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The Rwanda-Uganda Border Closure: When Love Turns to Hate…and Rebels Become Tyrants

18 min read.

The absence of steadying British and American hands right now, in this conflict, has exposed the lack of political and management skills in Kigali and in Kampala. It has exposed the fact that Uganda and Rwanda have for decades now been run as client states. In the absence of the Anglo-Saxon power-meisters, Museveni and Kagame are learning cruelly the difference between monkey and organ grinder.

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The Rwanda-Uganda Border Closure: When Love Turns to Hate…and Rebels Become Tyrants
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Well into its fourth week, the bewildering showdown between Rwanda President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, had predictably produced a heart-rending headline. The news reports said that a woman several months pregnant, an Elizabeth Mukarugwiza, had been chased across the border from Rwanda into Uganda by either the Rwandan army or police.

Eye-witness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was had driven her, and we can only speculate (a prenatal visit to a clinic?), would have been that urgent. Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumor, a thing said of a closed country that without voices or images to back it up, quickly loses steam.

Take the story of three sisters:

As reported in The Observer newspaper, the sisters, daughters of a pastor Deo Nyirigira who lives in Mbarara in Western Uganda, had completed their studies at Ugandan universities and then returned to find work in Kigali. Their father, part of the group extruded from Rwanda in the 1959 upheaval that brought Paul Kagame himself to Uganda, had one time returned to the country after the genocide. After only a handful of years, Mr. Nyirigira realised that he could no longer live in his country. For a second time, he left Rwanda for Uganda. Given his influence as a pastor, the authorities in Kigali grew weary of him and wanted him back. Attempts at kidnapping him are said to have led to the shooting death of one of the suspected Rwandan kidnap squad.

Eyewitness reports said that Ms. Mukarugwiza, 37, just about beat the Rwandan security to the border. Whatever it was that had driven her, we can only speculate that it had been urgent (a prenatal visit to a clinic, perhaps?). Had this episode occurred inside Rwanda itself, what happened next would not have been reported. Were we to hear of it, it would have come as rumour – a thing that quickly loses steam without voices or images to back it up.

Back in Rwanda, and back in the present, with the rise in political tensions now, Mr. Nyirigira’s daughters, because the government could not touch their father, have reportedly been stripped of their jobs. In Rwanda, children may be punished for the infractions of parents; in the worst of times, the unborn were not spared either. One sister was already married with a child. The husband was ordered to divorce her. It was when their father sent them sustenance money that they were apparently taken into custody. But we hear of these events secondhand.

The fate of Ms. Mukarugwiza too would have been rumor were it not for the Ugandan media. But alas, escaping the Rwandan forces counted for naught. No sooner had Ms. Mukarugwiza made it across the border than she collapsed and died, she and her unborn baby.

A moment crackling with significance; there you had the picture, shared across social media, of what appear to be two Red Cross responders, white latex gloved hands, stooped forms, shocked, horrified faces wanting to have a look. The body covered in red, green, then blue and red Maasai blankets. The scene is slopping ground, a wooded glen, heavy jackets giving an idea of altitude and weather. Armed men hounded the expectant mother to death; just like in a gothic, B Movie, the fetus must not be born. It was as if 1994 were reclaiming the soul of Rwanda.

Trying to see it from the perspective of a Rwandan, to not miss-judge the act, however carking, was hard, the central question refusing to go away; in what way does the death of a pregnant woman contribute to the greater good of Rwanda? At 37, Ms. Mukarugwiza would have left behind other children. They will remember, so does that now make them targets to a regime that lives in fear of its victims? (“He who kills Brutus but does not kill the sons of Brutus,” a researcher once quoted the mantra to me). How many times in that country was it justified by saying that the child will be born an enemy? Too rebarbative to contain, and yet human sacrifice, after thousands of years, has still not lost its repugnance. Fascism, the conclusion went, had sunk deep roots into Rwanda, its president, irretrievably fallen to the dark side.

Ugly underbelly

The one link I could use to comprehend what happened to Ms. Mukarugwiza was two decades out of date. The first and last time I was in Rwanda, a few years after the genocide, was March 2003. The first thing I did in Kigali was look up my old classmates who had returned home post-1994. But the once humble, amiable schoolboys of the late 80s and early 90s, I failed to find in the men they had become. In turns brash, and rude, then commanding, suddenly distant, then calm, then uncommunicative, their mercurial, unstable character had caught me off guard in 2003. I took it with whatever fortitude I could muster at that age, rationalizing that few peoples had endured what the Rwandans had gone through.

But for a few years after that, and already disabused of my then, post-genocide, World Bank-sponsored naivety, garnished with western media manufactured facts about post-genocide Rwanda, I paid closer attention. I tried my best not to fall into the binary, this side good, that side bad routine. I read into each report, into each TV segment, the calamitous shift in the character of my old school friends. It was as if once you had seen into peoples’ souls, no mere shift in ideology nor mass media spin, can fool you.

We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times where I spent time with refugees. Covering Rwanda and Congo was one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The end of the genocide had been heralded as a grand moment, yet in many respects, it signaled the beginning of other horrible events.

And then I paid too much attention. The years starting from 2003 would culminate with my departure from the media in 2006. They were the years of the unravelling of whatever post-Mobutu hiatus might have been in Congo. Congolese refugees were streaming out in all directions. And it seemed back then that the region was on fire. One of the worst massacres in the northern Uganda war came in that span of time. Sudan had just concluded its penultimate, bloody stage of civil war. Garang died in a plane crash. Back then, being a reporter meant that by default, you were a war reporter.

We were not many in the newsroom, so on top of my other beats, I was dispatched to northern Uganda countless times. I spent time with refugees. Of Rwanda and Congo, there began one of the most upsetting times of my career as a reporter. The ending of the genocide had been heralded as the grand moment. In many respects, it had been the beginning of the worst. In testimony after testimony, I heard something else besides what was said of the region. I was cruelly disillusioned about where this region would end up. I met the ugly underbelly of what was a disturbing, ethno-racial war. The silence of guns, if that ever came, would mean this zero-sum war being fought by other means.

We were all in it, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, so that events in any part of Congo would have meaning in all four countries. Those stocking the flames of the northern Uganda war saw it as a continuum for the outcomes in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, etc. How, as a reporter taught to not identify subjects by race or ethnicity do you approach that without also withholding the truth from the public? Calculating that if the combatants and their invidious backers in Kampala, Kigali and who knows which other cities quietly believed in their own ethnic superiority, why should the rest of us watching in confusion not know their full intentions?

Because Rwanda could rely on it, it took Uganda’s friendship for granted. However, by 2017 something had gone amiss. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its boundaries by interfering with the power dynamics of Uganda at a sensitive time when Museveni was struggling to assert his power.

It is one thing to fight a war of self-defense. It is another to wage a war of hegemonic ambition. The one is understandable; the other is a crime. I went for it. I reported what was a parallel, darker narrative to the sanitised news routine; the common approach was not courageous enough to tell the truth; rather than tell the world what accounted for the blinding human cruelty being meted out for what the perpetrators saw as payment for past ethnic traumas, it endlessly asked in faux naïveté, why people could be so inhuman.

The backlash

It was then the backlash started. The war may have been in Congo, but doors began to be shut in my face in government offices in Kampala. Shielding behind media ignorance and international lack of curiosity had enabled them wage wars in four countries with the comfort that the usual tropes of reporting Africa would shield them. The furiousness with which the reactions came left me stunned. I began to hear of the moves to get rid of me from the newspaper long before it happened.

Back in the day, the newspaper I worked for had yearly run country supplements of Rwanda. After a series of stories, on the troubles in Eastern Congo, the supplement hung in balance, the expected hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising threatened. As a reporter who may never earn that much money over a career, there is not much choice between your journalism and a paper merchant’s profits. I recollect the hostility at the paper itself, the kvetching from advertising salesmen who saw my reporting as financially ruinous. My notebooks disappeared. Journalist colleagues whose relationships to Kigali you had taken as a joke, took on a different character. Kagame’s reach, we understood, was everywhere, and newspaper offices are great places to plant eyes and ears. The failure of my paper to stand by me as a reporter, and the increasing telephone harassment, plus the decision I was reaching to become a fulltime writer, led me quit the media. If your editor and publisher cannot stand by you, there is little you can do about such matters.

I got busy finding ways of being a writer, including spending 3 years in Kenya. Rwanda receded from my mind. But I had gained a further insight. Legitimate, even useful scrutiny, let alone criticism, is not allowed in Rwanda, even if its well-meant. I immediately understood that Kigali’s temper tantrums would ensure that Kagame never ran out of enemies. Seeing enemies everywhere you look is not great leadership. There is a psychological term for it. I had not learnt anything new, really. I had merely joined the ranks of those familiar with the ugliness of our region’s politics, the people who expect any day to have to run into exile. I was not in bad company. I calmed down and moved on.

Till October 2017. That month, the big story (the month before Museveni had trashed the parliament) was that five Ugandan police officers had been arrested for the kidnap and extra-judicial deportation of Rwanda dissidents.

You had to have followed Rwanda closely enough, or been to school with some of the characters close to the show to have understood what that headline meant. There had always been much talk about the vaunted Rwandan security and intelligence, of their capacities and determination. I had always doubted that, particularly after enduring run-ins with a handful of them and taking note of how amateurish they were. I had also been in class with some, and they were not what you may describe as top of the class, as it were. They are good when you don’t fight back. When you do, they do precisely what Kagame has done; draw down the barricades and get nasty. Closer to the truth was that Rwanda is too small a country for others to spend energy worrying about. Some residual sympathy had perhaps led others to look the other way. It wasn’t that they were better; it was that others were benevolent towards them.

Toxic anger

I doubted that when it came to it, Rwanda could match the intelligence capabilities of say South Africa. Or Uganda, when it came to it. Slinking about dark corners and spiking people’s tea, sticking knives into “enemies” is one thing. The net effect is to get you marked out as evil and untrustworthy. It is another to have the economic and diplomatic clout of countries dramatically bigger like South Africa, or even small ones like Uganda whose economy you actually depend on. The problem of toxic anger the junta is afflicted with means they fail to tell friend from foe.

Because it could rely on it, Kigali took Uganda for granted. Either way, by 2017 something had gone wrong enough. Kigali, it seemed, had overstepped its bounds at last. You easily guessed that they had interfered with the power dynamics of Uganda. At such a sensitive time over his hold on to power, Mr. Museveni would have been unhappy.

This unease is to the extent that nearly everyone – not just politicians, lawyers and journalists, but even mobile money booth owners – is afraid to receive phone calls, especially from strangers, but also from anybody who is not an immediate family member. Friends are now suspecting friends. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil.

We still do not know the full details of the matter. But former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, perhaps the most unqualified man to have ever held the post, was said to have inadvisedly played a role in the matter, as rumor had it, getting too close to the Rwandans. His erratic behaviour in 2017 may now be clearer in hindsight. In effect, the general had appointed himself the government of Uganda, making the kinds of commands way beyond his ken, as if he had become prime minister, speaker of parliament, chief justice and chief executioner. Not even president Museveni exercised that much authority. It remained for even his boss to join the dots, follow the lines linking him with Rwandan high command to smell something off. What did a police inspector need a political base for; why did he need a foreign policy? Was CID so inadequate that he had to have his own intelligence network? The drama of Kayihura’s downfall added to the political unease in Uganda.

We live in a state of fear. Phone calls bring unease; who might be listening, who is reading the emails? Friends suspect friends; colleagues in offices are unsure of each other. Like Rwanda, Uganda is an overripe boil. Rwanda appears to be falling over the cliff first. We are not far behind.

The central charge against the five officers, and which charge in reverse facsimile ricocheted from Kigali as “Uganda detaining Rwandan citizens without charge” – Kagame’s primary casus belli, was that they were arresting and extra judicially deporting Rwandan dissidents.

For over two decades, Mr. Kagame had won wars in which the other side was not really shooting back, and waging undeclared espionage wars others weren’t too interested in. The risk of going too far was always there, of waking up governments with vaster reach and resources.

And that is what has happened. The blowback started in South Africa. We do not as yet know the extent of this drama unfolding in Uganda, but the alacrity with which Kigali reacted (remember the adage – whatever you do, don’t make any sudden moves) would seem to indicate that the Ugandans knew exactly where to go and which tender spots to touch. By barricading himself and the people he leads in, a move with serious repercussions, no matter which way this story heads, Mr. Kagame has betrayed his state of mind. What he has done is beyond serious. He has drawn unkind attention from the world, who read in this move, not sophistication, leadership, cool-headedness, but cruelty. It behooves a leader not a drop of good to be seen as cruel. It’s not the time to build walls, or close borders with countries to north and south of your country. You remind the world of what and who it wants to forget.

That’s the wider world for starts. In East Africa, this has drawn the scrutiny of people in Kenya and Tanzania for whom Rwanda was far away, a country to be sympathized with. The interruption of regional trade is touching constituents that once could be counted upon to remain distant and unconcerned which way things happened over there. In Uganda itself, Kagame’s action is bringing up sentiments that had plateaued into disinterest. It has also curiously given Mr. Museveni some boost of badly needed sympathy in Uganda. It’s a strange thing, nationalism. Now some of Mr. Museveni’s opponents suddenly understand that it is okay for them to criticize him; they don’t like it that much when a foreign president does the same. Kagame is attacking, not just the Museveni government, but their Museveni.

We can’t tell how it’s going down inside Rwanda itself. But there, the issues are immediate. Rwanda needs Uganda for education, for health, for food more than Uganda needs Rwanda. The drama has been coloured by stories, such as that of the three sisters, whose lives have been imperiled by the closure of borders.

Then, in the middle of it, word came that Mr. Kagame had also closed the border with Burundi.

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand starts with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond.

Whichever way these reactions go, it is still early days, the opening pages of a book of raw emotions. The real story is still to hit its stride. Part of the reason we cannot tell where it will end is because we may be too horrified to begin thinking of it.

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda

But do we not lose perspective by getting caught up in the moment of the drama? Do we care enough to know the story of Rwanda?

Rwanda’s relationship with Uganda is centuries old. As with the current character of Uganda, the bits of the ancient story we understand start with the narrative of the ancient empire of Bunyoro-Kitara, when at the height of inter-Africa migrations, peoples ran into each other. Scars from the dim mists of time fester today, with broad implications for inter-ethnic divisions in Uganda and beyond. The peoples of Rwanda-Burundi, including bits of Eastern Congo, played parts in the stories of the formation of Ugandan kingdoms, and they did not emerge winners. But that is ancient history. Of immediate relevance is how Rwandans ended up living in Uganda in such numbers.

The colonial wars that the British fought in Uganda were some of the most serious in the region, along with the wars the Germans brought to Central Tanzania. By the 1920s, it is reported, the population of Uganda had been growing negatively for three decades. The religion-inflected civil wars in Buganda (which were actually class wars), the Bunyoro genocide, the wars of conquest in the East and North, and the collapse of pre-colonial medicine, along with the interruption of agriculture, more Ugandans had died than were born for close to three decades. Nothing new; all of it very British. They simply did not care that black people were dying because of their imperial strategies. It is what they did in the Americas, in Australia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc. Hence, the introduction of the cash crop economy foundered under severe shortage of labour. The British actively encouraged immigration from Belgian holdings. There are dramatic pictures taken at the time of the way stations doling food, medicine and shelter along the migration route from the Rwandan border into central Uganda. Shirtless, barefoot Rwandans, their beddings rolled up on their heads, are captured in grainy images making the two week walk from the border to central Uganda.

Writing in his book, Kampala-Uganda in 1951, the late American anthropologist, Edwin S. Munger, who died in 2010, wrote that “For thirty years, the principle labor (sic) migration route has been that travelled by the Banyruanda and Barundi from the Belgian mandates into Buganda. Historically, Ruanda-Urundi’s high, steep-sided hills have produced more people than food to feed them. In many years the issue was blunt: go or starve…a carryover from the old days of hardship is the attitude in Ruanda-Urundi that one mark of manhood is a trip to Uganda. The traditions of battling with lions and elephants, of fighting bandits, living off the country, and surviving where many died still give the emigrant prestige on his return home.”

The image in Uganda from the 1920s onwards of Rwandans and Burundians (the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda”) that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants not as victims of cruel colonialism as the Ugandans themselves were, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who worked for a meal. There were many eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype.

Life in Belgian territories was unpleasant, even by the unpleasant standards of colonialism. Arriving in late colonial Uganda, with somewhat better amenities, was for other reasons beside just food and work. “Perhaps here is partial confirmation of the physical hardships of the route from Ruanda-Urundi to Mengo (now greater Kampala) District,” Munger goes on. “Whole wards of Barundi and Banyaruanda are hospitalised with tuberculosis and general malnutrition.”

The image in Uganda, from the 1920s, of Rwandans (and Burundians, the difference was subsumed under the generic “Banyarwanda), that emerged was unfortunate and unfair. Xenophobia in Uganda, particularly in Buganda, served to see these immigrants, not as victims of cruel colonialism as themselves, but as peripatetic, woebegone itinerants who will work for a meal. And many were those eager to blend in, to become integrated, if only to avoid the unkind stereotype. They were escaping similar circumstances, but in one of the failures of African societies, those they ran to did not treat them well.

Particularly in the metropolitan Buganda, where a mix of aristocratic and racial hierarchy (not unknown in Rwanda) had created a caste system under the British, the immigrants, penniless and ill, were despised, and the timidity this produced is to be found today, three generations later. And as Munger notes, intermarriage tended to happen mostly at the social margins, because the Rwandans (and the women later followed the men), meant lower dowries demanded at nuptials.

The Buganda government, under the indirect colonial rule which left it in charge of broad swathes of its subjects, viewed the arrivals ambivalently. They were refugees; they were badly needed labour. After a few years, the Kabaka’s government began to tax them as its other subjects, a tacit act of admission. Those who could, integrated swiftly, taking on new identities and names.

The more urgent immigration into Uganda, of Rwandans and Burundians, was yet to come. But it resulted in a multi-layered extra-Rwandan diaspora. There are the integrated, who bare Ugandan names, have Ugandan parentage and are largely unhappy about the way the later immigrants served to tarnish their image, to say nothing of complicating hard-won relationships.

Amongst those that broke off from the Ugandan army and returned to Rwanda, the spearhead group were not from this earlier exodus. This group of latter immigrants came in 1959.

Throughout, the Ugandans had not behaved well towards their guests. The country had not come without its share of pain. The love was not bottomless. And today, the integration is so profound that any Ugandan saying anything anti-Rwanda, may well be insulting a grandmother. They had learnt that not being accepted was not the worst that can happen. Keep your head down and blend in. Loss of identity was not the worst. And the worst did come. The 1959 migrants did not keep their heads down. The entire region paid a steep price for their indiscretion.

The second wave of migration and its consequences

With agricultural reform, by chiefly terracing the hills to stem soil erosion, the Belgians had managed to rein in famine in Rwanda. But the Belgians had ruled by divide et impera, elevating to the dangerous levels of ethnicity, what some have described as a class system, “Hutu” and “Tutsi”. They had favoured the “Tutsi”, for much of their colonial rule, with the “Hutu” treated as underdogs, who for instance were not allowed to acquire higher learning. By the racist means of the time, anthropologists and sociologists had said were non-African, non-negroid. But it was a difficult question. Nazi conquest and racial theory was so repugnant that the Belgians themselves abandoned the racialist bifurcation of their Rwanda-Burundi colony. Unfortunately, rather than create a level, unifying policy, they started to favour the Hutu instead. So that when it came, they handed over independence to the majority Hutu.

Almost immediately, the Hutu began to persecute the Tutsi. And it this crisis that led to the second wave of migration, in 1959. They were a different group now, not really peasant, but with a grudge in their hearts. In Uganda, Mr. Museveni recruited many from this group into his rebel army that fought against the Obote II government in the early 1980s. When Museveni overthrow the sclerotic Tito Okello junta that had itself overthrown the Obote government just six months early in 1985, he appointed many Rwandan refugees into government and the army. There was uproar in Uganda over the inclusion of foreigners in sensitive positions. Kagame himself had been head of a spy agency in Uganda.

Under pressure from Ugandans, Mr. Museveni understood he had to let them go. Hence, when they broke away in 1990, after helping set fire to Uganda, there was something of doom about it. They clearly weren’t coming back. But the worst was at the other end. Much as it has always been said that Mr. Paul Kagame, who inherited leadership of the Rwanda Patriotic Army rebel group after the death of its leader, Fred Rwigyema. After four years of fighting, which started in 1990, hardliner Hutu leadership unleashed the 1994 genocide. The militarization of politics in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, has meant that the four countries have been in one form of warfare or the other for nearly 60 years.

The matrix of governing a country with sharp divides, and doing it by force, is not one that Mr. Kagame’s temperament seems suited for. It may be gratifying to defeat your enemies. But you have to be a Nelson Mandela to win them over. You must win them over, for these conflicts are circuitous. Soon the other side can, and will, rise to power. It’s a question of time.

Increasingly intolerant governments have characterised Uganda and Rwanda, at a time when all over the continent, countries are settling down to stable governance. What is the point? What plans do Messrs. Museveni and Kagame have this region? Much as it is clear to all who pay attention that the unfortunate weaponising of ethnicity has perhaps trapped both men in power, it is still puzzling because there seems to be no end game in sight, except endless corruption and more militarization, which will require even more corruption to maintain the patronage system, and more militarization to fend off the disaffected. We have become trapped in a loop without exits. Decades ago, the citizens waited patiently because it seemed that real change could come. But if after these many years a pregnant woman has to sneak across a border, that begs the question, as Oliver Cromwell once asked of the British Parliament; have you not sat here too long for any good you can have done?

Shutting down the border is symbolic of the increasing pointlessness of the two regimes.

They came into power at the time that the cold war was ending. The period of rapid coups and countercoups in Africa, funded by the rival capitalist and communist power blocs ended then, with the result that whoever had been in power at that time, tended to remain so for a bit longer. Put simply, the power balance that might have kept the two men honest was not there. Crucially then, these quakes we now feel in Uganda and Rwanda, are not casual. They are the deep rumblings from shifting global tectonic power plates. In the past, when they were at loggerheads, the British Foreign Secretaries jetted in to knock their heads together. Agony “Aunts” Lynda Chalker and Claire Short, British ministers of the 1990s and 00s, would have been here already. But the British now have their hands full back home, and need benevolent foreign secretaries to go knock their heads together, enduring the cruel reversal of the foreign policy technique they so perfected, of keeping countries they wished to rule at each other’s throats.

The absence of steadying British and American hands right now, in this conflict, has exposed the lack of political and management skills in Kigali and in Kampala. It has exposed the fact that Uganda and Rwanda have for decades now been run as client states. In the absence of the Anglo-Saxon power-meisters, Museveni and Kagame are learning cruelly the difference between monkey and organ grinder. It is left to the East African Community states, Tanzania and Kenya, to try and sort the situation out. But it takes a fool to bet on that strategy working. Twice, first in 1985, then in 1994, both Kenya and Tanzania attempted to sort political problems in Uganda and Rwanda out. But the rebel leaders then merely inked their names to agreements reached in Nairobi and Arusha, whilst using the interim to move their forces closer to the capitals. With spectacular disasters. Those rebels? They are now called President Museveni and President Kagame.

How does that now happen? Did Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ever forgive the slight? Do they trust the two men? But, that is the wrong question. The question is, what power backdrop are the two men now banking on? If we can answer that question, maybe we can predict how they plan to plunge us into new rounds of war. Global power dynamics have eroded the neoliberal economic system they had learnt to game. What is emerging now requires skills beyond wearing military fatigues and firing AK 47s at target boards.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Politics

Africa’s Land, the Final Frontier of Global Capital

If the designs of global big money are not stopped in their tracks, Africa is threatened with environmental degradation and nutritional poverty.

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Africa’s Land, the Final Frontier of Global Capital
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Three great factors are coming together to constitute what may be a whole new, and final chapter in the book of horrors that have been visited on the African people since the birth of Western European capitalism.

If Native Africans do not begin to think very deeply about what this is going to mean for what is left of them, in terms of their livelihoods and ways of living, then the recent past will seem like a small piece of paradise.

Unlike our ancestors, who are often blamed — opportunistically — for the original conquest of Africa and the trade in enslaved Africans that came before it, this time round, there will be no excuses or debate. Africa now knows what colonial conquest is and what it does, in a way that our unfortunate ancestors could not.

The first factor is that capitalism is fast running out of things to destroy in order to make profits. The climate crisis is the best evidence of this. This has been a long-term trend, certainly since the 1960s. However, the most recent financial collapse of 2008 certainly intensified it. Of the grand things and sectors left for capitalism to ravage, there is the production of food for the masses of people crowded into the towns and cities of the West, with no space, time or fundamental skills to produce it for themselves from scratch.

The global corporate food industry is based on one key assumption: that the human race, as it continues to grow in number, will become less and less able to independently produce food for itself. These is because of embedded assumptions about the inevitability of intensive urbanization, as well as time and lifestyle choices, themselves often culturally encouraged, if not imposed, by the same industry.

Food, that indispensable need, is now recreated as a guaranteed industrial commodity.

And so, a lot of corporate interest and money has migrated into the corporate agriculture sector, globally. Global big money is now trying to colonise food production itself, on a global scale, in order to find new ways of keeping its money valuable. Writing in mod-2011, the late Dani Nabudere perceives a deeper conflict:

During the first three months of 2008-the year the global economic crisis intensified, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation-FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on the average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year.  In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007. This sudden surge in prices was led by increases in vegetable oils, which on the average increased by 97%, followed by grains with an increase of 87%, dairy products with 58% and rice with 46%.

This means that investing in food, or the assumption of the future existence of food as a commodity to be traded. In short, what is known as the Futures market. But the problem with futures is that at some point, the commodity will have to come into existence.

The second thing native Africans need to be aware of, and arising from the first, is that African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.

Most of the world’s arable land is now found somewhere in Africa. It is unclear if by this is meant arable land under use, or also land that can be put to agricultural use (but may be located under a forest, or something, at present).

The March 2012 issue of Finance & Development Magazine sheds some light on that equation:

Throughout the world, it is estimated that 445 million hectares of land are uncultivated and available for farming, compared with about 1.5 billion hectares already under cultivation. About 201 million hectares are in sub-Saharan Africa, 123 million in Latin America, and 52 million in eastern Europe. . .

The third factor is that arable land is only arable if it has fresh water near it. And it is only viable for corporate exploitation if it also has no people on it. Africa is therefore the prime target: plenty of fresh water, and very few real land rights.

In my estimation, the area of Africa between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys running along the length of the Nile valley below the Sahel has been identified as on the last open, near-virgin territories, ripe for intensive mechanized agricultural exploitation.

That area’s human settlements have historically originated around the pattern of freshwater bodies. A lot of Uganda was once a wetland. As a result, the country will find itself located at the very epicentre of any such an enterprise.

Dr Mike Burry, a now legendary American stock market operator is reported in the Farmfolio website to have said, “I believe that agricultural land – productive agricultural land with water on site – will be very valuable in the future . . . . I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”

The website goes on to report quite sarcastically,

Over the next three decades, the UN forecasts the global population to increase to about 10 billion. How do you imagine farmland investments will benefit from an over 30% increase in mouths to feed? Good luck feeding two billion people with Bitcoin or gold nuggets.

In this sense, colonialism was just the attempted start, with the former white settler farm economies of Kenya and southern Africa as the increasingly decrepit leftovers. The goal now is African land in general, wherever land can be turned over to large-scale (and therefore mechanised, “scientised” and corporatized) production of the commodities needed to make factory food.

The implications are clear: the goal of the huge capitalist formations that dominate public and foreign policy in the industrial countries, and whose agribusiness interests have a global reach, is to turn Africa into a huge farm, both as an opportunity, and as a response to an internal crisis.

In a May 2017 opinion piece published in the UK Guardian newspaper, then United Nations Environment Programme Head Erich Solheim made a similar point:

Several scenarios for cropland expansion – many focusing on Africa’s so-called “spare land” – have already effectively written off its elephants from having a future in the wild. These projections have earmarked a huge swathe of land spanning from Nigeria to South Sudan for farming, or parts of West Africa for conversion to palm oil plantations.

All this speaks directly to the immediate future of the African people. Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide, massive environmental damage, widespread human displacement, and therefore repression and conflict as the tools of implementation.

African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), calls the bringing of the US agribusiness model to Africa “a grave mistake”. They describe the model as “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide,” that “also fails to solve hunger, negatively impacts small-scale farmers, and causes environmental harm.”

It is in this context that the debates in Uganda and Kenya, for example, about land use and policy, can then be appreciated.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has launched a political offensive (once again) against the Kingdom of Buganda, describing its neo-traditional land tenure system as “evil” and in desperate need of reform.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. First of all, Mr Museveni has firmly established himself as the pre-eminent fixer for imperialist ambitions in the Great Lakes Region. Whatever the owners of Western capital want here is what he will always try to deliver, no matter the collateral damage. Secondly, whenever the Ugandan president hatches a plan targeting the wealth and resources of native Ugandans, he begins with an attack on Buganda. Not because there is anything more valuable there, but because it enables the ideological seduction of a useful section of Ugandan political society: Ugandan “patriotism” was built on the notion that native identities are a bad thing, and that the Ganda identity is the worst of all.

It worked in the process of marginalising native voices in the independence movement and replacing them with smooth-talking “pan-Africanists”.

It then worked again with the creation of the culture of dictatorship between 1966 and 1979. Voices raised in opposition were easily dismissed as “divisive”, or retrograde. The mission now, was to build the new non-ethnic nation.

More recently, it has been deployed again to justify global neo-liberal designs on African land, through dismissing native resistance to it as “backward” and “parochial”.

Once it has been politically established that the overriding of native objections to anything is an essential and desirable part of development, then the “principle” can be applied in practice, to all other parts of the country.

Through its loyal and devoted client, the National Resistance Movement regime, Western capitalism is targeting all Ugandan land, regardless of which natives own it and under what system.

The same principle works differently in Kenya, but towards the same end. Initial white settler-based agriculture was never successful. Part of the story of Kenyan independence is actually the story of the Empire at headquarters becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy the economic, political and military resources needed to maintain a colony largely for the benefit of a small group of unproductive, self-regarding “middle-class sluts”, as one of the British commanding officers is alleged to have described the settlers.

However, a legacy of that time is that unlike in Uganda, vast areas of Kenya’s potentially productive land are still in white and foreign ownership. And a lot of this is in areas historically within a pastoralist ecosystem.

A succession of Kenyan governments neglected to address this historical injustice. In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.

Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide.

Today, the three-way contestation between native (often pastoralist) communities, dogged white and other land oligarchs, and a wavering, uncaring state, rumbles on.

Co-author of The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, longstanding Kenyan conservation biologist, and land rights activist, Mordecai Ogada, has long argued that the whole wildlife tourism-based “conservation” industry run off the vast settler-leased native landholdings is basically a landgrab. The question will be Is this just for tourism, or will it be open to other ventures, like industrial agriculture?

It could lead to something deeper. Arguments for “development” and “rangeland/wildlife conservation” will be mobilised as a cover to carry out large-scale land grabbing and the eviction of peasants and pastoralists from lands they have historically occupied. Not just for the parochial descendants of the original white settlers now turned “conservationists”, but the kind of mega-scale mechanised planting that has been so central (and destructive) to the American mid-west, the Amazon basin, and native Canada.

This was also partly how the war that eventually split Sudan played out in the now separated south, and still plays out in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. A significant section of Arab-descended northern economic elites was centered on the production of wheat. According to the Sudanese intellectual Dr Fatimer Babiker Mahmoud, in the late 1980s, this sector was making millions of dollars annually from the large-scale planting, harvesting and export of the grain to Europe, Asia and the Arab world.

Sometimes this meant the clearing of the more fertile lands of the south, the Nuba mountain lowlands and the Darfur region – all largely inhabited by Black Africans –  for the mechanised growing of wheat. This is what gave the conflict its racial character, as Arab chauvinist arguments were used to justify this genocide.

But, as with the white settler projects, these should be seen as trial runs in the greater measurement of our economic history. There is a need to understand the sheer scale and scope of these operations.

What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.

Of the top ten foods listed as traded the most within global trade by  the Just-Food Magazine website in 2014, (fish, soybean, wheat, palm oil, beef, soybean meal, corn, chicken meat, rice and coffee) there are five key items that drive the processed food industry: palm oil, wheat, soya and corn.  It seems sugar cannot be accurately measured because it features in just about anything processed.

In addition, meat production (chicken, beef and pork) is dependent on the others on the list. Cattle are fed on corn, and soya (and the soybean meal) comprises part of what is fed to chickens.

The scale of the operations means that huge sums of money are invested. In today’s world, this means money from banks and institutional investors (hedge funds, etc.) as shareholders in agribusiness corporations. Poultry factories can contain up to forty thousand chickens permanently locked in cages for laying, or just warehouses of several thousand square feet. In early 2020, some 20 million chickens were being slaughtered each week in the United Kingdom. Corn and other grain are usually planted on lots measuring thousands of hectares apiece.

When investing on this scale, certain guarantees must be put in place. These are not matters that are left to chance, or fortune. And the primary purpose of all capitalist economic activity, especially in the West, is to obtain the biggest private return possible on any investment. And also usually in the shortest possible turnaround time.

This is why “insurance” measures are locked in from the start. In particular, chemical-based fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides and also increasingly, the use of genetically modified seeds and livestock, as well as steroids and antibiotics to promote rapid growth and prevent sicknesses.

In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.

The goal is huge, regular volumes of uniform products to be processed and marketed to huge urbanized populations.

The whole commercialisation process begins in the West, where this industry is the most developed. The European conquest of the continents of north and South America, also mark the period when food production migrated from being a community-based activity, to an industry.

This led to the clearance of human settlement from large areas of land, as well as the destruction of forests and wetlands, all to make way for the animal ranches and very big plantations.

This way of life is now being increasingly imposed on all societies, as “the normal”.

The recent riots in the Republic of South Africa for example, are an illustration of the dangers of becoming prisoners of a privately owned, mechanised food supply system, and also an attempted repudiation of it.

The rest of Africa is quickly “catching up” to this advanced backwardness, with the increasing rate of unplanned migration to urban centers due to loss of opportunities in community-based agriculture.

In Uganda for example, this process was driven by the intentional Museveni-led neo-liberal disruptions to the adapted system of community-based agriculture that has been built up in the country over a period of nearly eight decades.

Agricultural production remains at the heart of this struggle. The Africans sought to ensure that they continued to produce their indigenous food crops so as to retain food sovereignty, while at the same time engaging in the new cash crop economy that was encroaching on their land and labour power.

Official African policy within each African state, as well as in the regional economic blocs and the various policy and finance bodies (such as the African Development Bank), remain uncritically in support (or at least not opposed) to this general strategic direction.

What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.

“Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business,” wrote African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr Akinwumi Adesina, in African Business magazine in 2017.  “It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in south east Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.”

Our official planners suffer from a tragic tendency of conflating any activity involving money and machines, with “development”. The intention is to duplicate life as it is almost universally led in the Western-style countries. They think is will bring “industrialisation”, and through that, jobs.

There are four significant conflicts or budding conflicts on the continent right now, in which arable land for mechanisation will increasingly become a factor. These are in southern Ethiopia, Congo and the whole Sahel zone, anchored on Nigeria (and Sudan), and Kenya.

If these developments are not challenged and stopped, Africa can look forward to environmental degradation, and nutritional poverty.

We will all become Africans in South Africa, and poor people in the West.

Assuming the Western industrial system lasts much longer. And that the planet also does.

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How Capitalism Uses and Abuses the Arts

The arts business is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model but artists continue to rely on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.

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In my last piece, I talked about how our education system destroys the arts by corrupting the meaning of education, work and the arts. And I said that these lies that are perpetuated in the name of education come from the unholy and abusive marriage between education and business. (I have said elsewhere that this marriage should be annulled immediately.)

In this piece, I’m going to talk about how capitalist business is the prime beneficiary of the terrible state of the arts in Kenya.

​Businesses swing artists between two extremes. On one hand, which I already explained in my previous letter, the business (parasite) sector encourages the education system to degrade the arts, so that art does not look like real work that takes skill and resources. By doing that, the business sector justifies artists not being paid for their work. If you have noticed that you are not getting paid, or your payment is delayed, it is because of that madharau for the arts. The accountants cooking books look at you and think to themselves “Why should I pay someone for shaking around or singing for people? Even I could have done that work if I wasn’t here balancing books.”

On the other hand, capitalism does pay artists huge amounts of money, like we see in Hollywood where people like Oprah and Jay Z have become billionaires through entertainment.

In the end, artists are treated like battered spouses. One minute, a spouse is being abused and beaten, and the next minute, when the battered person has had enough, the abuser apologizes, swears how much they love the battered person and promises not to beat the spouse again. And the cycle starts again.

Art and wealth

The first thing to understand about the arts business is that it is a very flawed, archaic and extremely exploitative model. I will talk mainly about music, but book publishing and other types of art business work using the same principle.

Basically, the art business uses the rentier model, like a landlord. A landlord builds a house once but earns money on that house as long as he owns the right to that house. The “work” of living there, or the business carried out there, is done by other people, but the landlord earns a cut of that work despite doing no work. Simply because he owns the property in which the work was done.

And that is the same thing record labels and studios do. They provide initial capital and make the artist sign a 360-degree contract that allows the label to earn from everything the artist is involved in for the rest of the artist’s life: performance, recording, brand merchandise and even artistic license. An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person. In the US, artists who are lucky earn 10 to 15 per cent of the revenues they generate for the music industry. The rest are unlucky and earn much less, if anything.

Imagine that. For every artist billionaire we know, their record label earns nine times more.

As an artist, you’re probably thinking, “Well, it may be exploitative but at least it works. Why can’t those exploiters come and work in Kenya?”

Actually, they are working here, and we know it. They have names like MCSK and Liberty Afrika. And the way these companies exploit artists is the same way other companies exploit everybody else in employment. The wages we earn are nothing compared to the profits that entitled, lazy and ignorant fat cats make from our work, and yet — as we see with the doctors — companies are constantly coming up with new schemes to avoid paying us for the work we do.

An artist who is signed to a record label is an enslaved person.

And we should not compare ourselves to the Queen Beys and Justin Beibers of the West; rather, we should be aware that even in the Westmany artists are exploited.

I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts. For instance, 360-degree contracts should be considered slavery and outlawed. Saying that every future income of an artist is tied to the initial capital invested in their recording is just as ridiculous as a food supplier to a restaurant saying that they should earn 90 per cent of every plate or meal served by the restaurant. Once the food is delivered and paid for, the contract should end there. Artists should pay studios, publishers and marketers separately as bills, not on promise of royalties.

But because my students have been told that education is only for jobs, none has ever taken up my challenge to think about this.

Virgin territory

There is another form of abuse and exploitation of artists that is less talked about because it is less easy to quantify. That is idea theft.

Through platforms like hubs, and through demanding proposals for shows and other performances, institutions exploits the artist’s energy and innovation, then pull the rug from under the artist and run off with the idea. That is why artists will start small concert gigs and before long, corporates, instead of sponsoring those gigs, create their own versions because they can pour in the money to make it big.

And these initially sustainable and indigenous ideas soon turn into monsters. These corporates invade natural parks like Hells Gate to sell even bigger than they should. Not only do they subvert eco-systems, they also crush their conservation opponents with media blitz and economic blackmail. What started as a Kenyan artistic initiative is not only hijacked but also turned into a short term, exploitative and destructive tsunami that dies almost as soon as it is born.

I tell my arts students that they should spend time in the university studying and imagining a different model for earning income from the arts.

Other artists report having given studios or media houses an idea for a show, leaving with a promise that they will hear from the producers. Within a few weeks, they see a bad version of the show they proposed. Is it a wonder that television entertainment is so unimaginative and poorly executed?

But this is the nature of capitalism: like a paedophile, it lets nothing mature and thrive. It instead derives a perverted sense of pleasure from exploiting the vulnerable and destroying budding ideas before the ideas develop to maturity.

Impunity and abuse

This paedophilia is replicated across all institutions. As someone recently said on Twitter, we are often employed on the promise of our ideas, upon which we are promptly frustrated and prevented from developing them.

No institution has escaped change and democratic supervision like the workplace. Workers around the world are succumbing to the abuse of the workplace, whether they are employed or not. Stress levels are high, and sexual bullying, mental illness, addiction and suicide are on the rise. The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.

But what is slightly unique about the arts is that when artists suffer from the same vices, the business world convinces us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is why the high rate of depression and suicide among artists is not treated as a pandemic. When artists suffer violence such as being shot in clubs and being drugged and raped, we the abused and terrorized Kenyan public thinks that their abuse comes with the artistic territory.

In fact, we even accept that the business community does not treat artists as workers like other employees. Artists are not paid a salary, pension and benefits. They don’t go on leave. They are on the road all the time, or constantly searching for new gigs and new contracts, and never taking a break. The constant toil takes a toll on their minds and bodies and they start to use substances to stabilize their lives instead of getting some rest. Then there is the parasite industry of the paparazzi who make sales from intruding on artists’ lives and selling the details to the world.

The workplace has become a crime scene, where people get away with abuse and psychological torture.

But instead of us criminalizing these vices committed against artists, we let the business world convince us that this inhumanity is part of the artists’ creativity. That is utter nonsense.

Worse, the impunity also makes every new generation join the arts thinking that creativity requires criminality, substance abuse and insanity.

And the business sector has an evil, devilish interest in making literal murder and depravity acceptable for artists. Because of the power of the arts to free people, capitalism cannot let the arts thrive on their own, for the arts will inspire the people to challenge the tyranny of business by looking for alternative business models.

But at the same time, capitalism needs the power of the arts to manipulate people to behave in the interests of business. It puts the arts on a leash, so that the arts go only where capital wants the arts to go — to sedating the masses into accepting exploitation or into buying things.

And the artists, unfortunately, are joined to corporations at the hip and naively celebrate their reliance on corporate sponsorship, without questioning the shrinking spaces and opportunities for the arts to thrive.

And we artists need to understand that this abusive relationship is made possible by the hostility of the church. Instead of the church being our refuge in times of trouble, the clergy side with the state when the state crushes us through bans and censorship that are implemented in the name of morality.

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Politics

Laikipia Land Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb

Historic land injustices, changing land ownership and use, and heightened competition for natural resources — exacerbated by the effects of climate change — make for a perfect storm.

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“Here we have a territory (now that the Uganda Railway is built) admirably suited for a white man’s country, and I can say this with no thought of injustice to any native race, for the country in question is either utterly uninhabited for miles and miles or at most its inhabitants are wandering hunters who have no settled home . . . .” Sir Harry Johnstone

There have been significant changes in the pattern of land ownership in Laikipia in the last two decades. These changes are set against a background of profound inequalities in land ownership in a county where, according to data in the Ministry of Lands, 40.3 per cent of the land is controlled by 48 individuals or entities. The changes have not brought about an improvement in the lives of the pastoralists and other indigenous communities who occupied Laikipia before colonisation. These groups — and the Maasai in particular, following their 1904 and 1911 treaties with the British — were forced out and relegated to reserves in southern Kenya to make way for the establishment of large commercial ranches owned by White settlers. Those indigenous inhabitants who remained were pushed by subsequent colonial legislation to Mukogodo in the north of the county, the driest part of Laikipia.

The pastoralists did not recover their land with the end of colonial rule. On the contrary, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, encouraged White settlers to remain after independence and today, some of the descendants of those settlers who decided to make Kenya their permanent home still occupy vast swathes of land in Laikipia County. Those who were unwilling to remain in Kenya under majority rule sold their land to the Kenyatta administration. As Catherine Boone, Fibian Lukalo and Sandra Joireman observe in Promised Land: Settlement Schemes in Kenya, 1962 to 2016,

With the approach of independence, the settler state and the British government stepped in to protect the interests of Kenya’s white land-owners by creating a land market for white settlers who wanted to sell their agricultural holdings, and supporting land values for those who wanted to stay. The buyer of most of these properties was the Government of Kenya, using loans provided by the British Government and the World Bank. Through this process, the Kenyan state acquired about half of the land in the (ex-) Scheduled Areas.

In 1968, under the World Bank-funded Kenya Livestock Development Programme — whose stated objective was “to increase beef production for home consumption and export mainly by subsistence pastoral groups” — the government enacted the Land (Group Representative) Act (Cap. 287) that saw the creation of 13 group ranches in the northern part of Laikipia, which is the driest part of the county. However, well-connected local elites helped themselves to part of the land, excised as individual ranches. There are 36 such individual ranches that should have been part of the group ranches.

Those ranches that were sold to the Kenyan government by the departing British settlers are within the expansive Laikipia plateau. The government later sold them to land buying companies formed by Kikuyus that in turn subdivided them into individual holdings. Examples of such lands include Kamnarok, Kimugandura, Kirimukuyu, Mathenge, Ireri and Endana, among others. The remaining land was gazetted as government land such ADC Mutara and Kirimon, or outspans such as Ngarendare and Mukogodo, which were used for finishing livestock for sale to the Kenya Meat Commission.

Land tenure and use

In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production. The map below shows the different land use and tenure systems in Laikipia County that include large-scale ranches, large-scale farms, group ranches and smallholder farms.

There are 48 large-scale ranches sitting on 40.3 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County, 9,532.2km², some of which are still owned by the descendants of the colonial settlers. The ranches  occupy huge tracts of land, the three largest being Laikipia Nature Conservancy with 107,000 acres, Ol Pejeta with 88,923.79 acres, and Loisaba with 62,092.97 acres.

Source: Ministry of Lands

Most of these large-scale ranches — many of which have an integrated economic system that includes livestock, horticulture, wildlife conservation and tourism — were acquired during the colonial period and legislation governing their ownership was taken from the colonial law and integrated into the constitution of independent Kenya under the land transfer agreement between the colonial government and the Kenyatta regime. It should be noted that the Maasai land campaign of 2004 pushing the government to address historical injustices following the forced ouster of Maasai from their ancestral lands in Laikipia, brought to light the fact that some of these ranches had no legal documents of ownership. In an article titled In the Grip of the Vampire State: Maasai Land Struggles in Kenyan Politics published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, Parselelo Kantai observes,

Ranchers interviewed could not remember how long their own land-leases were supposed to last, were unaware of the Anglo-Maasai Agreement, and, in at least one case, were unable to produce title deeds to their ranches. And when opinion was expressed, it bordered on the absurd: the ‘invaders’, observed Ms Odile de Weck, who had inherited her father’s 3,600-acre Loldoto Farm, were not genuine — not Maasai at all. They were, she noted emphatically, Kikuyus. The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.

Immediately following the campaign, the Ministry of Lands started putting out advertisements in the print media inviting those landowners whose leases were expiring to contact it.

Twenty-three large-scale farms occupy 1.48 per cent of the land in Laikipia County. These farms are mostly owned by individuals from the former Central Province who bought the land following sub-division by the Kenyatta administration, or through land buying companies, which opted not to sub-divide the land but to use it as collateral to access bank loans.

Source: Ministry of Lands

Smallholdings sit on 27.21 per cent of the total land area in Laikipia County. These farms were initially large-scale farms bought by groups of individuals who later sub-divided them into smallholdings of between two and five acres. There are three categories of farmers in this group: those who bought land and settled to escape land pressure in their ancestral homes, those who bought the land for speculative purposes, and those who bought land and used it as collateral for bank loans. A majority of the first group still live on their farms, practising subsistence, rain-fed agriculture. Most members of the other two groups are absentee landowners whose idle land has over time been occupied by pastoralists in search of water and pasture for their animals, or by squatters seeking to escape the population pressure in the group ranches. In some cases, pastoralists have bought the idle land and have title.

The 13 group ranches cover 7.45 per cent of the total Laikipia land area and are occupied by pastoralists who use them for communal grazing. However, some of the group ranches such as Il Ngwesi, Kijabe, Lekurruki and Koija have also established wildlife conservancies and built tourist lodges.

Laikipia land use.

Source: CETRAD

Changing land ownership, changing landscapes

Since the late 1990s, when agitation for political reforms and a new constitution began in earnest, and in the intervening period, new patterns of land ownership and land use have been emerging in Laikipia County.

Data from the Laikipia County Government indicates that 16 of the 48 large-scale ranches have been internally sub-divided into units of between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, with the land rates due for each sub-division paid according to the size of the sub-division. The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands. There are claims that the sub-divided parcels have been ceded to European retirees looking to acquire land for holiday homes in Laikipia, and to White Zimbabweans. There are also claims that the large, palatial, private residences that have sprung up within the sub-divided parcels are in fact tourist destinations for a high-end clientele in a business that operates outside Kenya’s tourism regulatory framework and violates Kenya tax laws.

In the Kenyan context, and compared to other counties, the history of land in Laikipia County is unique, with a diversity of tenure systems each representing a unique system of production.

Whatever the case, the County Government of Laikipia confirms, “Most of the white settlers buying property are soldiers or tourists who loved the [county’s] climate, its people and natural beauty and want to experience it all over again. Big time investors [sic] in real estate flock the area, either to buy or construct multi-million shilling holiday homes, targeting wealthy European settlers and tourists.”

The Laikipia County Government also confirms that the large-scale ranches have also been leasing training grounds to the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), adding, “In 2009 BATUK expanded these grounds to 11 privately owned ranches, including Sosian, Ol Maisor and the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.”

Multinationals have also moved in, buying up the large-scale farms, particularly those situated near permanent sources of water, where they have set up horticultural businesses growing crops for export to the European market. The arrival of export horticulture in Laikipia has increased competition for resources as “agro-industrial horticulture, pastoralism and small holder agriculture compete for land, capital, and water, with access to water being particularly hotly contested.”

Absentee owners of smallholdings that have over time been occupied by squatters are also selling their land. With the help of brokers and officials from the Ministry of Lands, the smallholdings are consolidated and sold to individuals and companies who may not be aware that the land is occupied and that the sale could be a potential source of conflict.

Only the group ranches — which are occupied by pastoralists who use traditional grazing management techniques — have not changed hands and remain intact. They are, however, facing pressure from a growing population, intensive grazing and increasingly frequent droughts that are putting a strain on the natural resources.

On the other hand, most of the land gazetted as government land has been grabbed by senior government officials, politicians and military personnel. Of the 36 government outspans, only four remain. Outspans neighbouring large-scale ranches have been grabbed by the ranch managers and such grabbed land has since changed hands and been acquired by individuals.

Where farmers were settled in forests during the era of former President Daniel arap Moi, forest cover was plundered for timber and the forest floor given over to cultivation. When President Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi, these farmers were constantly under threat of eviction but they continue to occupy the forests to date. There are, however, intact forest reserves where on-going human activity has not had a negative impact. They are used and managed by pastoralists as grazing lands, or managed by conservation groups, or by the government.

Impact of change of ownership on other livelihood groups 

Land deals are coming to compound an already existing multiplicity of problems related to the access, use and management of scarce resources in Laikipia County. Compared to neighbouring counties, in the past Laikipia received moderate rainfall and severe droughts like those experienced in 2009, in 2017 and now in 2021 were the exception. This attracted pastoralists from Baringo, Samburu and Isiolo counties to settle in the county in search of water and pasture for their livestock.

Over time, land pressure in central Kenya also forced subsistence farmers to move and settle in Laikipia, practicing rain-fed agriculture and keeping small herds of sheep, goats and cattle. This has led to competition for space and resources that has been compounded by frequent and increasingly severe droughts in recent years.

“The Maasai, she said, had willingly ceded rights to Laikipia, had been compensated long ago and now resided happily in some other part of Kenya, far away.”

The consolidation of smallholdings belonging to absentee owners where land that had previously been sub-divided into units of between two and five acres is now being merged to form bigger units of 500 acres and above, sold off and fenced is further reducing the land available to pastoralists and to squatters who have been using such idle land to graze livestock and grow crops, leaving them with limited options and leading to an increase in levels of vulnerability as they have to rely on relief food in order to survive.

The smallholder land consolidation process, which is being undertaken by former ranch managers who are brokering for individual buyers, is also blamed for the over-exploitation of natural resources in some areas and their conservation in others. In those areas occupied by farming communities, forest cover has been exploited either for charcoal burning, firewood or timber production as people look for alternative sources of livelihood. In the smallholdings where pastoralists have title, overgrazing of the rangelands due to constrained mobility does not allow the range to regenerate. This in turn has led to the degradation of the land and the emergence of unpalatable invasive species of plants like prosopis that render grazing areas unusable, further compounding the problem of access to pasture in the few areas left for pastoralists to graze.

In the group ranches, the most degraded rangelands are overrun with opuntia stricta, an invasive species of cactus whose fruit is harmful to livestock and has caused “economic losses in excess of US$500 in 48% of households in Laikipia”.

On the other hand, in the large-scale ranches, large farms, consolidated smallholder farms and group ranches where conservation and resource use fall under the intensive management of a few individuals, the availability of resources is assured even during times of stress. However, the availability of resources for one group of users and the lack of resources for another often leads to conflict as those without poach from those who have them. One example is when pastoralists graze illegally in the large-scale ranches whenever there is scarcity in their own areas, leading to arrests and sometimes confiscation of livestock from the pastoralists by government agencies in an attempt to protect the large-scale ranches.

Historical injustices and government failures

Article 60 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 guarantees equitable access to land and security of land rights. Further, Article 68(c)(1) states, “Parliament shall enact legislation to prescribe minimum and maximum land holding acreages in respect of private land.” Parliament has failed to pass such legislation and, indeed, the government has shied away from addressing historical land injustices in Kenya in general and in Laikipia – where they are most visible – in particular. Policy makers rarely discuss justice in the context of land reform and what has taken place are land law reforms in lieu of the essential land reforms that would confront the material consequences of unequal access to land. As Ambreena Manji observes in her paper Whose Land is it Anyway?,

The consequences of a legalistic approach to land reform are starkly evident in Kenya’s new land laws. First and foremost, it foreclosed debates about redistribution, prioritising land law reform as the most effective way to address land problems and so evading more difficult questions about who controls access to land how a more just distribution might be achieved.

The recent violence that visited death and destruction on parts of Laikipia is a continuation and an escalation of a crisis that first came to a head in May 2000 when pastoralists drove their livestock into Loldaiga farm. Then the Moi government intervened and allowed the pastoralists into the Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests while big ranchers supported the government by allowing some animals onto their ranches.

In 2004, pastoralists again occupied commercial ranches while agitating for the non-renewal of land leases which they believed had expired. This time the Kibaki government used force to dislodge them. However, the question of land leases remains unresolved to date. Outbreaks of violence have become more frequent since 2009, caused by a combination of factors including the effects of climate change and increasingly frequent droughts that force pastoralists from neighbouring Baringo, Isiolo and Samburu into Laikipia in search of water and pasture. This inevitably leads to conflicts with ranchers onto whose land they drive their animals.

Population pressure, from both humans and livestock, is another cause of conflict in Laikipia. The carrying capacity of group ranches is stretched to the limit while it is plenty on neighbouring commercial ranches. Moreover, population migration to Laikipia from neighbouring counties is placing additional pressure on resources.

The sub-divisions are made through private arrangements and do not appear in the records at the Ministry of Lands.

The proliferation of small arms in the county has added to the insecurity; pastoralists from neighbouring counties invade and occupy commercial ranches, conservancies, smallholdings and forests armed with sophisticated weapons. Laikipia pastoralists have also acquired weapons both to defend themselves and their animals and to invade other land.

Politicians have since 2009 also been encouraging pastoralists from neighbouring counties to move to Laikipia on promises of protection in exchange for votes. There are also claims that politicians have been helping the pastoralists to acquire arms and that most of the livestock being grazed in private ranches and farms belongs to senior government officials and politicians who have exerted pressure on the government not to act on the pastoralists.

In the twilight of another Kenyatta government, relations between the commercial farmers and ranchers, the pastoralists and the smallholders remain poor and there is a lot of suspicion among them, with each group acting as an isolated entity. But for how long can the big commercial ranches and large-scale farms continue to thrive in the midst of poor farmers and dispossessed pastoralists?

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