world’s oceans, but concentrations are thought to be highest in coastal areas and reef environments where the vast majority of this litter originates from land-based sources.

In Kenya, daily plastic consumption is estimated at 0.3 Kilograms per person. In 2018, Kenya imported between 45,000 and 57,000 metric tonnes of plastic.

Earlier in 2020, KMFRI had carried out its own study—Microplastics Pollution in Coastal Nearshore Surface Waters in Vanga, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, Kenya—that painted an even gloomier picture of MP pollution.

The four sampling locations represented the South coast, Mombasa and the North coast of Kenya’s coastal nearshore waters, and looked into considering fishing, recreation, and industrial activities, as well as the municipal effluent that finds its way into these target areas.

The objective of the study was to assess the abundance MPs and their composition in Kenya’s coastal near-shore waters during the two rainy seasons at the Kenyan coast: the north-east monsoon which runs between November and March, and the south-east monsoon which runs from April to October.

The results showed a widely varied distribution of MPs between the two seasons, with the overall highest concentrations occurring during the south-east monsoon when surface runoff from rainwater and from effluent from the major towns is high.

As confirmed in other research studies, the concentrations recorded by KMFRI, were quite high compared to other parts of the world. This provided baseline data for MPs, showing that population, anthropogenic activities and seasonal variations a play key role in influencing pollution by MPs.

Total MP concentrations in all the study areas during the north-east and the south-east monsoon seasons ranged between 83 MPs/m³ and 8266 MPs/m³ and between 126 MPs/m³ and 12,256 MPs/m³ respectively, with a mean of 3228 MPs/m³. The highest microplastic levels were found in Mombasa at 12,256 MPs/m³ during the south-east monsoon season, where runoff and effluent due to heavy rains are thought to be the primary source. The next highest levels were found in Malindi, occurring during the south-east monsoon season, because of inflows from River Sabaki.

Boat activities and tourism during the north-east monsoon season and runoff from the town during the south-east monsoon season mostly affected Lamu, while fishing activities, as well and runoff from the town, could be responsible for the abundance of MPs recorded in Vanga.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population. Although most of the solid waste generated in the county is organic—largely from households, hotels, restaurants and agricultural produce markets, the largest being Kongowea and Marikiti—plastic takes up a significant share.

In its County Sessional Paper No 01 of 2019, Mombasa County estimated daily waste production at 2,200 tons, 68 per cent of which is organic. Approximately 18 per cent of this waste is plastics, cardboard, paper and metals.

Other inorganic waste such as e-waste, construction waste and junk makes up an estimated 14 per cent of the waste generated. Public and private health facilities generate an estimated 2 to 3 tonnes of biomedical waste daily.

Solid waste management remains an enormous challenge in coastal towns, with Mombasa County facing the biggest challenge due to a burgeoning population.

Most of the solid waste generated is disposed in undesignated open grounds—in VOK, Kwa Karama, Kadongo, Junda, Saratoga, and Mcheleni. It is disposed in the same form as it is generated without being recycled or reused. Disposal of solid waste in the open has continuously had a negative environmental health impact through the contamination of water sources.

Moreover, with the limited investment in solid waste recycling and recovery systems, disposal methods in the county have been a contributor to public nuisance.

There are two designated dumpsites, namely Mwakirunge in Kisauni and Shonda in Likoni. However, these dumpsites are poorly managed and do not respect the prescribed environmental health standards while Mombasa County government’s budgetary allocation for solid waste management is not sufficient to meet the desired results.

MPs are harmful to human health, experts say. The ingestion of MPs by species at the base of the food web causes human food safety concerns, as little is known about their effects on the food that finally lands on our menu.

The minuscule size of MPs renders them invisible to filter-feeding fauna, leading to unintentional ingestion. In a study published in December 2020 in the Africa Journal of Marine Science, W. Awuor, Agnes Muthumbi and Deborah Robertson-Andersson confirmed the presence of MPs in marine life. The study investigated MPs in oysters and in three species of brachyuran crabs.

They did sampling in eight stations distributed between three sites—Tudor, Port Reitz and Mida Creek—in January and February 2018, during low spring tide. The sample comprised 206 crabs and 70 oysters.

The study identified MP fibres of different colours—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, purple, green, blue—as well as colourless ones. Colourless fibres were the most prevalent, comprising at least 60 per cent of the total MPs. The mean lengths of the MP fibres were between 0.1 and 4.2 mm.

The study exposes MP pollution along the Kenyan coast and its uptake by marine fauna, and thus strengthens the case for better control of plastic waste in the ocean. “Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change,” said the head of UN Environment’s coral reef unit, Jerker Tamelander, in 2019.

“Waste continues to leak from land, and coral reefs are on the receiving end. They also trap a lot of fishing gear and plastic lost from aquaculture. With the effects of climate change on coral reef ecosystems already significant, the additional threat of plastics must be taken seriously.”

According to UNEP, there remains a significant lack of knowledge on the true impact of plastics on the reef environment, including the level of concentrations of MPs across coral reef eco-regions in order to understand the scale of the issue in a standardised manner.

“Marine plastic litter pollution is already affecting over 800 marine species through ingestion, entanglement and habitat change.”

Concerns about ocean pollution have been raised at a time when the country is looking at the Blue Economy as the country’s next economic growth frontier. In effect, Kenya’s land-based resources have been shrinking because of a rapidly growing population and it is therefore prudent for the government to shift the focus to the country’s ocean resources spread over an area of 245,000 km², or 42 per cent of the country’s total land mass.

Kenya has from the outset not been keen on growing the maritime sector. Even Kenya’s first independence economic blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya, published in 1965, failed to anchor the Blue Economy in the country’s economic growth agenda, despite its significant role in transporting 95 per cent of the country’s global transactions.

The Western Indian Ocean has resources worth more than KSh2.2 trillion in annual outputs, with Kenya’s share standing at about 20 per cent of this figure. The marine fishing sub-sector alone had an annual fish potential of 350,000 metric tonnes worth KSh90 billion in 2013. However, the region only yielded a paltry 9,134 metric tonnes worth KSh2.3 billion during that year.

In 2018, the then Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mwangi Kiunjuri, said that by failing to fully exploit the Blue Economy, Kenya was losing over Sh440 billion annually. But if the opportunities offered by the Blue Economy are to be exploited, a policy intervention in the management and disposal of plastic waste is urgently required to protect the ocean’s rich biodiversity for sustainable development.

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Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony

Meriem Naïli writes about the continuing struggle for the independence of Western Sahara. Occupied by Morocco since the 1970s, in contravention of the International Court of Justice and the UN. The internationally recognised liberation movement, POLISARIO, has fought and campaigned for independence since the early 1970s. Naïli explains what is going on, and the legal efforts to secure the country’s freedom.



Western Sahara: Africa’s Last Colony
Photo: Freepik/natanaelginting
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The conflict over Western Sahara can be described as a conflict over self-determination that has been frozen in the past three decades. Western Sahara is a territory in North-West Africa, bordered by Morocco in the north, Algeria and Mauritania in the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. A former Spanish colony, it has been listed by the UN since 1963 as one of the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories, but the only such territory without a registered administrating power.

Since becoming independent from France in 1956, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara and has since the late 1970s formally annexed around 80% of its territory, over which it exercises de facto control in contravention of the conclusions reached by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its advisory opinion of October 15, 1975, on this matter. The court indeed did not find any “legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular, of the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory” (Western Sahara (1975), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1975, p.12).

On 14 November 1975, the Madrid Accords – formally the Declaration of Principles on Western Sahara – were signed between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania setting the conditions under which Spain would withdraw from the territory and divide its administration between the two African states. Its paragraph two reads that “Spain shall immediately proceed to establish a temporary administration in the territory, in which Morocco and Mauritania shall participate in collaboration with the Jemâa [a tribal assembly established by Spain in May 1967 to serve as a local consultative link with the colonial administration], and to which the responsibilities and powers referred to in the preceding paragraph shall be transferred.”

Although it was never published on the Boletin Oficial del Estado [the official State journal where decrees and orders are published on a weekly basis], the accord was executed, and Mauritania and Morocco subsequently partitioned the territory in April 1976. Protocols to the Madrid Accords also allowed for the transfer of the Bou Craa phosphate mine and its infrastructure and for Spain to continue its involvement in the coastal fisheries.

Yet in Paragraph 6 of his 2002 advisory opinion, UN Deputy Secretary General Hans Corell, reaffirmed that the 1975 Madrid Agreement between Spain, Morocco, and Mauritania “did not transfer sovereignty over the Territory, nor did it confer upon any of the signatories the status of an administering Power, a status which Spain alone could not have unilaterally transferred.”

The war

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) is the internationally recognised national liberation movement representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara. Through the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), it has been campaigning since its creation in May 1973 in favour of independence from Spain through a referendum on self-determination to be supervised by the UN. A war broke out shortly after Morocco and Mauritania’s invasion in November 1975. Spain officially withdrew from the territory on 26 February 1976 and the Sahrawi leadership proclaimed the establishment of the SADR the following day.

In 1984, the SADR was admitted as a full member of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union), resulting in Morocco’s decision to withdraw the same year in protest. Morocco would only (re)join the African Union (AU) in 2017. The admission of the SADR to the OAU consolidated the movement in favour of its recognition internationally, with 84 UN member states officially recognising the SADR.

In the meantime, to strengthen its colonization of the territory, Morocco had begun building what it later called “le mur de défense” (the defence wall). In August 1980, following the withdrawal of Mauritanian troops the previous year, Morocco sought to “secure” a part of the territory that Mauritania had occupied. Construction of the wall – or “berm” – was completed in 1987 with an eventual overall length of just under 2,500km.

A “coordination mission” was established in 1985 by the UN and the OAU with representatives dispatched to find a solution to the conflict between the two parties. After consultations, the joint OAU-UN mission drew up a proposal for settlement accepted by the two parties on 30 August 1988 and would later be detailed in the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) report of 18 June 1990 and the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution establishing United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Since 1979 and the surrender of Mauritania, around 80% of the territory has remained under Morocco’s military and administrative occupation.

Deployment of MINURSO

The Settlement Plan agreed to in principle between Morocco and POLISARIO in August 1988 was submitted to the UNSC on 12 July 1989 and approved in 1990. On 29 April 1991, the UNSC established MINURSO in resolution 690, the terms of reference for it being set out in the UNSG’s report of 19 April 1991. The plan provided for a cease-fire, followed by the organisation of a referendum of self-determination for which the people of Western Sahara had to choose between two options: integration with Morocco or plain and simple independence.

In this regard, it provided for the creation of an Identification Commission to resolve the issue of the eligibility ofSahrawi voters for the referendum, an issue which has since generated a great deal of tension between the two parties. A Technical Commission was created by mid-1989 to implement the Plan, with a schedule based on several phases and a deployment of UN observers following the proclamation of a ceasefire.

Talks quickly began to draw up a voters list amid great differences between the parties. POLISARIO maintained that the Spanish census of 1974 was the only valid basis, with 66,925 eligible adult electors, while Morocco demanded inclusion of all the inhabitants who, as settlers, continued to populate the occupied part of the territory as well as people from southern Morocco. It was decided that the 1974 Spanish census would serve as a basis, and the parties were to propose voters for inclusion on the grounds that they were omitted from the 1974 census.

In 1991, the first list was published with around 86,000 voters. However, the process of identifying voters would be obstructed in later years, mainly by Morocco which attempted to include as many Moroccan settlers as possible. The criteria for eligibility had sometimes been modified to accommodate Morocco’s demands and concerns. Up to 180,000 applications had been filed on the part of the Kingdom, the majority of which had been rejected by the UN Commission as they did not satisfy the criteria for eligibility.

Consequently, the proclamation of “D-Day”, to mark the beginning of a twelve-week transition period following the cease-fire leading to the referendum on self-determination, kept being postponed and eventually was never declared.

The impasse

Following the rejection by Morocco of the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara (known as Baker Plan II) and the complete suspension of UN referendum preparation activities in 2003, Morocco’s proposal for autonomy of the territory under its sovereignty in 2007 crystallised the stalemate [the Peace Plan is contained in Annex II of UNSG report S/2003/565, and available here].

The Baker Plan II had envisioned a four or five-year transitional power-sharing period between an autonomous Western Sahara Authority and the Moroccan state before the organisation of a self-determination referendum during which the entire population of the territory could vote for the status of the territory – including an option for independence. It was ‘supported’ by the UNSC in resolution S/RES/1495 and reluctantly accepted by POLISARIO but rejected by Morocco.

The absence of human rights monitoring prerogatives for MINURSO has emerged as an issue for the people of Western Sahara as a result of the stalemate in the referendum process in the last two decades. MINURSO is the only post-Cold War peacekeeping operation to be deprived of such prerogatives.

Amongst the four operations currently deployed that are totally deprived of human rights monitoring components (UNFICYP in Northern Cyprus, UNIFIL in Lebanon, UNDOF in the Israeli-Syrian sector and MINURSO), MINURSO stands out as not having attained its purpose through the organisation of a referendum. In addition, among the missions that did organise referendums (namely UNTAG in Namibia and UNAMET in East Timor), all had some sort of human rights oversight mechanism stemming from their mandates.

On 8 November 2010, a protest camp established by Sahrawis near Laayoune (capital of Western Sahara) was dismantled by the Moroccan police. The camp had been set up a month earlier in protest at the ongoing discrimination, poverty, and human rights abuses against Sahrawis. When dismantling the camp, gross human rights violations were reported – see reports by Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (2011) and Amnesty International (2010).

This episode revived the international community’s interest in Western Sahara and therefore strengthened the demand by Sahrawi activists to “extend the mandate of MINURSO to monitor human rights” (see Irene Fernández-Molina, “Protests under Occupation: The Spring inside Western Sahara” in Mediterranean Politics, 20:2 (2015): 235–254).

Such an extension was close to being achieved in April 2013, when an UNSC resolution draft penned by the US unprecedentedly incorporated this element, although it was eventually taken out. This failed venture remains to date the most serious attempt to add human rights monitoring mechanisms to MINURSO. Supporters of this amendment to the mandate are facing the opposition by Moroccan officials who hold that it is not the raison d’être of the mission, and it could jeopardize the negotiation process.

What’s going on now?

At the time of writing, the people of Western Sahara are yet to express the country’s right to self-determination through popular consultation or any other means agreed between the parties. The conflict therefore remains unresolved since the ceasefire and has mostly been described as “frozen” by observers.

On the ground, resistance from Sahrawi activists remain very much active. Despite the risks of arbitrary arrest, repression or even torture, the Sahrawi people living under occupation have organised themselves to ensure their voices are heard and violations are reported. Freedom House in 2021 have, yet again, in its yearly report, rated Western Sahara as one of the worst countries in the world with regards to political rights and civil liberties.

Despite a clear deterioration of the peace process over the decades, several factors have signalled a renewed interest in this protracted conflict among key actors and observers from the international community. A Special Envoy of the AU Council Chairperson for Western Sahara (Joaquim Alberto Chissano from Mozambique) was appointed by the Peace and Security Council in June 2014. This was followed by Morocco becoming a member of the AU in January 2017.

More recently, major events have begun to de-crystalise the status quo. The war resumed on 13 November 2020 following almost 30 years of ceasefire. Additionally, for the first time, a UN member state – the US – recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory. Former US President Trump’s declaration on 10 December 2020 to that effect was made less than a month after the resumption of armed conflict. It has not, however, been renounced by the current Biden administration. As this recognition secured Morocco’s support for Israel as per the Abrahamic Accords, reversing Donald Trump’s decision would have wider geopolitical repercussions.

In September 2021, the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) issued decisions invalidating fisheries and trade agreements between Morocco and the EU insofar as they extended to Western Sahara, rejecting Morocco’s sovereignty. This decision is the latest episode of a legal battle taking place before the European courts.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), had previously reaffirmed the legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, set by the UN in 1963 following the last report transmitted by Spain – as Administering Power – on Spanish Sahara under Article 73 of the UN Charter. The Court rejected in December 2016 any claims of sovereignty by Morocco by restating the distinct statuses of both territories.

The last colony in Africa remains largely under occupation and the UN mission in place is still deprived of any kind of human rights monitoring. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Morocco has been trading away peace in the form of military accords and trade partnerships. This situation must end – with freedom, and sovereignty finally won by Western Sahara.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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