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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly

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That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans.

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The Truth About the ‘Single Source of Truth About Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly
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Kenyans walking to work on Nairobi’s Haile Selassie Avenue on the 16th of June 2016 were shocked to find that a pile of well-worn identity cards and driver’s licences had been dumped during the night on the pavement outside the Jesus is Alive Ministries’ church. The identity cards were those that Kenyans mistakenly call the second and third generation IDs – one, dating from 1995, is laminated, and the other, issued after 2011, is printed directly onto plastic. Both types of cards were produced by Thales, a French parastatal, so they are administratively identical. On the front side, they present the card’s serial number, the holder’s identity number, full name, date of birth, sex, district of birth, place of issue, date of issue, signature, thumbprint; on the reverse are the functional categories of colonial indirect rule: district; division; location; sub-location.

None of the cards in the pile were the third-generation or digital IDs that Kenyans have been promised for a decade: the polycarbonate sheet, laser-printed with solid colour images and etched holograms containing, critically, a machine-readable chip and a full set of digital finger and iris biometrics.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The third generation card was first announced publicly in 2007 in the wake of an investigation by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) into accusations of widespread corruption and discrimination in the issuing of IDs. The commission’s concerns were split evenly between the general complaint about the cash bribes officials demanded to perform basic administrative services and the more specific accusation that Somali-Kenyans were being systematically denied identity cards and their basic rights as citizens. Behind both worries lurked fears about the fragility of the laminated card, and its susceptibility to forgery. The notorious weakness of the cards had much to do with the seven-digit identity number and the vulnerability of the registry that was being used to authenticate claims for citizenship.

In 2007, the main archives of the National Registration Bureau (issuer of ID cards) contained the scanned records of the inked fingerprints of 14 million Kenyans. In an attempt to bolster the identity card system and the integrity of the register that authenticated applications for cards, the KNCHR called for the fast-tracking of a biometric database – the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS). In 2009, the development of that system was awarded, apparently without controversy, to a consortium from the Ukraine called EDAPS.

The appointment of a contractor for the production of the third generation cards was not so simple. The 2005 Anglo Leasing scandal – where the Mwai Kibaki government was notoriously implicated in the payment of a massively inflated tender to a British shell company for printing passports – loomed in the background of the call for tender for the new identity cards. The processes were fraught and contested, especially as losing bidders could bring show-stopping appeals to the newly established Public Procurement Oversight Authority after 2007.

The call for tender for the new cards was issued in May 2009, specifying a “third generation ID Card” with the establishment of an “elaborate infrastructure supported by appropriate software modules, including installation of live data capture equipment both at the headquarters and in the field offices, personalisation centre and a centralised database production facility, complete with the necessary biometric and facial recognition features”. The government allocated $10 million to the project, and the international biometrics giants all submitted proposals. In September that same year, the whole process came to a sudden halt when NADRA, the Pakistan identification agency (who were making Kenyan passports) raised a successful protest about the decision of the tender board.

Thales continued printing the laminated cards after the tender collapsed, but in July 2011 the cabinet refused to endorse their ongoing production, and the issuing of the indispensable IDs stopped completely, prompting something of a national emergency. The Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons issued a second tender in 2011 but that succumbed in the same way when the French ID contractor, Imprimerie Nationale, protested its exclusion on the basis of the tender board’s sloppy paperwork. With the 2013 election looming, the ministry had little choice but to restore Thales’ contract to print the backlog of two million – rising quickly to four million – of the new plastic (not laminated but also not third generation) cards.

That was the situation, at least as far as the ID cards were concerned, when Mwende Gatabaki arrived to join the Office of the President from her job at the African Development Bank in Tunis in February 2014. Gatabaki was chosen as the architect of the new plan for identification and information-sharing – the National Digital Registry System (NDRS) – as she had extensive experience working on the networking requirements of the cumbersome Kenyan parastatals and the large donor organisations in East Africa.

Clean, complete, correct

The plan to register the entire Kenyan population “afresh” was first made public at the ConnectedKenya conference in Mombasa in April 2014. It was presented by Gatabaki, who was tasked with assembling a new government agency that would unify the different functions of birth and death registration, the registration of aliens and refugees, and the issuing of identity cards, which were all spread across the detached Departments of Civil Registration, Immigration, Refugee Affairs and the National Registration Bureau.

The Act establishing the new service had already been passed in 2011. It called for a new co-ordinating agency that would develop a unique identifier for every person, manage all issues related to citizenship and immigration, and maintain a comprehensive and accurate national population register. Gatabaki’s plan drew on the heightened public concern around national security in the wake of the September 2013 attacks on the Westgate shopping mall. It lay out a potentially revolutionary reorganisation of the entire Kenyan state around a “single source of truth”. The new database would link together existing and new registries of population, land holdings, companies and moveable assets. Gatabaki argued that the new database and registrations would be significantly cheaper than the cost of upgrading existing but separate projects of registration and identification underway in the separate departments. To do all of this required a break from the existing forms of paper registration and a new set of purely digital biometrics for every person in the country.

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed.

This initial presentation made no mention of a new digital ID card, but the following day the CEO of the state ICT Authority explained that the government was preparing to spend nearly $100 million on the new database and that the new ID cards would have a chip or magnetic strip that would allow police officers on patrol to confirm authenticity.

 

Gatabaki’s emphasis on a compulsory national round of digital registrations was controversial, to put it mildly, because many Kenyans – especially those supporting the CORD coalition that was kept from power – were still furious about the biometric debacle staged during the previous year’s national elections when the biometric voter identification kits supplied by the South African firm, Face Technologies, failed. The official enquiry into this debacle, accusations of corruption and other ongoing controversies over the enormous cost and licensing of the biometric kit dominated public debate until the end of 2015. In Kenya, biometric registration is the main arena of a bitter struggle over state power, and it was hardly surprising that the opposition leaders immediately responded to the move to register all afresh by claiming that it was a scheme to rig the next elections.

Political mistrust was not the only serious problem, however; over the previous decade, the procurement processes for the long-promised identity card had repeatedly collapsed into a mess of conflicting corruption allegations.

Indigenising capital

Gatabaki’s project aimed, chiefly, at replacing the unreliable and limited paper-based population register with a digital biometric database. The new biometric system would have established a single official identity for all adults in Kenya for the first time and it would have allowed real-time, remote biometric authentication. But it was also motivated by an effort to create a new kind of property by registering collateral in moveable assets, such as vehicles, farm animals and companies.

Meanwhile, the EDAPS consortium had been busy working to build the IPRS, linking together the main repositories of identification and citizenship status. EDAPS first built the IPRS connections between the National Registration Bureau’s ID card database and the Ministry for Immigration and Registration of Persons (MIRP) passport and aliens registries. In 2010 they began to incorporate new data from the birth and death registries managed by the Department of Civil Registration. The following year, 2011, they built automated two-way links between the IPRS and the databases maintained by the two newly established credit reference bureaus (CRBs).

This relationship allowed the CRBs to do real time confirmation of the identity of the new applicants for credit (using automated queries against the linked civil registration and ID card records). Much more importantly for the broader political economy in Kenya, and the fate of the NDRS, it also pushed blacklisting data into the IPRS itself. The listing of defaults inside the state’s IPRS – what the Credit Information Sharing Association of Kenya (CISKenya) described as negative information – provided a simple, effective and real time sorting and coercive tool for the new mobile credit providers looking for instant decision-making systems. This simple link had the effect of separating Safaricom, with its troves of data on millions of users’ spending behaviour, from the broader alliance of formal lenders who were looking to build database profiles that would differentiate customers based on sharing positive (payments) and negative (defaults) information.

Safaricom – the monopolistic telecommunications firm that has created the globally distinctive system of mobile money known as M-Pesa – was able to develop simple forms of virtual reputational collateral using its own automated assessment systems and its own identification and authentication processes. The state’s existing population register was sufficient for its needs, where the banks’ credit information sharing (CIS) processes – with their demanding templates of data and very high errors of identification – faced continuous failures and material resistance.

The failure of the new digital identification scheme was the result of a conflict between the formal banks and Safaricom. It was also a struggle between different types of credit markets. On the one hand, the banks wanted to build credit reporting systems and new government registration arrangements that would allow individuals and firms to formalise non-fixed assets, such as vehicles and livestock, which would then act as new forms of collateral for further borrowing. The advocates of these assets registers and of the banks’ universal credit reporting systems were opposed by Safaricom (in practice more than in public) and eventually by the leaders of the Kenyan state, who championed a simple and effective system for delivering unsecured, high-interest micro-loans that did not require collateral registers.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit.

The advocates of the biometric plan justified it by appealing to the need for certain and secure identification, for stronger national security (and policing) and better tax coverage and recovery, but what distinguished it from the already existing plans for population registration was the effort to build a new kind of asset register – a database describing real, not informational, collateral assets. The National Digital Registry System plan proposed a joined-up architecture of state databases that brought the management of private collateral into the core of the state’s business. Aimed at the interests that the established banks had in the development of reliable, accurate and complete credit histories, it was also a radical effort to address the informational void that surrounds property on the African continent.

As Safaricom’s monopoly status became painfully obvious after 2010, the banks’ advocates increasingly argued – and with good reason – that the most serious weakness in the Kenyan economy lay in the difficulties that small businesses faced in securing credit. Policy makers argued that thousands of these small firms possessed moveable assets – buildings, vehicles, equipment, products, animals – that could provide secure collateral for formal credit when provided with the right administrative and information processing tools. This was the idea behind the NDRS – a centralised data exchange that would make information from the discrete registries (for example, of companies and vehicles) available to lenders. At the same time, this kind of centralised data hub would offer non-bank lenders a quid pro quo for sharing information about their customers’ servicing of existing loans. This idea – that the NDRS would, finally, make it easy for financial institutions to appraise borrowers – was at the heart of the Gatabaki proposal. “A central repository of personal and corporate information will facilitate banks in their credit appraisal,” as the Central Bank governor explained in endorsing the project in October 2014, “This should not only ease access to credit but also reduce costs of credit, given the lower search costs.”

In fact, of course, that integration never happened. Instead, the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), in alliance with Safaricom, developed its own separate scoring mechanism that drew on data from Safaricom’s transaction database specifically to identify borrowers who did not meet the initial basic criteria that were derived from Safaricom airtime purchases. The resulting scorecard worked only too well and – combined with the basic identification and simple blacklisting supported by the IPRS – it meant that CBA and Safaricom could issue M-Shwari loans without any need to look up or report data to the credit bureaus; the credit information templates of credit sharing were too cumbersome and too slow and would have ruined the rapid decision-making that is one of the attractions of Safaricom’s mobile lending.

From the outset, the CBA, like many of the other non-bank credit providers in Kenya, used credit information sharing only as a last resort in the effort to recover outstanding loans. After 120 days of non-payment, the bank reported delinquent M-Shwari debtors to the credit bureaus. These records, almost all of them negative reports, rapidly inflated the population covered by the CRBs from 1 million people in 2014 to 4 million the following year. This expansion was the exact opposite of the reputational collateral that the bankers had long used to justify credit sharing; it measured, instead, the dramatically augmented pool of those denied formal credit at any cost.

By the time that Gatabaki announced the NDRS project in April 2014, the effort to create a technological platform to foster reputational collateral for ordinary Kenyans had effectively failed. Over the following year, the balance of informational power shifted decisively towards Safaricom and CBA. Few people made the argument publicly, but the telecom giant had clearly come to exercise monopoly control over the heights of the Kenyan economy. Their interest in micro-loans – while profitable and useful to borrowers – did little to make formal credit available to individuals or companies. The CIS system was working only as a blacklist available to Safaricom on the IPRS platform and, far from working as a solution to the problem of asymmetrical information for other lenders, it simply encouraged local banks to deny ordinary Kenyans credit.

The Safaricom monopoly

Gatabaki’s scheme faced resistance from within the state, not least because the World Bank’s Kenya Transparency Communications Infrastructure Project (KTCIP) had been pouring money into the renewal of the old IPRS. As the NDRS was being debated, the Bank was busy upgrading the IPRS, supporting digitisation of the existing land and company registries, strengthening the administration of the fifty newly devolved county centres of government, and connecting all of the divisions of the state to an accounting database. The KTCIP overhaul reduced some of the pressure for repair of the existing state information systems, but it does not account for the collapse of Gatabaki’s scheme, which would in fact have been bolstered by the same processes. The real reason lay in the ascendancy of the highly simplified information systems controlled by Safaricom, the explosive growth of M-Shwari mobile loans offered by the CBA and the decline of the political influence of the other established banks.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world…

Two financial relationships were key to this influence. The first was the joint ownership of Safaricom between the British telecorp Vodafone and the Kenyan state, which gave the state a double-dipping interest in the company’s enormous profits: first as shareholder and second as tax collector. By 2017 the state was earning Sh60 billion in tax and licence fees, and an additional Sh12 billion in dividends – a total that meant a tenth of the revenues raised by the state came from a single firm.

During the year that the NDRS was being debated, Safaricom converted its M-Pesa monopoly over pre-paid customers and financial transactions into the wildly successful M-Shwari microcredit product. In the process, it transformed the Commercial Bank of Africa – substantially owned by the Kenyatta family – from a bespoke bank providing services to the elite to one of the most profitable banks in the world, offering credit and banking facilities to the majority of adult Kenyans – most of whom were very poor. During 2016, 35 million Kenyans used mobile banking to conduct 1.5 billion transactions for a combined value of Sh3.5 trillion. The number of wretchedly but newly employed field agents servicing this finance industry rose by 10 per cent to 165,000 individuals in the same year. And Safaricom exercises a textbook monopoly over the field, controlling 65 per cent of the SIM card subscriptions and 84 per cent of the mobile banking transactions.

By the end of 2016, M-Shwari was an even purer monopoly of the mobile credit market than its M-Pesa parent. It was being used by 16 million customers to take out 64 million small loans with a total value of $1.4 billion. One in five Kenyans were borrowing from M-Swari in a normal month. A highly simplified, stripped-down informational architecture that exploited the very limited capabilities of the Simcard Toolkit and the IPRS (the opposite of the integrated, interoperable and real-time biometric system proposed for the NDRS) was key to the explosive successs of the Safaricom-CBA product.

In contrast with the NDRS, the M-Shwari loans imposed no new identification process on borrowers. For loans of less than sh2500, M-Shwari relied only on the original M-Pesa paperwork – sight of the national ID and a completed application form – that each customer is supposed to have submitted to load the M-Pesa menu and the IPRS blacklist. This frictionless simplicity – turning ignorance and convenience into effective instruments of profit – is now internationally called the “tier-based Know-Your-Customer” procedure. It is intrinsically the opposite of the “clean, complete, correct and secure” registration process that Gatabaki envisaged for the NDRS. It is important to note that it is an instrument of monopoly power because Safaricom can control its risk exposure by relying on the data it owns about users’ purchases of airtime and their relationships with other users. That information – and possible histories of impersonation and PIN-swopping – is not available to the firms’ competitors. It is only in the final decision of blacklisting borrowers that Safaricom reports unpaid M-Shwari debts to the CRBs, effectively blocking those borrowers from future credit and their competitors’ access to future customers. In the short, in the three-year life of M-Shwari, the number of Kenyans – most without any prior connection with the formal banking system – added to the blacklist shared between the CIS and the IPRS has reached three million people (a tenth of the adult population). And nearly 400,000 of those blacklisted have been denied access to future credit for failing to settle debts of less than sh200.

In the years since the demise of the NDRS, Safaricom’s relationship with the Kenyan state has only grown more intimate. The company was an immediate beneficiary of the 14 per cent cap on interest which the Kenyan Central Bank imposed on formal lenders in September 2016 – not least because CBA successfully defended the argument that the 7.5 per cent monthly fee on M-Shwari was an administrative charge and not interest. (The effective interest rate offered on M-Shwari loans approaches 140 per cent over a year of borrowing, but this rate – ten times the legal limit imposed on the formal banks – was still much lower than the returns demanded by informal money lenders.) Safaricom has taken on many of the trophy projects pursued by the Kenyan state since, including a national CCTV surveillance network in 2016, and an e-citizenship project that takes up many of the goals of online convenience that motivated the NDRS.

That the Kenyan state has been strengthened by the rise of Safaricom is probably most evident in the doubling of the population of formal taxpayers in this same period. Yet, it is also clear that this relationship has defeated the NDRS’s goals for addressing the weaknesses of formal credit provision for ordinary Kenyans, especially for firms and for individuals looking to invest relatively large amounts in productive investments. In place of the revolutionary, panoptic over-reach of Gatabaki’s National Digital Registry System, Kenyans have the simplicity and efficiency of M-Shwari. In comparison with the goals of full credit reporting and asset registries, this looks very much like the old pattern of skeletal registration and brutal administration that Africans have long had to endure.

 

Keith Breckenridge was also published in The Journal of African Studies on the same: “Breckenridge. K. (2019), The failure of the ‘single source of truth about Kenyans’: The NDRS, collateral mysteries and the Safaricom monopoly: Journal of African Studies, Vol. 78 Issue 1,  pp 91-111”. It can be accessed here

Politics

Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia

We can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible.

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Speak of Me as I Am: Reflections on Aid and Regime Change in Ethiopia
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In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nick Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.

Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s.

Misleading aid narratives distract from rebranded structural adjustment 

On the first point, Cheeseman establishes his argument early on by stating ‘that international donors have become increasingly willing to fund authoritarian regimes in Africa on the basis that they deliver on development’. In support of this assertion, he cites a table from the World Bank that shows net Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by Ethiopia surging to USD 4.93 billion in 2018, up from just over USD 4 billion in 2016 and 2017, and from a plateau oscillating around USD 3.5 billion from 2008 to 2015.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

These aggregated data are misleading because ODA received by Ethiopia from western bilateral donors in fact fell in 2018 (and probably continued falling in 2019 and 2020). The World Bank data that he cites are actually from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) statistics, which refer to all official donors (but not including countries such as China). If we restrict donor assistance to DAC countries – which is relevant given that Cheeseman only refers to the US, the UK and the EU in his piece – disbursed ODA to Ethiopia fell from USD 2.26 billion in 2017 to USD 2.06 billion in 2018 (see the red line in the figure below).

 

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019

Figure: ODA to Ethiopia (millions USD), 2000-2019Source: OECD.stat, last accessed 30 December 2020.

There was a brief moderate increase in DAC country ODA starting in 2015 and peaking in 2017. Cheeseman might have been referring to this. However, contrary to his argument, it was likely that the reason for this increase in aid was primarily humanitarian, responding to the refugee influx from South Sudan that began in 2015 and to the severe drought and famine risk in 2016-17. It was also probably related to attempts to induce incipient political reform following the major protests in Oromia in 2014, which Cheeseman would presumably condone given that conventional measures of democracy and freedom improved in 2018. Indeed, it is notable that committed ODA from DAC donor countries fell even more sharply than disbursed aid in 2018, from USD 2.49 billion in 2017 to USD 2.07 billion, reflecting the context in which these countries were negotiating hard with the Ethiopian government at the time.

Instead, the sharp increase in ODA in 2018 came entirely from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank Group, which increased its mixture of grants and loans to the country from USD 1.1 billion in 2017 to USD 2.1 billion in 2018. This subsequently fell to USD 1.8 billion in 2019 (the dashed green line in the figure).

Such ODA has been explicitly tied to the World Bank’s long-standing goal of liberalising, privatising and deregulating the Ethiopian economy, thereby ‘reforming’ (or disassembling) many of the attributes that have allowed the Ethiopian state to act in a developmentalist manner. These attributes include state-owned enterprises, state control over the financial sector, and relatively closed capital accounts, in strong distinction to most other countries in Africa (including Rwanda).

For instance, in October 2018 it approved USD 1.2 billion from the IDA in support of ‘a range of economic reforms designed to revitalize the economy by expanding the role of the private sector… to gradually open up the economy and introduce competition to and liberalize sectors that have been dominated by key state-owned enterprises (SOEs)’. The support aimed to promote public-private partnerships in key state-owned sectors such as telecoms, power and trade logistics as key mechanisms to restructure these sectors, as well as broader deregulation and financial liberalisation. It is also notable that the World Bank prefaced this justification by emphasising the political reforms that had already been embarked upon, and the promotion of ‘citizen engagement social accountability’ in Ethiopia.

In other words, contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017. The World Bank pulled up the slack in 2018, and in December 2019 both the World Bank and IMF promised more funding in support of ongoing economic reforms. The economic liberalisation has in turn undermined political liberalisation and has been a key source of political destabilization.

The bargaining hand of these donors has been reinforced by the economic difficulties faced by the Ethiopian economy – in particular, a hard tightening of external foreign-exchange constraints. Balance of payments statistics reveal that the government had effectively stopped external borrowing after 2015, a policy that it was advised to adopt in its Article IV consultations with the IMF in 2016 and 2017 as its external debt distress levels were rising. As a result, the government became excessively reliant on donor grant money as a principal source of foreign financing. Yet the country continued to run deep trade deficits, in large part because its development strategies, as elsewhere in Africa, have been very import and foreign-exchange intensive (e.g. think of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, requiring more than USD 4.6 billion to build, the bulk in foreign exchange). Significant capital flight appears to have taken place as well; for example, errors and omissions reported on the balance of payments were -USD 2.14 billion in 2018. In order to keep the ship afloat, the central bank burnt through over USD 1 billion of its reserves in 2018 alone.

Contra the idea that western donors have been increasing their support for an authoritarian development model, they have been gradually withdrawing aid since 2017

This severe tightening of foreign-exchange constraints needs to be understood as a critical structural factor in causing the development strategy to stall. Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting. Again, the point is not to apologise for authoritarianism, but rather to emphasise that the current situation is rooted deeper within a conjuncture of systemic crises that go far beyond any particular form of political administration.

Indeed, Cheeseman commits a similar oversight in ignoring the previous systemic crisis that the present is in many ways repeating. Later in his piece, he asserts: ‘The vast majority of African states were authoritarian in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost all had poor economic growth.’ This is an ahistorical misrepresentation of the profound global crisis that crippled Africa from the late 1970s for about two decades and which was the source of the poor growth he mentions. Then, as now, economic crisis was triggered throughout the continent by the severe tightening of external constraints, which neoliberal structural adjustment programmes exacerbated in a pro-cyclical manner despite being justified in the name of growth. The combination crippled developmentalist strategies across the continent regardless of political variations and despite the fact that many countries were performing quite well before the onset of the crisis. Such historical contextualisation is crucial for a correct assessment of the present.

Along with non-economic factors, this in turn put considerable strain on the government’s ability to stabilise political factions through the deployment of scarce resources, of which foreign exchange remains among the most important, especially in the current setting.

In this respect, there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse. Most countries that descend into deep protracted crises (economic or political) generally stop being nominally democratic, and yet this result becomes attributed as a cause, as if authoritarianism results in crisis or poor performance. Cheeseman cherry-picks two papers (one a working paper) on democracy and development performance in Africa (which like all cross-country regressions, are highly sensitive to model specification and open to interpretation). However, drawing any causality from such studies is problematic given that states tended to become more authoritarian after the global economic crisis and subsequent structural adjustments of the late 1970s and 1980s, not the other way around. For instance, 16 countries were under military rule in 1972, compared with 21 countries in 1989 during the height of adjustment. Faced with crippled capacity under the weight of severe austerity and dwindling legitimacy as living standards collapsed, many states responded to mass protests against the harsh conditionalities of adjustment with increasing force. As such, economic crisis and adjustment plausibly contributed to the rise of political instability and increasingly authoritarian regimes. Other factors include the Cold War destabilisation, which western countries fuelled and profited from. In other words, the political malaise across Africa at the time was driven by as much by external as internal factors.

Aid as a lever of regime change

This leads us to our second point concerning Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Cheeseman is at pains to emphasise that rigged elections and repression of opponents have contributed to the recent emergence of conflict in the Tigray region. While these are important features, Ethiopian intellectuals have also emphasised that conflicts in contemporary Ethiopia have taken place against a history of imperial state formation, slavery and debates about the ‘national question’, or what has sometimes been called ‘internal colonialism’. These conflicts are shaped by the system of ethnic federalism, in which ethnically defined states control their own revenues, social provisioning and security forces. They have been affected by foreign agricultural land grabs, which interact with older histories of semi-feudal land dispossession. Most recently, there have been concerns that regional tensions over the Renaissance Dam and agricultural land may help draw neighbouring countries into the conflict.

In the face of this highly complex and rapidly changing context, no one person can identify the optimal response. It plausibly requires regular collective deliberation by people who are deeply embedded in the context. In particular, the brief political liberalisation of 2018 was followed by a sharp uptick of political violence on all sides, rooted in fundamental tensions between different visions of statehood. Such situations cannot be solved simply by ‘adding democracy and stirring’; they require deliberative governance.

Yet, Cheeseman’s piece seeks a reimposition of the very political conditionalities that were a primary factor in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the first wave of structural adjustment and its attendant Good Governance agendas. Such conditionalities work by constraining the open contestation of ideas and the process of informed consensus-building. They undermine the sovereignty of key institutions of the polity and the economy. And by doing so they degrade the historical meaning of development as a project of reclaiming social and economic sovereignty after colonialism.

Indeed, as Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’. Such ‘disempowered new democracies’ are incapable of responding to the substantive macroeconomic demands of voters and thereby undermining substantive democracy, deliberative governance and policy sovereignty.

In particular, the idea of a democratic developmental state is meaningless in the absence of policy sovereignty. The institutional monocropping and monotasking of the type that Mkandawire wrote about does not merely prevent key institutions, such as central banks, from using broader policy instruments to support the developmental project. It also involves the deliberate creation of unaccountable policy vehicles, such as Monetary Policy Committees (MPCs), which operate outside of democratic oversight, but have considerable hold on the levers of economic policy. MPCs are in turn wedded to neoliberal monetarism. The message to such disempowered new democracies is that ‘you can elect any leader of your choice as long as s/he does not tamper with the economic policy that we choose for you.’ Or as Mkandawire wrote in 1994, ‘two or three IMF experts sitting in a country’s reserve bank have more to say than the national association of economists about the direction of national policy.’

As Thandika Mkandawire has argued, the previous wave of political conditionalities and democratisation reduced democracies to formal structures of elections and, by wedding and subordinating them to the orthodox economic policy frameworks established under structural adjustment, led to what he called ‘choiceless democracies’

In such contexts, the prospect of a democratic developmental state is severely diminished. Ensuring significant improvements in people’s wellbeing is important for the legitimacy of democracies. Yet the subversion of policy sovereignty significantly constrains the ability of new democracies to do so, setting them up for a crisis of legitimacy.

If democracy is to be meaningful it should involve the active engagement of citizens in a system of deliberative governance. Civil society organisations, in this context, are meaningful when they are autonomous institutions of social groupings that actively engage in boisterous debate and public policymaking in articulating the interest of their members. Yet, donor clientelism in Africa has wrought civil society and advocacy organisations that are manufactured and funded by, and accountable to, donors, not the citizens. This is a substantive subversion of democracy as a system of deliberative governance.

In this respect, we can call the kind of intrusive donor clientelism that Cheeseman is recommending Good Governance 2.0. His advocacy for strengthening patron-client relations between western donors and African governments, and his urging that donors use crises as a way of forcing regime change and policy conditionalities, is ahistorical, counterproductive and morally indefensible. In particular, it does not take into account the destructive, anti-democratic role of western-backed regime change and policy conditionality across the Global South during the era of flag independence. Even recently, these donor countries have disastrous human rights records when pushing for regime change in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Their support for military dictatorships, such as in Egypt, has been a central pillar of foreign policy for decades. And several of these donor countries worked hard to uphold apartheid in South Africa. They have no moral high ground to push for regime change, and little record to ensure that they could do so without causing more harm than good.

Moreover, external actors attempting to enforce their narrow view of democratisation in contexts of deeply polarised and competing visions of statehood, and in the midst of economic instability reinforced by already burdensome economic conditionalities, austerity and reforms, could well be a recipe for disaster. As a collective of intellectuals from across the Horn has emphasised, the people of Ethiopia in particular and the Horn in general must be at the forefront of developing a lasting peace. This would likely require a developmental commitment to supporting state capacity and deliberative governance, not undermining it through external interference and conditionalities.

This article was first published in CODESRIA Bulletin Online, No. 2, January 2021 Page 1

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Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who on 17 December 2010 set himself alight at Sidi Bouzid in an act of self-immolation that made him the iconic martyr of the Tunisian revolution.

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Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is familiar to all; less so is his background, although the facts of his story are well known and documented. This article will explore the links between the different sequences of ‘protest’ processes in Tunisia, from the 2008 strikes in the minefields, to the most recent (2017-20) El Kamour protests in the country’s south-east. It will also consider the concept of socio-spatial class solidarity, both in turning an individual suicide into the spark for a major uprising, and in facilitating collective resistance and its role in long revolutionary processes.

Two key questions arise: what in Bouazizi’s profile, life and circumstances was of such significance that his suicide sparked a huge popular uprising whose impact, direct and indirect, was felt worldwide. And what can he teach us about the origin, scale and longevity of the Tunisian revolution?

We must therefore examine the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi within its familial and personal context, but also within the more general context of the political protests against the Ben Ali dictatorship, and especially against the processes of dispossession, impoverishment and exclusion. Sidi Bouzid was clearly a focus of the protests and resistance then spreading throughout Tunisia’s marginalised regions. The prolonged mining strikes of 2008 were a key stage in the actions.

Born into poverty, Mohamed Bouazizi was raised by his mother after he lost his father at the age of three. As the eldest son he grew up with a moral ‘obligation’ to support his mother, to the detriment of his education, and he left school without qualifications. Some time before his dramatic act, he acquired a barrow and scales and started selling vegetables but his informal business attracted endless administrative hassles and police harassment. Finally, on 17 December 2010, the police seized his meagre equipment to put a stop to his trading. Angry, frustrated and desperate, he turned to the only act of resistance that still appeared open to him and thereby unwittingly triggered the countdown to Ben Ali’s fall, scarcely one month later, on 14 January 2011.

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

Between the prolonged mining strike of 2008 and the shows of solidarity unleashed by Bouazizi’s self-immolation, many social movements were active across Tunisia. Among them were the protests made in Sidi Bouzid in June and July 2010 by peasant farmers whose demands focused on a number of issues: access to natural resources such as agricultural land, and water for drinking and irrigation purposes, state aid, and the complex problem of indebtedness.

According to several witnesses interviewed in Sidi Bouzid, as well as two family members, Mohamed Bouazizi took an active part in these demonstrations. Whether or not this is so, I would identify a clear link between the peasant ‘protests’ of summer 2010 and those that followed Bouazizi’s desperate act – a link that explains why this particular case, in contrast to other suicides, sparked a popular uprising across the country. First to take to the streets after Bouazizi’s self-immolation were other peasant farmers’ children identifying with his fatal act of resistance and despair.

Here was a clear example of ‘class solidarity’ among local populations directly affected by the region’s multiple social and economic problems. Over the next few days that same class solidarity also found expression nationwide, moving from the ‘rural’ zones (including ‘rural towns’), to the popular quarters of larger towns, and finally to the big urban centres, including Tunis. The progress of the protests suggests the existence of a distinct class-consciousness embracing all the ‘popular’ classes, rural and urban.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital. Over the past four decades Sidi Bouzid has been transformed: from a semi-arid desert fringe with an extensive agriculture based on olives, almonds, pasture and winter cereals, it has become Tunisia’s leading agricultural region, producing over a quarter of the nation’s total output of fruit and vegetables.

But behind this undoubted technical success lies a real social and ecological failure. Socially Sidi Bouzid remains one of Tunisia’s four poorest regions (of 26 in total), while ecologically the level of the water table is plummeting, water for irrigation is increasingly saline, and soil damage is visible, even to non-specialist eyes.

Since the early 1980s, the governorate of Sidi Bouzid has been the site of a rapid, state-initiated intensification of farming, designed to create a modern, export-oriented agricultural hub based on exploiting deep underground water reserves and attracting private and public capital

Here investors – who are mostly outsiders, often called ‘settlers’ by the local population – accrue capital and profits; meanwhile peasant farmers accumulate losses, tragedies and suicides. Without this huge socio-spatial fault, which divides Tunisia between a dominant centre and dependant periphery, Mohamed Bouazizi’s death would scarcely have merited a mention. And that same divide also lies at the heart of several other shocks which will be discussed below.

After the Sidi Bouzid uprising ended with the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship, several more protest movements arose, all forming part of the same resistance processes in the social and spatial periphery.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’: two different struggles each of which constitutes a key moment/sequence in the same process of dissent.

At Jemna and El Kamour, as in other cases, the key to mass mobilisation lies in the processes and dynamics of socio-spatial class solidarity: ‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere; what you can read in the media reports of declarations made by local populations. And underlying it all, ‘driving’ resistance and ‘cementing’ solidarity, lie profound feelings of injustice and demands for dignity.

Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy

Following the Sidi Bouzid episode and the fall of the dictator, in 2011 an oasis was ‘discovered’ that was probably new to the majority of Tunisians. Situated in the desert, midway between Kebili and Douz, the Jemna oasis owed its sudden appearance on the map to a significant new collective action, stemming directly from specific elements of colonial history that resurfaced after the wall of silence placed around them had been breached.

While most French colonists chose to settle in north or north-west Tunisia and created big cereal farms and/or stock-raising enterprises, and even vineyards and orchards, others preferred to head south and specialise in date farming – in particular the Degla variety, whose export market in France and Europe was virtually guaranteed. Among this latter group was one Maus De Rolley, who in 1937 created a new date-palm plantation around the core of the ancient Jemna oasis. The plantation today covers some 306 hectares, including 185 hectares planted with approximately 10,000 date palms.

Although local populations had held these lands as common and indivisible (tribal) property, they were dispossessed without compensation on the pretext that nomadic herding (pastoralism) was not a genuine productive activity, and that the land therefore was uncultivated. At independence, these populations – who had battled against the occupiers – held great expectations that the new authorities would return their stolen lands.

The Jemna oasis movement began in 2011 and concerned rights to land and resources, while the El Kamour movement (2017-20) also involves rights to local resources and in particular to ‘development’

When the colonial lands were nationalised in 1964, however, the government decided to place them under state control, confiding their management to the body that administered the state’s agricultural land, the Office des Terres Domaniales (OTD), which thereby became Tunisia’s biggest agricultural landowner. Bolstering this strategy was the collectivisation policy of the 1960s, which aimed to reorganise agricultural land and create state ‘socialist’ cooperatives.

Yet the real argument against the redistribution of the nationalised lands lay elsewhere: small peasant farmers were judged too ignorant and archaic, too lacking in the necessary financial and technical means, to develop a modern intensive agricultural sector – a stigmatisation that still recurs today whenever discussion returns to this subject and/or to questions of agricultural models and political choices related to farming and food.

Over the following decades, the heirs made some efforts to reclaim these lands, but it was not until early 2011 that the first organised occupations of OTD lands were launched by local populations describing themselves as the legitimate successors. Among them was Jemna’s local population, who occupied the former De Rolley plantation, claiming rights of property and of exploitation. The authorities demanded an end to the occupation, and the resulting impasse lasted for several years. The government argued that the occupation was illegal, while the occupiers countered that they held a legitimate right to resources and especially to community assets, including the indivisible and inalienable commons.

After a long period of tension a compromise was reached. By mutual agreement, the state ceded full management of the palm plantation to the local population while retaining ownership of the land. Might the latter have believed this negotiated settlement to be the only viable compromise?

Underlying the government position was the fear that any solution implying the grant of freehold to the legitimate heirs might create a legal precedent and set an example that would unleash a torrent of other land claims, all drawing on the same colonial and post-colonial past. But the occupation alone had set that example already, inciting other local populations to reclaim – with some attempts at occupation – the lands snatched from their grandparents during colonisation. Furthermore, I would argue that the Jemna case also served to fuel claims of a legitimate right to other local ‘natural’ resources such as water, minerals (for example, phosphates) and oil that mobilised populations in the Tatouine region.

El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’

Resistance entered another phase, not without success, at El Kamour – a locality situated in the barren steppes of south-eastern Tunisia, south of the town of Tatouine, on the tarmac road leading to the oil-fields in the extreme south of the country. The ‘dispossession pipeline’ carrying crude oil to the port of Skhira, 50 kilometres north of Gabes, runs through here, and this geographical position close to the pipeline is the immediate reason for El Kamour’s sudden appearance on political maps of Tunisia, as well as in the media.

Behind El Kamour, however, lies the governorate and town of Tataouine (Tataouine is the capital of the governorate of the same name), with over 180,000 inhabitants. Arid and barren, this region contains most of Tunisia’s oil reserves, producing 40 per cent of its petrol and 20 per cent of its gas. Yet Tataouine also records some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty: in 2017, for example, 28.7 per cent of its active population were unemployed (compared with a national average of 15.3 per cent), while for graduates the rate rose as high as 58 per cent.

Events in El-Kamour, 2017-2020: a brief chronology

The El Kamour movement began on 25 March 2017, with protests in various localities in the governorate, all converging on the town centre of Tataouine. The protesters were demanding a share of local resources, particularly oil, as well as greater employment opportunities and infrastructure development. Met by silence from the government, on 23 April they organised a sit-in at El Kamour. Tensions mounted on both sides, and an escalation became inevitable after the prime minister visited Tataouine and met the protesters. His plans to calm the situation with a few token promises came to naught and the discussions ended in deadlock. On 20 May the pumping station was occupied for two days before being cleared by the army, and tensions remained high.

Eventually, on 16 June 2017, an agreement was signed with the government through the mediation of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), which acted to guarantee its implementation. The terms of the agreement promised the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the environmental sector by 2019, and 1,500 jobs in the oil industry by the end of 2017. A budget of 80 million dinars was also earmarked for regional development. But, to the frustration of the local population, the agreement was never implemented. The government simply bided its time, gambling that the militants would tire and the movement run out of steam.

‘This is where I come from, I belong to this region and this social group, I am being deprived of resources materially and/or symbolically, so I support those who dare to say “no” and resist’. In summary, this is what you can hear in Kebili-Jemna, Tataouine-El Kamour and elsewhere.

On 20 May 2020, however, the El Kamour activists resumed their protests and sit-ins in several places, piling on the pressure and blockading several routes to bar them to oil-industry vehicles. On 3 July they organised a new general strike throughout the public services and the oilfields, and on 16 July they closed the pumping station, blocking the pipelines carrying petroleum products north. But the El Kamour militants had to wait until 7 November 2020 before they could reach an agreement with the government’s representatives, in return for which petrol producers and other oil-sector enterprises were to resume operations immediately.

Signed by the head of government on 8 November 2020, the agreement contains a number of key points, including several that had previously featured in the 2017 accord but had not been implemented. These included, dedicated 80-million-dinar development and investment fund for the governorate of Tataouine; credit finance for 1,000 projects before the end of 2020; 215 jobs created in the oil industry in 2020, plus a further 70 in 2021; 2.6 million dinars for local municipalities and 1.2 million dinars for the Union Sportive de Tataouine.

The big social movements discussed above all have several points in common. Firstly, they are very largely located in southern, central, western and north-western Tunisia, the same marginalised and impoverished regions that between 17 December 2010 and early January 2011 saw huge protests in support of Bouazizi and against current social and economic policies. Secondly, while differing in detail, the principal demands of these movements all relate essentially to the right to resources, services and a decent income. None, or virtually none, are linked to ‘political’ demands (political rights, individual freedom). Thirdly, in their choice of language, and of several ‘spectacular’ actions, these social movements display a radicalism that marks a clear break with the political games played in and around the centres of power. Finally, almost all these movements are denounced and accused of regionalism and tribalism, sometimes even of separatism and treachery. Protesters are suspected of being manipulated, of being puppets in the hands of a political party or foreign power.

Yet these movements have enjoyed some, albeit relative, success – a success impossible without the class solidarity shown in the three examples discussed above, and the ties of domination and dependency that for decades have characterised the relationship between Tunisia’s centre of power (the east coast) and its deprived and impoverished periphery. Finay, these same examples, and other more recent cases, demonstrate that the ‘revolutionary’ processes launched in early 2008 are still active in Tunisia and will probably remain so for many years to come.

This article was first published in The Review of Africa Political Economy journal

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We Need New Names

Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we must decolonise our languages and dismantle colonial borders based on imagined ethnicities.

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In late 2019, the Luanda Boda Boda Riders’ Association purchased a bus for public service. The association is located along the Maseno-Luanda border and its membership is largely drawn from the Luanda and Maseno catchment area.

The name of the association has a lot to do with the state of our union as a country or even as a region. It is a microcosm of ethno-nationalist tensions existing in Kenya and many other regions of Africa, and the changing times that bring new and multiple ways to negotiate these invented differences. The boda boda association is a chance to look at how we negotiate citizenship daily, and how we can overcome some essentialist ideals that are so deeply entrenched in eastern Africa.

The boda boda association draws membership from Luanda and Maseno, two small towns that are barely three kilometers apart. Maseno was established as a mission town and gets its name from oseno, which is a Luo word for the indigenous tree that used to be dominant in the area before ecological colonialism. The Kinyore (the Luhya sub-group inhabiting the Maseno and Luanda corridor) calls the same tree luseno. Oseno has since been colonised by the blue gum commonly called bao, which is indigenous to Australia. Young people would be at pains to identify oseno in Maseno today. Shortly before colonialism, Luanda had been established by a Luo chief from Gem Yala. Currently Luanda is dominantly a Luhya town, and it is located in Vihiga County. I have grown to like the sound of Maseno. For me, the word conjures pleasant images of green hilly spaces.

Imperial creations

Kenya, like the majority of other African countries, has never been a nation-state.  Kenya’s territorial boundary, as we now recognise it on maps, was drawn exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920. It is a border that split, for example, the Luos into three different countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). As part of these colonial processes, the Somali people were also split into three countries, with a section of them occupying Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and Somaliland. It is instructive to recall that coastal East Africa presented similar challenges. The current Zanzibari semi-autonomy in Tanzania and the conspicuous Pwani Si Kenya slogan are witness to the inherent pressures in the formation of nation-states in this part of the world. The boda boda riders in Maseno-Luanda zone show us only too well how we have an incomplete sense of ourselves and our politics when we are inclined to always think and conceive of ourselves and our communities as complete.

In 1929, the colonial administrator, Charles W. Hobley, said, “The Kikuyu and its blood relations on the slopes of Mount Kenya are, next to the Kavirondo, the most numerous native society in Kenya colony. They have no internal homogeneity, so were brought under control section by section.”

Therefore, the Kikuyu as we popularly know them today, are a creation of the colonial empire and each section was amalgamated onto another until they were made to imagine themselves as one whole part. This imagination has seeped into the dominant Kikuyu popular imagination, yet tensions still exist on who should claim the authentic Kikuyu title and name. A popular myth names Murang’a as the place where Mumbi first set foot, and thus the Kiambu Kikuyu are actually considered proper Kikuyu as opposed to the Murang’a Kikuyu who have interacted with the Embu and Meru communities. It is weird how we still stick to these categories as authentic, without the slightest examination of the histories and names behind them.

Electoral voting patterns and the legendary Kiambu-Muranga division still remind the Kikuyu of their incompleteness as a nation. This also applies to what we have think of as the Luos, the Luhyas, etc. The “tribes” (I will use the terms community or nations) as we see them today were invented in the colonial era. The introduction of a centralised and domineering government was a creation of the British empire. It was created along the Westphalian Christian state system to enhance resource extraction and organise labour along pliant and easily micromanage-able paradigms in Kenya.

Before colonialism, local communities had several centres of power, not necessarily along political lines, but sometimes along religious leaders and familial loyalties. This is still evident in the way religion plays a major role in our conception of ourselves and their celebrity status in national governance dialogues. As an illustration, Mgahanya, the rainmaker of the Banyore community in colonial Kenya, drew his power not from politics but from his hereditary technology of controlling rains. Indeed, Mgahanya’s power would be sought by the Luo neighbours as well whenever the need arose to have a rainmaker present. For his prowess and popularity, Hobley gave Mgahanya the title of a principal chief, thereby instilling new ways of looking at a rainmaker, not as a helper in the society but as someone who had the power to lord and rule over his relatives, friends and foes with an iron fist. Mgahanya’s rainmaking power was finally, and dramatically, curtailed by Hobley himself.  In divesting Mgahanya of his political power gained through rainmaking, Hobley instituted new ways of gaining power in the society. Power would never be the same again in eastern Africa.

Evidently, government in pre-imperial Kenya was largely by consensus. But this was not always the case. The Mazrui family’s control of the slave trade in Mombasa reminds us that consensus was not always the default governance case in colonial and pre-colonial Kenya and that power was not always benign. In other words, the long history of governance in Kenya has experienced ruptures and transformations. Perhaps this history, culture and knowledge of power might be useful when we finally decide to finally form a government that is focused on ourselves. This would be a better alternative to the exhausting gerrymandering the political elites in Kenya frequent.

Moreover, Hobley, in Kenya: From a Chartered Company to a Crown Colony, further notes that he played an important part in reviving the importance of the Kiama among the Kikuyu, but of course to enhance colonial government. The idea of a Kikuyu elders was revitalised and invented as an essentialised entity by the colonial government. While reconstituting the tribe for the colonial agenda, Hobley instructed the heads of the Kiama (for whom he invented the title “chiefs”) to be detached from their compatriots in order to give proper judgments. In one instruction, the Kiama authority was not only centralised but also given sweeping powers and stripped of communal ethos and emotions. The colonial reconstruction of African societies was an unmitigated cultural disaster whose legacies we still contend with in present-day Kenya, such as the nationalist insinuations in differentiating Luos from the Banyore people in the Maseno-Luanda corridor.

From Hobley’s new ways of creating and accumulation of power, political leaders in Kenya have since stuck to the idea of leadership as a manifestation of paramount chiefs. The impersonal detachment and the attempts by public officials to centralise power can also be seen in how Kenyan doctors perceive their patients, how head teachers treat poor parents, how immigration and customs officials mistreat Kenyans in their own country, how bus conductors mishandle passengers, and how factories pollute Lake Victoria and its environs with impunity. The colonial system is replicated in every public sphere. Scarcely does one transcend this system.

The Westphalian state 

After the end of colonialism, we did not take stock of our various systems of power and ways of naming in the community. Rather, we adopted and imported the Westphalian state model that was used to institute various hegemons, with each community waiting for a turn to lord over other communities. The communities that have been at the helm have ensured that the patronage system instituted by Carey Francis, Charles Hobley, and Lord Delamere, among others, has been perfected for a post-independence Kenya. Community nationalism as a basis for mobilising power is a narrative that has been employed in Kenya. This happened right from the first Kenyan president to the present president, since they could not pursue an alternative Africanist ideology with which to administer the country. They failed to either take notes from or apply the history of the country as far as governance was exercised. They lost a grand chance to decolonise governance and bring back the government to “we the people” of Kenya. And now Luanda boda boda riders have shown us how one can undermine such dominant narratives.

To appreciate this, one needs to understand that Maseno-Luanda is divided along “Luo” and “Luhya” communities. During each election period, this division is amplified by politicians. They incite tribal animosity among people who ordinarily intermarry, language differences notwithstanding. Indeed, the dhoLuo language has evolved to use Semeji or Omejo in reference to Luhya in-laws. That is how frequent intermarriage occurs here and how transcultural conversations have been conducted here despite the politicians and Kenyan comedians who frequently prop up negative ethnicity in their speeches and performances, respectively.

Maseno was the place the Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries established the first Anglican church in western Kenya, circa 1906. The two communities grew around this church. Along with the growth of the church, the established ethnic differences also grew. Thus, Maseno Mixed Primary School would later be created, not as a mixed school for boys and girls, but as a mixed school for Luos and Luhyas! The idea of “mixed” in this case was founded on ways of negotiating cultural differences and not to denote gender.

For a while, in its long history, this primary school had its own Luhya and Luo staff coming to teach at different times of the day. Independence-era Kenya would see the split of this Maseno Anglican church into North and South. Maseno South diocese became the Luo church while Maseno North diocese became the Luhya church. The growth of Maseno as a mission town was doomed due to its cultural topography. The Maseno South diocese relocated its headquarters deep in Luo land, to Kisumu. Maseno North pushed its diocese deep in Luhya land to Kakamega. In other words, a single Christian religion could not keep its adherents from the two cultures together. This was the design of the colonial government. Each community would be coalesced together within itself, especially as a way of breaking down each community’s governance structures. But inter-community solidarity would be robustly discouraged. Mgahanya would eventually be appointed a principal chief within the Banyore community, after all his power was no longer needed among the neighbouring Luo, for Hobley had effectively taken charge of administering the Luo nation.

The independence-era Kenyan state also drew a border between the two communities, locating Maseno in Luo Nyanza and Luanda in Western Province.  This imagined boundary was based on the colonial separation of the Luo from the Luhya. What if the boundary was to be re-drawn along matters that boda boda operators find useful, such as geographical features, and not along ethnic territories? For boda boda operators, features such as hills, muddy terrains, valleys and flat lands denote how much fuel a motorbike consumes.

We need new solidarities 

Can we have associations not based on the colonial structures, like this boda boda group does? Africans are saddled with the burdens of colonial structures that the post-colonial elites simply refuse to supplant. Post-independence Kenya has cost lives, in the name of the community. The Kenyatta presidency quickly consolidated ethnic capital to misrule the state. Ethnic patronage quickly grew deep roots and it has irretrievably thrived, until now. Nearly all the chiefs under Moi rule were imperial personalities in their own right and might, just like they were in colonial Kenya.

We need new solidarities like the Luanda Boda Boda Association, but devoid of unchecked rugged capitalist ambitions. Kenya’s model of its solidarity is based on capital accumulation. In the fullness of its agenda, organisations founded on purely commercial interests morph into monopolies and create the same trap that the founders initially ran away from: poverty, disempowerment and powerlessness for others. The Luanda Boda Boda Association might not be cognisant of the fact that the public transport business is usually the function of an operational government. Even if they are, they have chosen to ignore that, under the illusion that they are working hard and sustaining themselves. The self-employment agenda of this association rips apart ethnic loyalties because it co-opts Luo and Luhya communities.

I am not into economics, here, I am on the use and ab-use of names – how innocent names like Luanda Boda Boda Association circumvent a nationalist current. The afterlives of this name embrace the inclusion of other communities not associated with the cultural geography of the Maseno-Luanda route. The association teaches us how to bring back two communities that have been divided by colonial and post-colonial Kenyan rulers. Resiliently, the people still head back to certain elements of solidarity that existed way before the arrival of Hobley and his imperial British associates.

At the same time, we might have to remember that Luanda was founded by a Luo chief, as we are reminded by Bethwel Ogot who convincingly presents this event in his autobiography My Footprints in the Sands of Time. Contrary to its founding, Luanda is currently located in a Luhya-administered ethnopolis. The street-level motorcycle association undermines the political narrative in the control of Maseno-Luanda borderlands. The politics of Maseno-Luanda is pegged on community divisions. These boda boda motorcyclists, however, teach us lessons on cosmopolitanisms.

It is also instructive to recall that the Maseno-Luanda topic is a divisive factor and always comes up during election periods.  However, the boda boda riders frequently move in and out of Luo and Luhya “tribal” zones conveniently and daily, with or without electoral cycles. If only the road network could catch up with the socialised motorcycle networks! These riders transcend the names and political divisions that were issued by the colonialists and their successors in post-colonial Kenya.

Boda boda riders transport passengers with little reference to ethnic origins. They move within and around the Luo and Banyore nations. Indeed, the motorbikes work across the tribal difference in a way that seems to shorten the already -narrow cultural distance between the two communities. In the process, they circulate cultural contacts between the two, and defy the political elite who thrive on the divisions. And now their bus will move passengers beyond Luo and Luhya nations. Linguists will observe the historical and structural complexities that separate Luloogoli, Libukusu and Kinyore from the Luo language, the obvious one being that dhoLuo is a Nilotic language and the other dialects belong to the Bantu language family.

The thing with language is that one owns the power to name things, to make a world with yourself at the center, to rewrite (hi)stories of far-flung peripheries. Take the ethnonym Luhya, as an example. Before this coinage, the Luhya were part of the Kavirondo people. The Kavirondo was initially the Eastern Province of Uganda before it was switched to Kisumu Province of the East Africa Protectorate, and finally moved to western Kenya. The umbrella term Kavirondo included both Nilotes and Bantus around Lake Victoria, all the way to Mumias and Mount Elgon. The freedom of colonialists’ naming of African communities was an enaction of the powerlessness of these communities vis-à-vis the colonial imagination and grammar. Within the Luhya nation there are a total of about 17 linguistic groups. The term Luhya is an artificially constructed ethnolinguistic reference to many closely related (some of which are not mutually intelligible) Bantu-speaking peoples. They include the Bukusu, Tachoni, Wanga, Marama, Tsotso, Tiriki, Nyala, Kabras, Hayo, Marachi, Holo, Maragoli, Idakho, Isukha, Kisa, Nyore, and Samia in Western Kenya. Their cultural divergences are many and multilayered, with the Tachoni tracing their ancestry to the Nilotic group of Nandi in the around the 14th century.

To fit yourself in a name that classified and considered you part of exotica needs careful self-extraction out of such languages.  This need is even more immediate when one remembers how this classification was done without the agency and input of the local people and their collective consciousness and knowledge systems. Thus, the iLoikop people are made into Maasai, the iSampuru became Samburu. The various communities known as Nandi, Kipsikis, Pokoot, and Tugen are collapsed into an easily classifiable and ruled “tribe” called Kalenjin. This is in spite of the cultural and linguistic differences between them. In these cultural acrobatic movements mediated by colonialist linguistics, Kakamega (spelled as Kakumega in colonial orthography) was not the name of a town but an ethnonym in reference to the Idakho and Isukha communities.

If language is a unifier of cultural, economic and social values, then we need a new generation of names. We need Names 2.0. These names could consider political and cultural differences and histories. We need a new name for a governance that will neither be called kleptocratic nor a kakistocracy. We need new names for Luos, who pride themselves in Nyikwa Ramogi (based on a point of origin, not a colonial classification). Don’t we need a new name for the daughters and sons of Mumbi? We need new names that denote plurality, but account for differentiated identities, like the Mijikenda. (My translation of “Mijikenda” would not be a tribe but “nine homes”.) We need decolonised names in order to open or transcend some of the worlds which were closed by colonial naming processes.

Renaming ourselves might not be an easy way to redesign our nominal worlds, which were forced into cruel unions in Berlin in December 1884. It might even prove to be a messy but it is still a necessary activity. We need to open these worlds that were closed by colonial naming processes, like the Luanda Boda Boda Association has done. Every time we use these new colonial names, we acknowledge the problematic grammar that inherently operates within them. We also reiterate that the names did not aim to usefully matter to Africans. We repeat the insufficiency of English to capture the nuances that exist in our cultural worldviews and political lives.

I must reiterate here that these names were not arbitrarily drawn; they were created to enhance control. Perhaps post-colonial eastern Africa should ask what control mechanism the various ethno-nationalities initiate. For example, the Luhya group is one of the reminders that ethno-nationalism is an invention that is a mirage. It was created for divide et imperium purposes. As Bethwel Ogot reminds us, there was no Luhya empire prior to colonialism. Yet the colonial history implies the presence of a Luhya empire. The Nabongo Mumia was no threat to the neighbouring Kager clan. However, as a paramount chief, Nabongo Mumia, was a creation of the British to pacify western Kenya, especially to control the northeastern Kager clan of the so-called Luos.

We need new names, donge?

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