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Who Is Running Northern Kenya? Causes of the Simmering ‘Resource Curse’ in Isiolo County

As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century.

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Who Is Running Northern Kenya? Causes of the Simmering ‘Resource Curse’ in Isiolo County
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The tension was evident, untouchable, but abundant. Everyone spoke with unmistakable anger. It was approaching 11.00 p.m. and for hours we listened to community members who took turns to narrate to us the harrowing experiences the Borana community had gone through at the hands of well-trained rangers and raiders from the Samburu community. This had gone on since 2006 when the Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy was formed.

“We were forced to collect the information at night after word went round that the Northern Rangelands Trust had earlier mobilised its supporters to unleash chaos during a meeting called the following day to discuss its operations in the Conservancy,” said Al-Amin Kimathi, a renowned human rights activist. . After taking dinner out in the open, the team gathered in a makeshift shelter eager to listen to members of the community. And they had prepared well. Some had come with written notes and used torches to read through them.

“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.

Ile ndovu tuliyoambiwa tutakua tukiikamua sasa imekua ya kutumaliza” (We were told that we will be benefiting from wildlife conservation, but instead we have been losing our lives), said Sheikh Dabbaso Ali Dogo, the former chairman of the Conservancy Board. Dogo added that before the conservancy was formed, top officials of NRT, including its founder, Ian Craig, had made a raft of promises to the community.

 

“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.

Among those selected was Jaarso Golicha Gaade, a former councilor with the defunct Isiolo County Council and now an employee of NRT. With other elders, Gaade was hosted by Craig at Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia in 2006. Craig then asked the initial group of elders to identify fellow elders who could join them in coaxing the rest of the community members to accept the idea of the Conservancy.

After being promised goodies, the latter then organised seminars during which the formation of the Conservancy was discussed. “NRT promised the communities a complete halt to the long-running insecurity and cattle-rustling incidents as well as lasting peace between it and the neighbouring Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities,” said Retired Major Jillo Dima, an elder in the community. Jillo added that to make this happen, NRT promised to finance the construction of an institution for morans in the area. He says that the organisation also made other promises related to employment of young men as rangers and said that they would not only be protecting wildlife but also members of the community. It would also invest Sh50 million on a project identified by members of the first Conservancy Board, and income from tourism activities in the Conservancy.

“With the promises in mind, the community needed no more coaxing; it soon agreed to commit hundreds of thousands of its pasturelands for conservation purposes. The 364,000-hectare Conservancy was formed in 2006 following the ‘signing’ of an agreement between the community and the NRT.” He expressed disappointment that the agreement has remained secret for over the 13 years the Conservancy has been in existence, adding that it was odd that all the people, including former board members, “have neither seen the agreement nor were they aware of its provisions”.

(Our attempt to interview relevant officials of NRT did not bear fruits. They did not get back to us even after sending questions to them.)

Members of the community reported that apart from giving the Conservancy a vehicle, constructing two classrooms, a mud-walled nursery school and teachers’ houses and employing a number of rangers, the NRT has reneged on most other promises. To make matters worse, NRT went out of its way to worsen the plight of the community and unilaterally makes all the decisions. For instance, we learned that the organisation engineered the sacking and replacement of members of the first board after they demanded to know what came of the promises made to the community. Those interviewed added that finances meant for the Conservancy were banked in an NRT account and that the Conservancy has only held two annual general meetings since it was formed. Further, they said that past and current Conservancy board members have no powers and do not even know what income was earned by the Conservancy.

It is not a wonder that the community later resolved, in a meeting called by elected leaders and the Borana Council of Elders, to kick NRT out of Isiolo County; a resolution that is yet to be fully implemented.

‘Kenya ‘B’ and the Community Land Act

As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century.

It is important to appreciate that the goings-on at the mammoth-sized conservancy is part of what happens in the section of the country now called, in Kenyan parlance, “Kenya B”. This is a vast region in the country whose residents have suffered neglect and open discrimination since the geographical entity now called Kenya was configured by the British colonisers. It is a region that seems to have remained in the peripheries of the subconscious of many a policy maker and politician who’ve run this country since independence. As Dr Nene Mburu says in the book Bandits on the Border: The Last Frontier in the Search for Somali Unity, this is “one half of Kenya which the other half knows nothing about and seems to care for even less.”

As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century. The land conundrum there is now compounded by the decision to put up mega-schemes, such as LAPPSET and other Vision 2030 projects that continue to take up vast tracts of the community land.

However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties.

On paper, the land in Isiolo and elsewhere in the north is protected by the Community Land Act. This Act gives pastoral communities the right to govern their land with full recognition of their ancestral heritage and unique governance and livelihoods systems. It recognises, protects and provides for the registration of community land rights; the administration and management of such lands; and titling and conversion of community land. It also provides for the management of the environment and natural resources on community land and the resolution of disputes and accommodates the customs and practices of pastoral communities relating to land.

However, although this piece of legislation became part of Kenyan law in 2016, the process of developing regulations for its implementation have been frustrated by powerful people in government for their own ends. At the same time, little or no effort has been made to raise the awareness of members of the pastoral communities on the provisions of the Act. Further, the National Land Commission and the relevant county governments are yet to initiate a process that would lead to registration of community land and implementation of this law. This has given organisations, such as the NRT, adequate room to manipulate communities for their own benefit.

It is no wonder that NRT had gone ahead to unilaterally identify sites for the construction of tourism facilities that are located in areas that are key for the survival of the livestock-based economy in Biliqo-Bulesa and the entire Charri Rangeland. These include the Baballa Camp that is set to be put up along an animal movement route close to the Ewaso Nyiro River, the Maddo Gurba Huqqa, which is close to a community shallow well, and Sabarwawa, an area where the water table is quite shallow. Others are in Nyachiis, which was previously used by the community for traditional naming ceremonies, and Kuro-Bisaan Owwo, a hot spring whose water has medicinal properties for both humans and livestock – a place where the NRT had planned to set up a spa for tourists. “We have resisted the takeover of these sites by NRT,” said Jillo.

Deliberate schemes

There are those who believe that the failure to start the land adjudication process in Isiolo and the counties of Marsabit, Moyale, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, and the marginalisation and deprivation in the erstwhile Northern Frontier District (NFD) have been deliberate schemes by all the governments that have run Kenya since the colonial period. Their main aim, it is said, is to keep the lands open for all manner of activities that have largely been injurious to the environment as well as to the local residents and their economic lifelines. For instance, the colonial government arbitrarily partitioned – and thereby greatly disrupted – the rhythm of life and especially the traditional pastoral way of life in the north. This went hand in hand with the establishment of what Dr Nene Mburu calls “impracticable administrative arrangements”.

The colonial government did little other than setting up military installations there, taxing the pastoralists as well as quarantining animal movements that curtailed the traditional trade in livestock. It also enacted discriminatory laws, such as the District Ordinance of 1902, declared Isiolo a closed district in 1926, and restricted the movement of residents under The Special Districts Ordinance of 1934. “This legislation regulated non-resident travel into the districts,” writes Dr Mburu who concludes that the net effect of the discriminatory policies was to create an “iron curtain” that isolated the north from the rest of Kenya.

Sadly, successive post-independence governments have not shown, in policy and actions, that they were opposed to the colonial policy. If anything, the first post-independence government of Jomo Kenyatta continued the colonial policy of discrimination and neglect. Kenyatta waged war against a determined Somali nationalism. This was after failing to reach an agreement over whether NDF was to be part of Kenya or Somalia during the three Lancaster House Conferences on 1961, 1962 and 1963. Between 1963 and 1968, Kenya deployed its military to fight off Shifta guerillas out to enforce the secession of the NFD from the new republic.

Isiolo’s hidden wealth

Isiolo is dominated by members of the Borana community who have continued to lose their land over the years. According to Dr Mburu, the community was historically used as a convenient human barricade, or buffer, by Ethiopia and Britain against the expansionist tendencies of other communities. For instance, he says that different Ethiopian kings used the Borana country to check the influence of European penetration into Abyssinia’s interior and to contain Somali expansion northwards from the NFD and western Somalia into Ethiopia. And just like the Kenya government has failed to do since the colonial period, Ethiopia merely used the Borana community but was not interested in governing its homeland effectively.This gave the Somali an opportunity to consolidate their westwards expansion into the NFD. Dr Mburu says that by 1880, the Somali had forcefully driven the Borana into Moyale and southwards out of the El-Wak wells, forcing them further westwards into Marsabit, Isiolo and parts of Wajir.

Although the attractiveness of Isiolo and other parts of the north appears to have being missed by policy makers, it is not lost on the NRT and the vested interests it represents. True, the region has a harsh environment with hot and dry habitats dominated by low-lying terrain, acacia trees, shrubs and isolated dwarf bush grasslands. The county has conditions that are quite uncomfortable, especially for people inhabiting the highlands areas of Kenya, where it is much cooler. Whenever they fall, the rains there are low; there’s hardly a place that gets more than 500 mm of rain. And besides the Tana and Ewaso Nyiro to the south as well as River Dauwa to the north, Isiolo and other counties in the entire region have few other permanent water sources.

However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties. Indeed, the presence of mineral wealth in Isiolo and other areas of Kenya was confirmed by the Russian ambassador in 2003, who revealed publicly that by the 1940s, Russians had known the minerals Kenya has. What the ambassador did not reveal then was that the British had contracted Russian geologists to explore and map out mineral occurrence in Kenya.

The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain. However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya.

Around the time the Russian ambassador made the claim, many keen Kenyans were surprised when mineral deposits started “popping out” all over the country. For instance, it was around the same time that the prolonged controversy over the titanium deposits in Kwale started. Further, word started spreading that Isiolo has significant deposits of iron ore, gemstones and other mineralsm, as well as vast amounts of water in the Merti aquifer. This was decades after Kenyan school children started being taught about the lack of minerals in the sub-soils of the country in geography lessons! What became interesting too was that the greatest number of companies that have since received prospecting or mining permits for oil, titanium and other minerals are either British or belong to the British in the Australian and Canadian diasporas.

The mineral-conservation nexus

It is easy to miss the connection between conservation and mineral occurrence in the country. It is also easy to miss the nexus between the ongoing quest to secure vast tracts of land, ostensibly for conservation purposes, and the confirmed mineral wealth in Isiolo and other counties in the north. But keen observers have noted an interesting financial camaraderie between the NRT and certain mining concerns. For instance, according to reports, Tullow Oil gave NRT a whopping $11.5 million (Sh1.15 billion) to NRT in 2013 to start six conservancies in Turkana, a county that has little or no wildlife. “It is not a wonder that many people have expressed suspicions that by donating so generously to NRT, Tullow Oil wanted the organisation to help it secure lands that are rich in oil deposits,” said Ms Munyinyi. However, as media reports showed, the operations of NRT in Turkana were curtailed to a great extent after the Joseph Nanok-led county government kicked the organisation out of the county in 2014.

The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain.

However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya. Indeed, this writer found it curious during the tour to Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy in February that the Chinese were already mining mica and other minerals in Nyachis and Sabarwawa areas, which are located in an inaccessible part of Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy. This writer has since learned that the Chinese have stopped their operations there following the raging controversy over NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, what this writer was unable to establish was the connection between the NRT and Chinese miners and how the latter were allowed to mine in a Conservancy started for the sole aim of wildlife conservation.

Initial symptoms

What is unmistakable though is that Isiolo, a resource-rich county, is already experiencing the initial symptoms of a “resource curse” that is so prevalent across Africa and which is more pronounced in places that are rich in minerals. Usually, the curse unfolds whenever governments unwittingly or deliberately fail to pacify areas referred to as the “backwaters of development”. To cover the void, the communities decide, or are encouraged, to arm themselves to protect their lives and livelihoods from neighbouring communities with whom they share water, pastures and other resources. Soon, bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as NGOs, find these places attractive for their activities, which are largely passed on as being beneficial to the neglected communities. The agencies are given a near-free hand to operate there since their activities and their effects on the relevant communities are rarely audited by the national governments or independent auditors.

As far as the north of Kenya is concerned, there have been claims that outsiders are involved in supplying arms to the warring communities. For instance, the Small Arms Survey of 2012 says that the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) is one of the outfits that have been supplying arms to pastoralists in the north. This has raised the firepower wielded illegally by members of different communities in the north and has led to the transformation of the traditional cattle-rustling activities into intermittent clashes which, if unchecked, can spiral into dangerous, full blown conflicts that might go on for decades.

Because many of the people who run African governments are beholden to vested interests in rich industrial countries, they do very little or nothing to fully integrate the neglected areas into mainstream society. This gives the vested interests ample opportunities to keep the conflicts alive; they result in the same divide-and-rule tactics perfected by Europeans who have kept much of Africa on a leash. In Isiolo for instance, the NRT has encouraged the expansionist tendencies by members of the Garri community, who are said to have migrated from Moyale in Ethiopia following the change of government in Addis Ababa that occurred a few year ago. Encouraged by NRT, the Garri now constitute seven out of the eleven board members of Gotu-Nakurpat Conservancy that neighbours Biliqo-Bulesa.

At the same time, there is evidence that NRT has been facilitating inter-community and intra-community tension and conflict in the conservancies in Isiolo. We learned that for years, the Borana community, whose most members are opposed to ongoing NRT operations in Isiolo, had almost lost their ability to fight for human and land rights. According to a local elder, Mzee Mohamed Adan, this was after the organisation influenced the withdrawal of guns held by homeguards who earlier defended the Borana. He added that since the Conservancy was formed, the community has experienced nine raids conducted by Samburu morans, during which over 70 people were killed and thousands of livestock stolen. From interviews with past officials of the conservancy board and other community members, it emerged that 59 of the people were killed by Samburu morans who were assisted by the specially-trained NRT rangers who travelled there in NRT-branded vehicles. The rest of the victims died after young men from the Borana community engaged in counter-attacks. The raids, we learned, were well coordinated. The NRT had taken sides and appeared keen to “punish” the Borana for opposing its operations in Isiolo.

Campaign to involve communities

NRT’s operation across Kenya was informed by the campaign for the involvement of communities, and especially those inhabiting wildlife dispersal areas, in the national conservation programme. This began in early 2000s and particularly after the IUCN’s World Parks Congress held in Durban, South Africa in 2003. The campaign was inspired by the need to preserve ecosystems and wildlife habitats that happen to be on lands owned and held by local communities. The effort was entrenched in law following the review and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act in 2013. Championing the model have been conservationists who claim that 70 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is found outside national parks and reserves and that the survival of protected areas largely depends on the preservation of vast habitats and lands used by wildlife away from parks.

NRT was founded by Ian Craig in 2004. Craig is a holder of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), awarded in 2016 by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya”. Craig’s family owns the 62,000-acre Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia, which is said to have been given to his great-grandmother by the British government in 1918 for serving during the First World War. Craig, who was raised in Kenya, is the father of Jessica Craig, the young woman who was once believed to be romantically involved with Prince William.

Since its formation, the NRT has been receiving billions of shillings in grants from a number of European countries and the United States as well as international NGOs, such as the Nature Conservancy (TNC), private trusts and rich people in the West. As a result, the NRT has managed to set up 35 conservancies across northern and coastal regions that now cover a whopping 44,000 square kilometers or over 10 million hectares (i.e. about 8 per cent of the total land surface in Kenya). These conservancies are mainly in remote places where the Kenyan government has little or no footprint. The NRT has been trying to fill the void by altering and adding to its initial conservation mandate a number of activities, including security, prevention of cattle rustling, running a credit scheme, meeting the needs of the communities and livestock marketing.

It is out of this hue and cry that this writer accompanied the team that carried out the fact-finding mission in Biliqo-Buulessa Community Conservancy. Included in the team were representatives of the Isiolo-based Waso Professional Forum, the Borana Council of Elders, the Sisi kwa Sisi organisation formed by students from the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure at Kenyatta University, journalists as well as representatives from the Errant Native Movement.

True state of affairs

Kimathi, who is also a member of the Errant Native Movement, says that it was important to establish whether the allegations made against NRT were true. He told this writer that his team bore in mind the fact that livestock production remains the most important livelihood activity for the community and that any tourism activity or other economic undertaking can only supplement, but not replace, livestock husbandry. He added that the joint team experienced firsthand how NRT had been violating the rights of the community.

“We visited the Biliqo-Conservancy between January 26 and 29, 2019. Prior to the tour, we were informed that NRT had, on ten different occasions, used its influence within the security and administration establishments in Isiolo County, and especially in the Merti Sub-county, to frustrate the desire by the community to hold a meeting to deliberate on whether or not to continue with the conservancy. Indeed, we found out that conducting the fact-finding mission was risky,” says Kimathi.

According to community members interviewed by this writer, the NRT had earlier sent its officials who would travel in the organisation’s vehicles “inciting and buying off” some communities in order to unleash chaos during the planned community meeting. To avoid what would have otherwise become an ugly encounter, Kimathi’s team decided to hold long discussions with members of the community on the evening of January 26th at Biliqo Market, during which different people there narrated how the conservancy was started and the harrowing experiences they have experienced at the hands of NRT rangers and Samburu raiders. They also claimed that the NRT has introduced lions into the conservancy, which have been killing livestock and attacking and injuring some of the residents.

“On the morning of January 27th, we visited and interviewed some of the family members of the victims killed during the Samburu raids and counter-raids by the Borana,” said Ms Munyinyi. The consultant on indigenous land rights added that many of the interviews were held in their homes at the Buulessa Market. “As this was going on, we saw rowdy young people being ferried to the venue of the meeting by Land Cruisers belonging to the NRT and the Biliqo-Buulessa Conservancy who shouted threats to members of the team, saying they would kick them out of the area. Later, the rowdy youth succeeded in disrupting the meeting.”

On their part, the police from the Merti Police station, who were present, appeared more interested in finding out whether the conveners of the meeting had a permit. They were unwilling to stop the rowdy youth from disrupting the meeting even after finding out that the conveners had indeed taken the necessary steps, as is required by the law. Eventually, the police stopped the meeting and ordered everyone to disperse, which greatly pleased the rowdy youth.

It was apparent that the Acting Deputy County Commissioner (DCC), James Miring’u, and the Assistant County Commissioner (ACC), Njeru Ngochi, were of not much help either. The DCC and the ACC were evidently not in control. When interviewed by this writer, they expressed ignorance of the connection between insecurity and NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, it was not clear how the sub-county administration would have failed to notice (or investigate) the alleged killing of tens of people and the invasion of Borana people’s land by the raiders.

Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms

According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts.

The intermittent conflict in the Conservancy is not new; inter-community conflicts in the north have a long history. The conflicts usually start off as “normal” cattle raids or as competition over water and pasture. But they have worsened with the proliferation of small arms in the region. In the past, local communities had established effective traditional mechanisms to either avoid the conflicts or to resolve them whenever they occurred.

According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts. Usually, the elders from the affected community would visit their counterparts in communities that were not as affected by the droughts with a message of goodwill and to seek grazing permission on behalf of their community members. In most cases, such a request was granted once the elders in the relevant community assessed the available pastures and deliberated on where to allow the affected people to graze their animals. But, according to Dr Shongolo, this system was done away with following the appointment of chiefs and elected leaders who can now make unilateral decisions on this matter without consulting the community, especially after money has changed hands.

This has been complicated further by the entry of NRT, which has altered the power and traditional governance structures of the communities in the north and replaced traditional natural resource management systems, such as the Dedha system practiced by the Borana, with “modern” systems. Instead of working through institutions such as the Dedha Council, NRT has appointed conservancy managers, security scouts and members of the conservancy boards who have effectively taken over the decision-making roles that were the preserve of the elders. These NRT-appointed managers and boards now wield largely unchecked and ultimate power in the conservancies. NRT has also imposed its influence on the management of resources by reducing the grazing area of the Borana community in the Biliqo-Conservancy.

“After we came back from Biliqo-Bulesa, it was clear that NRT has capitalised on the lack of awareness of the land rights of the inhabitants of the Conservancy to violate their rights,” said Ms Munyinyi. She added that it is also clear that security issues in the Conservancy, as well as in other parts of in the north, are made worse by the fact that the Kenyan government has largely ceded its responsibility of providing security to the residents. “There is evidently a thin line between the roles of conservancy security teams formed by the NRT vis-à-vis state security personnel because the former are well-trained and equipped with sophisticated weapons and have been handling roles that are legally the preserve of the police, the KWS [Kenya Wildlife Service] and the county administration.”

In most other countries, no NGO, such as the NRT, would be allowed to conduct security operations that lead to violence and are coercive in nature. In this regard, the Government of Kenya has failed the community of Biliqo-Buulessa and needs to take its responsibilities seriously.

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Gatu wa Mbaria is the co-author of The Big Conservation Lie.

Politics

SportPesa: It’s Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya’s Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

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SportPesa: It's Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya's Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse
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Today, The Guardian publishes an investigation we have carried out with them into Kenya’s biggest betting company, SportPesa. With its name emblazoned on the shirts of Premier League club Everton FC and a Formula One racing team, SportPesa is Kenya’s most powerful gambling firm – operating in a sector that sucks $2bn from Kenyans every year.

Its shareholders include Bulgarian businessmen, one of whom, Guerassim Nikolov, has a background in casinos and about whom historic concerns were raised in the Bulgarian media, which he vehemently denies. Its corporate structure is opaque. Our reporter, Lionel Faull, worked with Bivol, the Bulgarian investigative website, and The Guardian, to examine the inner workings of SportPesa. That piece is here.

Lionel also dug into the effect the gambling epidemic is having on Kenya’s youth. Here he reports on how one student activist became a victim of gambling addiction but who is now spearheading a campaign to bring about meaningful regulation. The activist also wants to see there is proper treatment for the hundreds of thousands of young addicted Kenyans who need help after having been lured into betting away money they can ill afford to lose.

As part of their lucrative five-year deal with SportPesa, Everton played a pre-season match in Kenya this month

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

A year later I prepared to travel to Nairobi to research a story about SportPesa. We at Finance Uncovered were interested in its stunning success. Founded and run by politically connected Bulgarian businessmen in Nairobi in 2014, it is now the biggest of Kenya’s mushrooming sports betting companies. And as we report with the Guardian today, so successful has it been exploiting the gambling craze in Kenya it has opened a European headquarters in the UK.

While investigating, I was struck by the almost total lack of any comprehensive data about the wider industry in Kenya and its millions of punters.

Sure, multiple news articles celebrated the rags-to-riches tales of jackpot winners, some of whom just as suddenly revert to rags. Others narrated horrifying individual anecdotes of gambling addiction, depression and suicide.

The gambling regulatory authority’s online presence amounted to a single sub-page of the interior ministry’s website and there was seemingly no organisation offering tailored counselling to problem gamblers.

It was as if a vast, silent vacuum had settled in the gaps between the sports betting billboards which peered down on Nairobi’s scurrying pedestrians.
Finally, someone referred me to a gambling awareness website which was run on a volunteer basis by Nelson Bwire, a 24-year old economics student at Kenyatta University.

“A way of life”

I took the highway north out of the city to Bwire’s campus, past the football stadium that had recently welcomed English side Hull City FC for a SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match against Kenya’s top club team, Gor Mahia.

As we strolled along the university’s shrub-lined walkways, Bwire told me how he became addicted to sports betting.

It was 2013 and he was fresh out of high school, hanging out with mates and killing time on PlayStation.

One of them boasted how he had won money on a football match and showed Bwire how he could send cash via the ubiquitous mobile money platform M-Pesa to a website called JustBet, the only online sports betting platform in Kenya at the time.

“On my very first bet I put in KShs200 (£1.50) and won KShs4,800 (£35),” Bwire recalls. “I bet on four teams to win. I’ll never forget them. It was Swansea, Stoke, Arsenal and West Brom.”

The win was both a blessing and a curse: “It got me thinking this could be a way of life. It was a good experience, it seemed like fun. You could watch your team playing, and actually earn money doing it.”

“You want to become rich, doing nothing. You want shortcuts in life, and that’s your shortcut.

“As I continued betting, everything increased. The amount of bets, the amount of money, the amount of time. With friends, on my phone, with the room-mates I was living with. Most of us used to bet.

“After about a year and a half, I began to realise that none of us had money because the money we had, it goes to betting.”

Bwire estimated that over the 18-month period he was an avid gambler, he spent around KShs100,000 (£750) on football bets. To put this spending in context, his annual course tuition fee in 2015 was between KShs100,000-120,000 (£750-£900).

“The money I was betting with came from previous wins, pocket money from my parents, and other side jobs I was doing,” he explained.

“Loan sharks”

By late 2015, Bwire recalled that many sports betting companies had burst onto the scene, including SportPesa, and were advertising “vigorously” across Kenya. They were also active in and around the university, handing out flyers on campus and in the neighbouring estates where students live.

“I started to read stories in the media about people committing suicide, people gambling their fees, their rent money. And you also see the kind of life that gambling is sucking out of you. You are waking up and all you are planning is to bet. Whatever winnings you have in your betting account, you don’t even consider taking it out. You use it to bet again. It reached the point that I just called it quits.”

He also noticed how gambling was taking over other students’ lives. “You would go into the computer labs to do some research, or finish an assignment, and you would see screen after screen where students were just browsing sports betting sites,” he said.

“Students were borrowing money from loan sharks at predatory interest rates to fund their habit, and handing over their laptops or their national identity cards as collateral.”

Problem gambling

In 2016 Bwire initiated a campus-wide survey to gauge the extent of gambling among his fellow students.

It found that half of male students and one-third of females surveyed bet more than once a week; and that nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of problem gambling behaviour. [see sidebar].

He later wrote a proposal to the university about how to tackle problem gambling on campus and launched a gambling awareness campaign working closely with student counsellors.

Nelson Bwire (second right) with fellow gambling addiction awareness activists and student counsellors, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya (July 2018).

“Gambling is not something that I would want to see banned. No, I don’t take that hard line. But I think people should be aware of the risks and take responsible decisions,” Bwire said.

Soon to be an economics graduate, Bwire mused: “Right now Africa is growing, yes. But gambling problems will suppress African growth. The capital flight of gambling winnings that are going from Kenya to other places, that money should be in people’s hands. It should be in entrepreneurs’ hands. It should be in students’ hands.”

Shifting ground

Exactly a year after speaking to Bwire, I took the same road out of Nairobi, past the same stadium preparing to host another SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match, this time featuring Everton FC.

A hundred and fifty kilometres beyond the capital, deep in the countryside, SportPesa’s blue-and-white branding is plastered all over humble general shops in small roadside villages.

While SportPesa is the biggest player in Kenya, there are several others such as Betin, Premier Bet, 1X Bet and the UK-based Betway, which sponsors West Ham United in the English Premier League.

Huge billboards for betting companies greet you as you drive into bigger towns.

The inside sports pages of the newspaper I bought are filled with betting adverts, giving the day’s odds on matches from minor leagues in faraway countries.

But, after half a decade making billions in a largely unregulated environment, the ground is shifting underneath the betting industry’s feet.

A Gaming Bill has been introduced to Parliament that would overhaul a regulatory framework that was originally drafted in 1966.

Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister with a bulldog reputation, has given betting companies a month to settle their tax bills.

Citing a statistic that half a million Kenyan youth have been blacklisted for borrowing money they cannot repay, debt which Matiang’i attributed mostly to the betting craze, he declared: “This is a sector we must regulate.”

Last week, Matiang’i made good his threat when the betting regulator suspended 27 betting firms’ operating licences – including SportPesa – for alleged non-payment of taxes.

Safaricom, the mobile phone company which processes most of the mobile money transactions used to bet, was ordered to withhold their services to the blacklisted companies, and punters were given 48 hours to withdraw their money from their betting e-wallets.

The directives are thought to affect the majority of Kenya’s 12-million betting account holders, interrupting the flow of an estimated $2bn annually from their pockets to the industry.

SportPesa and others have protested vehemently, publishing their most recent tax compliance certificates in the press. SportPesa also pointed to a court order it obtained allowing it to continue operating pending finalisation of a dispute over payment of a percentage of punters’ winnings in tax.

Responding to suggestions about the rise of problem gambling in Kenya, the company told The Guardian it was a socially responsible business that placed a priority on local sports and community work.

In the midst of this febrile atmosphere, I give Bwire a call to find out how he’s doing and what he thinks of the clampdown.

Bwire has now left Kenyatta University, his graduation ceremony is later this month.

He continues to run his gambling awareness campaign on a part-time voluntary basis, but since we last spoke, his ambitions have grown: he is now preparing for it to go national.

He has registered a company, the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, and held a series of meetings with the betting regulator, urging them to introduce a countrywide gambling awareness campaign programme.

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

He is also partnering with a UK software company, Betban, to offer betting website blocking technology to universities; and approached one of Kenya’s largest nationwide network of counselling centres to introduce gambling addiction counselling.

But he is sceptical of the regulator’s motives for the crackdown: “If they were doing this in good faith, you might see some gambling addiction centres, some clinics, even just a little awareness created … they are just doing that for the tax.”

Bwire is echoing other commentators who see the directives as a thinly-disguised tax shakedown targeting the industry on behalf of the Kenyan revenue authorities and treasury who are under pressure to close a widening fiscal gap.

At a traditional wedding last weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta referred to the crackdown explicitly. He said: “The firms should stop threats that they will move to court. The government must get its share [of tax] to fund activities that are beneficial to this country.”

This may not impress SportPesa’s owners, one of whom – as we report with the Guardian today – has been a major financier and fundraiser for Kenyatta’s Jubilee party.

“Those in the betting companies are our friends,” Kenyatta reportedly said, “But we have to agree that the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments.”

But Bwire believes taxation is not going to dampen the public appetite for gambling, because “addicted gamblers will still gamble”.

He challenges the government to take a holistic approach, including addiction awareness and counselling.

“In this game of betting, they can’t only be a referee. People get injured in this game, and so there needs to be awareness about that, and doctors available too.”

Last year a new government body was set up, the Sports, Arts and Social Development Fund, to oversee the allocation of taxes specifically raised from betting.

Gambling taxes have reportedly already swelled the fund to around Shs15bn (more than £100m). By law, this money must be allocated to national sports teams, cultural facilities and the government’s universal healthcare pledges, as well as to unspecified “government strategic interventions”.

The fund took months to become operational due to political wrangling over who would control it.

In a country that many have argued is a kleptocracy, it remains to be seen whether any additional tax the government squeezes from the betting companies will fund gambling addiction awareness or rehabilitation – or instead disappears down the Nairobi drain.

Student gambling

In 2016, a few years after Kenya’s largely unregulated mobile phone-enabled sports betting craze took off, Bwire and his fellow students produced the first dedicated survey of betting among the youth.

They polled 373 students at Kenyatta University, roughly 0.5% of the university student population (78,000).

Although the sample size was relatively small, in the absence of comprehensive data about Kenya’s betting craze, it represents an important contribution to the public’s understanding of its prevalence.

Some key findings were:

* Nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of being at risk of problem gambling behaviour:
– 50% said they needed to gamble with increasing amounts of money;
– 30% said they were preoccupied with betting;
– 20% said they gambled the day after a loss in order to recoup it;
– 20% reported making repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop, or cut back, on gambling; and
– 3% said they had committed an illegal act to finance gambling.

* Most respondents said they started gambling aged 18-19.

* 68% of male respondents and 47% females said they gambled weekly, or more than once a week

* 7% of male respondents & 2% of females reported gambling daily

* Two-thirds of respondents spend up to KShs1,000 (£7.50) per month, one-quarter said they spend up to KShs5,000 (£40); and 5% of respondents said they spent more than KShs5,000 on gambling per month.

* 72% of all respondents saw gambling/betting as a way to make money; 40% said they saw it as a source of fun.

* 70% of respondents had gambled in the preceding year.

Read the report here.

These statistics broadly mirrored the headline findings of an often-quoted 2017 survey by GeoPoll on the leisure and spending habits of sub-Saharan African youth, which found that 76% of Kenyan respondents – the highest in the continent — had tried gambling.

Kenyans also spent the most money, about $50 (£40) monthly, mostly on football bets. The majority placed a bet once a week.

 

This is article was first published by Finance Uncovered.

* Edited by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya  

Proponents of wildlife conservancies in Northern Kenya argue that they provide a win-win situation for both conservation and pastoralist communities. However, the current push to establish more conservancies in the region may backfire and lead to more conflict.

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Wildlife Conservancies or Sanctioned Land Grabs? The Simmering Crisis in Northern Kenya
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Kenya’s Vision 2030, which identified Isiolo as a strategic location in the hydrocarbon economy of the region, combined with the 2010 Constitution, which led to the devolution of power and resources, have thrust Isiolo County, a once sleepy and neglected former garrison town, into the El Dorado of Kenya’s future development.

However, Isiolo’s potential, if not judiciously managed, could turn the county into the future axis of natural resource-based conflict, especially in the large-scale irregularly acquired land by private corporations and individuals under the guise of community wildlife conservation. The consequences of what happens in Isiolo will likely spill over into other parts of Northern Kenya and Northern Rift Valley.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya”, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country. The reasoning was that the former would benefit from the trickle-down effect of the government’s investment in the latter. Isiolo was considered a low potential area, and thus received limited government investment. The community’s livelihood was based around livestock, which successive post-independence administrations considered economically unviable and antiquated compared to agriculture. This meant that the region received limited state support.

Parallel to limited investment, the post-colonial state continued with the colonial government’s policy of mediating its relations with Isiolo and the broader North Eastern region through the lens of security. If the British colonial administration used Northern Kenya and Isiolo as a buffer zone against Italians who were attempting to colonise Ethiopia and the French who were colonising Djibouti, the post-colonial state viewed Isiolo as a place where demands for secession, banditry and cattle rustling were rampant. This has made Isiolo one of the few counties with the most military schools and military barracks in the country. The military is also one of the largest landowners in Isiolo.

Like other parts of Northern Kenya, Isiolo lagged behind the rest of the country in economic development because of the government’s economic planning policies contained in Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965, which created a dichotomy between low and high potential areas of the country.

Vision 2030, Kenya’s development plan for making Kenya a middle-income country (MIC) by 2030, is perhaps the closest the state came to rectifying the problems created by Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. Vision 2030’s economic pillar aims to achieve an average economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum and sustaining the same until 2030. If the core of Sessional Paper No 10 is centralised planning, thus creating a center and a periphery, Vision 2030 calls for decentralisation, thus blurring the distinction between peripheries and the centre. In fact, it aims to turn previously marginalised areas like Isiolo into centres of development.

Some of the major Vision 2030 projects of the economic pillar are either based in Isiolo or pass through the county. These projects include 6,500 acres of land at Kipsing Gap, which is about 20 kilometres west of Isiolo town and sandwiched between Katim and OlDonyoDegishi Hill, where a multi-billion shilling resort city will be based. Parts of the LAPSSET pipeline passes through the county, and the town is also where the Isiolo International Airport has been built. These projects are at different stages of being implemented.

When they finally take off, these projects will undoubtedly spur positive economic growth and improve peoples’ lives. Attention generated by these projects has also attracted “entrepreneurs” of all stripes with land as their primary key resource. Excision of huge chunks of land pose an existential threat to the pastoralist communities’ primary source of livelihood, which is already buffeted by multiple challenges, including climate change, agro-pastoralist conflict, and the ever-decreasing water and pasture because of demographic pressures.

One of the big players in land excision debates are the private wildlife conservancies. The entity behind wildlife conservancies is the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT), which manages 39 conservancies that cover an area of 42,000 square kilometers across the country, mostly in Northern and coastal Kenya.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”. This was evident during the Laikipia conflict in 2017 that pitted the mostly Samburu and Pokot herders against mostly white, private ranchers (popularly known as Kenyan Cowboys or KCs).

During the conflict, the government and in turn the media described the pastoralists as “barbarians at the gate of civilization”, who only understand the language of brute force. As a result, the killing of livestock – the pastoralists’ livelihood – by the security agencies elicited less sympathy than the killing of wildlife killed by the pastoralists, sometimes in self defence.

In the media and in policy circles, the discourse on wildlife conservation and pastoralism is always cast in Manichean terms: wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”.

Since tourism earns Kenya huge amounts of foreign exchange, it tends to be privileged over human life and pastoralists’ livelihoods.  For instance, during the 2017 clash involving pastoralists and wildlife conservancies in Laikipia, over 300 cattle were killed by the security agencies, and this act did not generate any condemnation.

Collective destruction of the pastoralist economy has historical precedent: The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission found that the Kenyan army killed and confiscated livestock belonging to civilians in Northern Kenya. The shooting, especially of camels, was a particular strategy employed by the army as it was believed that camels were used by the Shifta to transport guns and other supplies. The Commission also revealed that it was common for soldiers and government officers to invade villages and confiscate cattle, sheep, camels and goats. The owners of such livestock were never told what happened to their livestock, nor were they ever compensated for their losses.

But the discovery of natural resources has suddenly changed the state’s engagement calculus with Northern Kenya, with the government making a beeline for the region, as demonstrated in the expansion of some of the often-neglected infrastructure. There is a sense that being among the least populated region, and being strategically close to the key borders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, the North has plenty of “free” land to be exploited.

But this courtship is anchored on a deterministic and reductionist single narrative: the free market. There is a belief that if the markets are opened in the region, all its problems will go away.

This narrative is problematic.  First, it assumes that the moment the region is linked to other parts of Kenya, it will automatically “develop”. Second, the creation of Northern Kenya in the image of the rest of Kenya at the very minimum denies the people the agency to determine what development means to them. Third, we need to be circumspect regarding the pervasive business language that assumes that the problem with public services is inefficiency and that technology is the answer. This techno fallacy and big data syndrome dehistoricises and decontextualises problems, and is ultimately bound to fail. Fourth, the market, while it can be efficient in allocating economic goods and services, is terrible as the arbiter of social services. Unleashing market forces onto the region will destroy the collective social fabric that has held these people together even in bad times.

Often unaccounted for in this framing is the pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya, which have been trading amongst themselves and with their counterparts across all the borders without government support. The mutually reinforcing twin issues of insecurity and a fragile ecosystem have engendered the communities’ remarkably innovative resilience instincts.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm – underwritten by well-heeled intergenerational wildlife conservation untouchable “royals” and marketed by a well-choreographed sleek PR machine – pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex. Kuki Gallmann, whose life is immortalised in the movie I Dreamed of Africa is cast as a noble White Saviour, keeping the wildlife and pastoralists safe.

Northern Rangeland Trust and the Lewa model

Isiolo has three national game reserves: the Shaba Game Reserve (256 square kilometres), Buffalo Springs (131 square kilometres) and BisanAdi (150 square kilometres). All of these areas block or restrict human habitation and grazing. On top of the game reserves, there are a number of conservancies in Isiolo: Biliqo-Bulesa, which covers 3784.82 square kilometres and was established in 2007, Nakuprat-Gotu, which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 719.92 square kilometres, Leparua which was established in 2011 and covers a total area of 328.35 square kilometres, and Nasuulu which was established in 2011 and covers 346.01 square kilometres. These are significant chunks of land being administered by a corporation.

If everything around pastoralism is not securitised, pastoralists are infantilised. In the current wildlife private conservation paradigm, pastoralist communities who have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations are only used as worn-out tropes of the Messiah Complex.

According to NRT, conservancies are community-led wildlife conservation initiatives that provide a win-win situation for wildlife conservation and for pastoralists. The lack of transparency and adequate information regarding the manner in which these conservancies are established and managed adds to the anxiety of pastoralist communities. Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

Lewa conservancy, which covers 62,000 acres and is a home to a wide variety of wildlife, including rare and endangered black rhinos, zebras and Sitatungas, as well as the “Big Five” wildlife animals.  Lewa’s value addition is held up as an aspirational model for other private wildlife conservancies.

However, the use of Lewa as a model for the future of Isiolo misses the dynamics inside Isiolo and for that matter elsewhere in the North. Laikipia County, where Lewa is located, doesn’t have nearly as many pastoralists as Isiolo does, which made the excision of such a huge tract of land possible. Additionally, the pastoral communities in Isiolo are diverse. Also not discussed when holding Lewa as a model is the failure of efforts at replicating Lewa inside Laikipia. For instance, establishment of a conservancy in OldoNyiro led to the community losing their land, forcing them to graze their livestock by the roadside because all the land has been fenced off.

Pastoralists in the area have been victims of various land grabs in the past and therefore view conservancies as a Trojan horse that will lead to further annexation of their pastoral rangelands.

At the heart of the establishment of the conservancies is the argument of return on investment: having “community” wildlife conservancies will allow pastoralists to have a stable income. But there is no conservancy that can guarantee the pastoralist the same kind of return that they can get from their livestock.

NRT has ambitions of establishing conservancies not just in Isiolo but across the Northern region. They already have some conservancies in Samburu County and plans are at an advanced stage to establish more conservancies in Marsabit County.

Devolution of power and resources to the county was designed as an antidote to centralised decision-making in Nairobi, which resulted in unbalanced and unequal economic development. What the framers of the constitution did not envisage, however, was the quality of representation that will shepherd devolution at the county level. The disparity between counties with good leaders and those with poor leaders is well documented.

But Isiolo’s land grab did not happen in a vacuum; it has been facilitated by poor leadership. The establishment of wildlife conservancies in Isiolo is a shot across the bow for other counties, such as Marsabit County. If they are not stopped, we could be walking into land-related conflicts with our eyes wide open.

The large-scale land grab in Isiolo by NRT will adversely impact the pastoralists’ livelihood, and generate new conflicts in an area blighted by incessant conflict. This will erode the potential Isiolo would have gained from devolution, Vision 2030 and its proximity to Ethiopia, which has the potential to increase cross-border trade.

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Building Bridges or Walls? BBI Charades Masquerading as ‘Public Consultations’

AKOKO AKECH examines whether the “handshake” between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, which resulted in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), is truly a people-driven participatory process or merely a tool for the Kenyan political elite to consolidate their power.

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Building Bridges or Walls? BBI Charades Masquerading as ‘Public Consultations’
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It finally docked on our shores, the shores of the Nam Lolwe, on the 6th of June 2019. Unlike the old steamer, MV Alestes, it blew no loud horn to announce its arrival at the port of Kisumu to tell all within the vicinity to steer clear of the waterway and berth. Rather, it glided smoothly into Kisumu City at the end of a financial year, when government departments hurry to close the books. It creeped up on the residents of the city, stealthily like a crocodile. The 35th of the expected 47 Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) “public consultation” meetings was upon us.

“I got a call from the County Commissioners about a month ago. Something like this cannot be done through an open invitation. The whole of Kisumu would have been here,” said a young man with a chuckle, his face beaming with mischief, the smirk of someone proud of his high connections and who had been let into a well-kept siri-kali. We were queuing for tea and snacks at the Acacia hotel, Kisumu’s high-end hotel where the BBI commissioners were holding a “consultation” meeting on how to build a new Kenya.

I, too, would have missed the meeting, had I not seen in good time a WhatsApp message from a friend who’s a Kisumu government insider. The message had been sent in the wee hours of the morning that Thursday. In keeping with the rising personality cults of Kenya’s county governors, and their penchant for frivolous publicity, the e-invitation card I got bore Professor Anyang’ Nyongo’s picture, smiling, donning a white shirt and a red necktie, and holding a jacket flung over his left shoulder, held tenderly by his index finger. Warwakou duto! (All are welcome!), said the e-card.

As we sat down for tea and snacks, a clergyman wearing a white flowing robe and a red scalp cap (signifying his high position in the one of the many African-instituted Christian churches in Western Kenya) said, “I wouldn’t have known who sent me the money. I got am M-Pesa transfer of 2,028 shillings from a Samuel Otieno but I couldn’t tell who that is until the lady spoke.”

That lady he was referring to was an amiable and handsome woman dressed in a white, loose-fitting linen suit who had spoken towards the end of the meeting, shortly before the closing prayer – the ubiquitous Christian prayer that has become mandatory at public events, which always reminds one that many Kenyans, especially state and public officers, are yet to come to terms with the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, even with the shortest of its articles, Article 8, that states that “there shall be no State religion”. She told the officially invited participants that “if you check your phones, M-pesa imeingia [the Sh2000 transport refund] plus Sh28 ya kuitoa. Usikuje kama ulikua na Fuliza, the money has been chewed.”

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship. But there is nothing transparent or charming about its process of public consultations. Unlike the recent commissions, whose meetings and deliberations were widely publicised, the BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

BBI has neither a known physical address nor a web page. Nor an expressly parliament-sanctioned legal existence and a budget line. It has an email address only. It works mostly as a sad reminder that despite its enormous constitutional powers, the Kenyan Parliament is yet to exercise effective control over the Office of the President, especially over the conduct of the provincial administration in midwifing political transitions such as the BBI and its latest women-only “popular movement” wing, Team Embrace.

The BBI task force is run like a tight deep state ship…The BBI meetings are carefully and secretly organised, and their deliberations are hardly made public through the radio or the daily newspapers.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event – with all its attendant display of anxieties over the security of the VIP and crowd control – and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel, but with neither the benefits of a skilled moderator nor an appropriate teaching methodology of getting the best out of the competing and conflicting views of the representative of the various groups present at the meeting.

It was an eerily odd public event. Like a typical District or Provincial Commissioner-organised event, it drew in government officials and civil servants, including the starched khaki, big silver button, crimson red epaulets, and stick-wielding types, such as high-ranking police officers and provincial administrators, who patrolled the corridors of the hotel. While the presence of baton-wielding Administration Police officers at an open-field public event, in jungle-green camouflage uniforms, standing strategically in front of a crowd of spectators, and policing the imaginary wall between the seated and sheltered elite and the sweating crowd conveyed a sense of security and control, the conspicuous presence of the AP officers armed with the G-3 rifles or AK-47 rifles sent a chill down one’s spine. It evoked anxiety and fear rather than security and safety, which were amplified by the antics of an order-obsessed deputy county commander who wore a chocolate brown suit and stood like a sentry at the entrance of the second door to the conference room, alternately keeping an eye on the goings-on along the corridor and in the conference room.

Although the activities of the BBI have largely escaped or studiously evaded public scrutiny, the Kisumu event gives us a glimpse into how it works. Its consultative forum was surreal. It had a creepy feeling of an odd combination of a typical District Commissioner-organised public holiday event…and a typical NGO seminar at a five-star hotel…

Unlike a typical NGO forum, there were has no hand-written sign up sheets; the organisers simply ticked off the names of the participants on a printed list of invited participants, each sheet bearing the names of only the invited participants from each of the sub-counties of Kisumu County. Luckily, the uninvited (those not vetted by the Provincial Administration) could also walk into the meeting and listen to the proceeding, without signing up.

But like a typical NGO or government event, the meeting was adorned with big banners, which, despite promising dialogue or debate, served more to mark the boundary between the powerful commissioners’ high table and the jam-packed seminar room than to remind the commissioners of their vision and mission. Pleasantly, a female Kenyan sign language interpreter was hard at work, diligently translating the proceedings of the meeting.

The commissioners took turns to frame the problem, to ask questions, and to offer solutions and ways-forward, slicing up their audience into several categories: geographical, generational, gender, political, minority, and disability, soliciting from each participant, a solution for the evils bedeviling Kenya but barely giving the participants a chance to compose their thoughts or debate many contentious views vying for attention.

Nearly all the participants – except the governor, a Member of Parliament (Oduma Awour) and a former Member of Parliament (Prof Ayiecho Olweny) – were given less than three minutes to talk about items on the 9-item agenda, which prompted Father Samuel of the Catholic Peace and Justice Commission to say, “If the we want BBI to succeed, we need to allow people to freely express themselves, not shut down.” But the Commission did not heed to his plea. “We know what has happened, we need the solution. This is not the right forum for venting,” Prof. Oloo Adams responded curtly.

Except for Dr Florence Omosa’s very brief experiment with the Socratic approach, which questioned, teased out the inconsistencies and tested the appropriateness of a solutions offered by the participants, most of the commissioners found a ready-made formula for the classification of problems bedeviling Kenya by categorising them into neat labels: gender, age, geography, and social exclusion (including disability). Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion. Diversity, when in the hands of the securocrats and the commissioners, was reduced to a convenient tool of bureaucracy, generating more controversies than debate.

In a welcome break with the previous briskly sessions, Dr Omosa intoned politely and firmly, “Why do we fight during elections? We don’t trust each other, what should we do so that life goes on? What must happen so that we don’t have so many baby Pendos? Give me specific recommendations.”

Their idea of “participation” was to have a member from each category speak about their issues, as if the problem facing them was defined purely by their gender, age, geographical location, or level of social exclusion.

Not satisfied with the quick, not-well-thought-out responses, Dr Omosa observed, “I know, it’s not meant to be a dialogue, but I must ask you, how can the elders be the solution [to divisive elections], yet they champion exclusive ethnic leadership?” She was responding to a participant’s suggestion that a greater role for community elders in the management of elections is the solution to the tensions Kenyans experience in general elections. “Disband the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission],” opined another participant.

Instead of a facilitating dialogue and debate, the meeting became a forum for contentious hard line views: “Kenya should go for a parliamentary system of government,” said one participant. “The constitution of Kenya has turned Kenya into a killing field,” asserted another. “Bring back the death sentence; let the murderers be locked without bail.” “Arrest and lock up the corrupt without bail,” Prof. Ayiecho Olweny, a former Member of Parliament, pleaded passionately. “We want “Luo kit gi Timbegi” brought back to in our curriculum,” said one participant. “Send the children back home to learn Dholuo,” said another. Ms Grace Jowi Jobita from Muhoroni, paraphrasing the Bible, stated, “If it is your eye that’s causing you a problem, my first recommendation is, let them be castrated, second, let them be castrated, and third, let them be castrated.”

There was also a call to “review the social ethics and education curriculum” in order to address the dearth of ethics among Kenyan youth and the rising cases of violence against women, including rampant cases of rape and defilement. “Amend the Chief’s Act. Our society is yearning for the past order, and is uncomfortable with the recent changes,” said retired Paramount Chief Paul Odero.

Mr Mathews Owili, the Kisumu County’s deputy governor, concurred with Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o that Kenya needs a parliamentary system of government, but also asked, “If the Prime Minister can be compelled by law to form a government that reflects the face of Kenya, can the Prime Minister be compelled to treat all Kenyans as equals?”

Struck by the repeated demands for more laws that would ensure diversity in public appointments, especially at the top levels of Kenya’s state power, Senator Amos Wako, the former long-serving Attorney General, pointed out, “The law already provides for that…the constitution makes reference to the face of Kenya in more than 22 Articles. What I want is, how can we ensure that the law, the constitution is respected by whomever?”

“The problem may not be Chapter Six [on leadership and integrity], but the law to enable, enforce the chapter. Perhaps the law enacted to enable this chapter does not reflect the letter and the spirit of the constitution of Kenya, 2010,” added Senator Wako.

However, BBI commissioners stuck to their nine-point agenda, briskly running through each item on their tick-off list, even when the more discerning participants, such as Senator Amos Wako, sensed that the problem might not be more laws, as some were suggesting, but a more complicated political process i.e. the lack of good laws and constitutionalism.

Anxious that this meeting might not yield much, Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative, like past initiatives such as the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The TJRC report is silent on or whitewashes some critical aspects of Kenya’s evil past. For example, Volume 11 of the TJRC report airbrushes the 1969 Kisumu massacre out of Kenya’s register of post-independence political massacres. The BBI too looks like yet another lost opportunity to revisit Kenya’s evil past and exorcise the ghosts that haunt Kenya’s post-independence politics.

Sheikh Masoud pointed out that “Kikao bila matunda ni ufisadi,” cautioning both the commissioners and the participants at the meeting that if the BBI initiative…yields nothing, then the participants at BBI public consultation meetings would be complicit in yet another act of corruption.

The BBI’s is a lost cause because it embodies the worst carry-overs from the undemocratic provincial administration’s coercive and manipulative tendencies while pretending to promote progressive and inclusive practices. The BBI seems yet another lost opportunity because the elite have set its course, and are championing narrow, selfish and convenient political causes that hardly go deep enough into the roots of the knotty questions of justice many Kenyans yearn for, and which were not given a fair hearing at the Kisumu forum.

Boniface Akach, a Kondele-based front-line human rights activist, who only learnt of the BBI meeting accidentally while attending a “solidarity” meeting at the same hotel, wrote the following on his Facebook account: “The on-going public participation exercise by BBI is a mockery, a waste of public resources and a rubber-stamping exercise. How can such a public exercise be taken to the Acacia Hotel, a five-star rated hotel, despite other more conducive and accessible spaces being available? The invite-only event is so restricted, with NIS and Police all over. The mobilisation across sub-counties is so well designed apart from Kisumu Central (wajuaji). Mobilisation was strictly done by the Kisumu County Commissioner. But we are not surprised, we all know that the aim the referendum is meant to settle scores as it creates opportunity for recycled, rejected political friends.”

Perhaps, as Akach points out, the perfunctory public consultation meetings, like the one held in Kisumu County, are merely an alibi for a pre-determined political course and cause. In Kisumu, there was a clear divide between the demands made by the ODM elite, on the one hand, and popular demands by the people of Kisumu County, on the other.

According to Kisumu County Governor Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o and the ODM branch leaders, what’s at stake is a referendum to turn Kenya into a proper parliamentary system of government. However, to others, it’s the unfinished business of political violence and justice for the victims of political violence.

“We want inclusivity in compensation. We lost lives in 2007 and again in 2017. Some people were compensated, but not people from this region. We need inclusive compensation for people like baby Pendo,” said Victor Nyasaya. A representative of the National IDP network also expressed a similar concern. “The 2007 IDPs in Kisumu were paid only three thousand shillings, unlike those from Nakuru who were paid ten thousand shillings,” he lamented.

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum. It was a charade. Melania Jackie, representing the youth, lamented, “We were are not involved in the process of formulating public policies. Not the Universal Health Care, not the Huduma Number, we were only given deadlines. No civic education. We don’t have a youth on the BBI high table, even a token of representation.

“Na tuna ambiwa hii sio baraza,” Mitchelle Otieno lamented on Facebook, adding that “the BBI team ought to have held the meeting in Kondele and not Acacia hotel. We lost lives in Kondele, Nyalenda, Manyatta, and not Acacia.”

In many ways, the BBI “consultation” made a mockery of the constitution-sanctioned idea of public participation, a realisation that was not lost on many of the participants attending the Kisumu forum.

Orengo Ben Wamaya, who represented Bunge la Mwananchi at the meeting, thundered, “Public participation is never done in a five-star hotel.”

If the TJRC report offers the residents of Kisumu an official amnesia for the 1969 massacre in exchange for the recognition of the years of economic marginalisation which followed it, then what will the BBI report yield? Will it offer restorative justice or compensations for lost life, limb and property to the recent victims of political violence? Who will foot the bill? The perpetrators and the principal beneficiaries of political violence now occupying high offices or the Kenyan taxpayers yet again? Will it be sufficient and equitable? Will there be yet another opportunity for a trade-off between some measures of restorative justice and political support for a new political coalition, like the Uhuruto 2013 bargain? Will it offer retributive justice? Will it recommend memorialisation of the victims of past political evils or yet again endorse a tacit collective amnesia and unofficial amnesty for the perpetrators and principal beneficiaries of the past political evils?

Who decides?

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