Professor Yash Pal Ghai had accepted the offer of a deanship at the University of Nairobi, packed up everything ready to leave Dar es Salaam, and was saying his goodbyes when he got a call from his former student Willy Mutunga. “So Willy said to me, ‘I hope you aren’t coming to Nairobi.’ And I said, ‘I am taking up the deanship at the University of Nairobi.’ He said, ‘I can’t say much now, but don’t come. I can’t talk now, but don’t come until we tell you.’ He was ringing from the AG’s office, where he worked. I didn’t know why they were saying that. But then the University of Nairobi rang me two days later and said they were sorry but my appointment was canceled. I said, ‘You spent hours and hours persuading me, even when you knew how happy I was. I agreed because of your pressure. Why has it been cancelled?’ They said that they couldn’t tell me.”
Ghai learned later that Attorney General Charles Njonjo did not want him in Kenya. He was warned by friends that he could face harassment and even torture if he returned. Ghai is emotional as he speaks of this time, expressing frustration and outrage at the way things unfolded. “To this day, I do not know what bothered the AG. I never knew what I did. When I asked Njonjo about it, he never admitted it, even though he had signed all the orders himself.” Following the warning from Mutunga, Ghai chose to go into exile.
Ghai’s colleagues and friends attribute the orders to the work he had done until then, pointing especially to Public Law. “I believe legal radicalism, politics in Tanzania and the publication of the book he co-authored with Patrick MacAuslan in 1970 – which was very critical, in the academic and political sense, of developments in East Africa – definitely made the conservative Njonjo fearful of such a teacher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Nairobi. Of course, when I joined the Faculty of law, University of Nairobi, I adopted the approach he would most likely have adopted had he joined the faculty. So, in a way, we had our last laugh,” says Mutunga. Whitford agrees, saying that Ghai’s attack on newly independent Kenya’s public policies led to Njonjo’s actions.
Although the news was devastating, Ghai’s time in Dar had catapulted him into the international limelight. The impact of his work, not just as a teacher and administrator, but also as a trusted international adviser, was becoming increasingly clear. Unsurprisingly, senior ministers in Tanzania asked Ghai to stay on, offering him positions in the Attorney General’s office. The University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam also invited him back when the news broke that he would not return to Kenya. Ghai declined these offers, choosing instead to take on some short-term work with the East African Community (EAC). While there, he advised the EAC on membership issues and on reforms aimed at addressing the vastly unequal economic conditions of member states. It was interesting work and Ghai enjoyed it. In fact, Ghai’s performance prompted the Tanzanian Attorney General to nominate Ghai to be the Chief Legal Officer of the EAC, but Njonjo stepped in again, vetoing the nomination.
At this point, Ghai could have turned to Kenyatta to ask for assistance. Says Mutunga, “Yash could have gone to Jomo, but he’s not that kind of person and I’m glad he didn’t. It would have destroyed him professionally. Everyone would have known that Kenyatta helped him return and then he would have been seen as ‘Kenyatta’s boy.’ He would have been seen as a sycophant.” Mutunga doubts that Njonjo knew of Ghai’s connection to Kenyatta, and he is confident that Kenyatta had no knowledge of Njonjo’s actions. “Even Njonjo wouldn’t have dared to do what he did if he had known of the connection.”
Ghai’s departure for the United States in 1971 was a loss for East Africa, but he left behind a model for teaching law. Indeed, Whitford calls Ghai’s vision of – and standards for – a law school the “Ghai ideal.” At the heart of this vision is the role of law faculty as “independent critics of legal developments.” The Ghai ideal envisions law schools as havens of intellectual scholarship, marked by well-resourced and up-to-date libraries as well as by full-time law professors, who are well remunerated and who have reasonable teaching loads.
Ghai epitomised his own vision of a law professor. Ambreena Manji, who teaches law at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom and who is the former head of the British Institute of East Africa, says she has been profoundly influenced by Ghai’s commitment to teaching. “He will just quietly talk to you about your ideas.” Manji remembers hosting several constitutional conferences while at the British Institute, and she particularly recalls Ghai’s attention to young scholars. “I used to watch him quietly sit with young people and just quietly talk to them and question and probe. He is a very committed teacher. A lot of what I’ve tried to do as a teacher has been influenced by him. He is an exemplar of how you should live your life as an academic.”
Hope in times of grief
In 1971, Ghai settled his young family in New Haven while he lectured at Yale Law School and served as the Director of Research at the New York-headquartered International Legal Centre. The family soon welcomed a son, Tor.
At the same time, Ghai continued to receive invitations to assist with constitution-making processes around the world. While at Yale, Ghai remembers receiving a telegram from Papua New Guinea, where leaders were trying to negotiate an independence constitution. Says Ghai, “I was quite surprised. I didn’t know very much about Papua New Guinea. It turns out that the Australians offered them some consultants from Australia, and the local leaders felt that they may be biased and they may be influenced by – or even directed by – the Australian Government. So they wanted input from a totally independent person. They had just established a law school and the first dean of the law school was, at one stage, my dean in Dar es Salaam. So they asked him and he recommended me.” Ghai accepted the offer, travelling to Port Moresby from New Haven for short periods, somehow also managing his other professional responsibilities as well as the demands of his family.
Ghai’s time at Yale was positive, and having received several offers from around the country, Ghai considered settling in the United States. “But my wife didn’t like the U.S. and so I gave up a number of offers, including the UN. Since she had come to the U.S. because of me, I decided to go to Sweden [for her].” In Sweden, Ghai worked as a researcher at Uppsala University as well as at the renowned Nordic Africa Institute. He also continued to travel to Papua New Guinea, sometimes for longer periods, as the country considered how to manage the demands of multiple ethnic groups in a time of transition to independence. The assignment was particularly invigorating for Ghai, who had a special interest in minority rights. Ghai and his team travelled around the country to canvass people’s views and desires, a hallmark of his constitution-making methodology. In the end, he advised the government to be open to devolution in areas where there was a demand for it – especially for the island of Bougainville. Without that option, he feared that groups would press for secession. When, at the end of the process, the Chief Minister lobbied successfully to eliminate the draft Constitution’s chapter on devolution, Bougainville did indeed declare its intention to secede.
When violence broke out, Ghai, who had no training as a negotiator, was asked to return to Papua New Guinea to act as a mediator. He agreed, but he quickly realised that the balance of expertise was strikingly unequal. Ghai explained, “Bougainville had no lawyer to speak of and the Government had quite senior lawyers.” It would be easy to conclude that Ghai’s decision to work on behalf of Bougainville would place him in a contentious position. He had spent months working for the government, only to finally end up working “for the other side.” Amazingly, however, the integrity Ghai had exhibited throughout the constitution-making process mitigated any tension that could have existed. “Fortunately, all the people we were negotiating with were sort of friends because of the time I had spent there working. I was seeing senior civil servants, economists, finance officers, people from the Ministry of Lands. So by the time the negotiations started, I knew most of them quite well and had become good friends with them.”
Ghai’s ability to connect with actors from across political divides is emblematic of his natural ease with people. Ghai’s own anecdotes about people he has met – from local artists whose works bring life to his garden, to former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he met as a student at Oxford – often end with the words, “We became good friends.” Lulu Kavoi, who works as the Katiba Institute’s Executive Assistant, describes what she was expecting when she first met Ghai. “I had only read about him and seen him on TV. I was expecting a bossy person, someone too serious for life.” She was surprised at the reality. “Working for him is fun, because he likes to understand people. He’s a mentor and also a boss, but he’s not a bossy person. He is interested in what you’re doing for your education and in your life. He would come and ask me, ‘So Lulu, what are you doing and studying?’ More like a friend I can talk to for advice.”
Devolution was eventually reinstated in Papua New Guinea. When it was time to implement the new Constitution, Ghai was asked to return, this time to chair a commission responsible for implementing devolution. Although Ghai wanted to help, he did not want such a role for himself. “I wanted a local person to be chair. I asked [Papua New Guinea leaders], even in the very beginning, that I would like to work with one or two young lawyers so that they would acquire knowledge and experience of the constitution and the background to its various provisions, minimizing reliance on foreign lawyers.” Ghai’s response to this suggestion serves as an example of his commitment to sharing his knowledge and promoting local empowerment and ownership of democratic processes and institutions.” Indeed, the person who was finally chosen for this role, Bernard Narakobi, eventually became Attorney General of Papua New Guinea, and later a diplomat.
Ghai’s ability to take a backseat in order to promote local ownership and thereby plant the seeds for long-term, sustainable democratic rule has inspired many of those who have been lucky enough to meet and work with him. Manji says, “The thing about Yash is that he doesn’t give a monkey’s about your status. He doesn’t care. He’s not going to be impressed whether you’re the president or the professor. He doesn’t care. If you have got something interesting to say, he will sit and listen. He wants to know about you.” Indeed, Papua New Guinea would later recommend Ghai to leaders in the Solomon Islands; he had local legitimacy. In 1976, Ghai was awarded Papua New Guinea’s Independence Medal, created to honour those who had performed outstanding service to the country during the transition to full independence.
Ghai’s success in the South Pacific brought him even more attention, and requests kept coming. Over the course of his career, Ghai would work on constitutions and constitutional development in many other countries, including Vanuatu, Western Samoa, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Zambia, Cambodia, the Cook Islands, Kenya, East Timor, Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Ghana, South Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Many of these assignments were borne of personal recommendations. Says Manji, “He’s utterly, utterly non-denominational and non-racist. He’s utterly scrupulous and fair-minded. That has been key to negotiating in complex terrain.”
Although Ghai’s work in Papua New Guinea was a professional success, prompting the beginning of an extensive career as an adviser in the region and eventually the world, it was also an emotionally traumatic time. As it became clear that Ghai would have to commit more time to being on the ground in Papua New Guinea, his wife advised him to go in advance of the rest of the family so that he could set up their house and living arrangements. “At one point, I realised I had been there for two months and she kept delaying her plans to travel. When I returned to Sweden, I realised that she had fallen in love with someone else and was living with him. She had moved to Stockholm [from Uppsala] with the children.”
It was a great shock for Ghai, who struggled to balance work in Uppsala with time with his children, who were in Stockholm. “I would go to Stockholm on the weekends and take them to a park and give them ice cream. They knew only Swedish. I found it so frustrating, and I would cry when I left them. It got to be too much for me.” Ghai told his ex-wife that he wanted custody. “I told her that she should be one to visit them on the weekends.” He consulted a lawyer, but he was told that, as a non-Swedish man, he stood very little chance of winning custody against a Swedish mother. It was a significant emotional blow. Whitford recalls, “He cooked, he did all that sort of stuff. He was the primary home person; he did more than she did in that regard.”
Ghai’s relationship with his ex-wife was tense in the immediate aftermath of the divorce, and for some time afterward. It was somewhat unsurprising, then, that Ghai decided to leave Sweden when his contract expired. Wanting to remain close enough to see his children regularly and easily, however, he chose to stay in Europe. In 1978, he took up an appointment as a professor of law at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, where he had friends and some family.
Ghai’s new position at Warwick was also like a professional homecoming. Whitford calls it “the path of least resistance” for that time in Ghai’s life. It was “filled with academics from Dar,” recalled Whitford. Indeed, the law school at Warwick is known for its leading work in “law in context,” and it has been home to “law in context” pioneers, including Twining, Ghai, McAuslan, and many others from the University of East Africa at Dar es Salaam. Ghai thrived at Warwick, teaching constitutional law classes, publishing extensively and even taking up short appointments as a visiting professor in Australia, Singapore and the United States. He enjoyed these experiences and the exposure to different environments, never allowing his outsider status to stand in the way of the work in which he believed. In Singapore, Ghai took the government to court in a case that sought to advocate for the rights of a group of domestic workers. After a string of legal victories, he was declared unwelcome and forced to quickly leave the country. His fellow lawyers were jailed, but Ghai continued to “make noise”, forging ahead until the lawyers were eventually released.
It was at Warwick that Ghai became reacquainted with Jill Cottrell, whom he had originally met on a visit to Yale when he was still Dean in Dar. Cottrell and Ghai had met occasionally over the years, mostly at academic conferences, and they were now faculty colleagues. Their relationship quietly but steadily evolved at Warwick. Manji laughingly remembers seeing them together more and more. “Every time someone would go around to Yash’s place, Jill would be there. Nobody was told there was a relationship, but intellectually they are a perfect fit. Their relationship was a long time brewing, and it is such a great intellectual partnership.” Indeed, Zein Abubakr, Ghai’s co-commissioner on the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, described the couple as an inspiration. “Yash’s love and affection for his wife – it’s amazing to see them, how they complement each other. It’s an inspiration for all of us. If Mzee is still able to do this, maybe we should learn something from him.”
The birth of that relationship quickly grew into a professional partnership as well. Although they were different in many ways, Manji describes the importance of their commonalities. Referring to Cottrell Ghai’s early experiences as a law professor in Nigeria, Manji says, “She had this totally global life. It took a lot of courage as a woman in that era to embark on that kind of life. When she ended up at Warwick as a young woman, she already had that outward push.” Like Ghai, Cottrell Ghai is also a quiet but determined force. Unlike her husband, however, she tends to stay out of the limelight. “Jill is very quiet and very, very studious, says Manji. “She would almost prefer it if she never had to leave the house and if she could just get on with reading whatever textbook she was obsessing about at that particular time. She’s an absolute powerhouse.”
Ghai continued to act as an international adviser while at Warwick, balancing teaching and research responsibilities with missions around the globe. He found himself in a unique position, often working for the British Foreign Office but acting as an adviser to local groups. In so many of these cases, Ghai’s British training and official connections to the British government were considered background information. First and foremost, he was seen, and wanted to be seen – according to him – as “a Third World person”, as someone who could understand local views. Indeed, in the Solomon Islands, Ghai urged the Chief Minister and the leader of the opposition, who had a bitter relationship, to work together so that the British could not undercut their goals: “‘You should negotiate as a united people. If you are fighting yourselves, Britain will play one against the other.’ And I worked on it, and worked on it. I would wear slippers and go to the Leader of the Opposition. I said, ‘I’m coming home to you. Do you have a free moment?’ They liked that. For them, I was not a pompous civil servant coming from London. So I was able to establish a rapport.” At the end of the constitution drafting process, the leader of the opposition credited Ghai with uniting the country.
It was clear to Ghai that his work was about something bigger. Although he was in great demand, Ghai only accepted assignments that aligned with his political philosophy and that contributed to greater democratisation and respect for the rule of law. International missions were real-world applications of his academic work, a chance to have a hand in shaping progressive political frameworks that valued individual freedoms and protected minority rights. This is why, when he was first approached to help the Fijian government with constitutional issues after the first 1987 coup, he refused. Ghai explains, “I was afraid they wanted me there to ‘fix it.’ There had been some cases where the courts in other countries had accepted coups as lawful. [The coup leader’s] expectation was that I would help the new regime to achieve a similar status. I had no intention to help them ‘fix it’— and expressed my willingness to go to help [only] with the return to constitutionality.” When a delegation from the overthrown Fijian group arrived in London, Ghai reached out to them, eventually agreeing to be their adviser. Knowing that the coup leaders would be “furious” if they found out that Ghai had turned them down but had volunteered to help “the other side,” he returned to Fiji but stayed out of sight. When they required assistance, the delegation would ask for a break from negotiations and visit Ghai in his room. Negotiations were successful, resulting in a power-sharing agreement, a review of the Constitution, and a long-term agreement to resolve inter-party differences. By the time Ghai returned to Warwick, however, a second coup had been staged.
Ghai continued to be involved in Fiji, acting as an adviser to the parties in the wake of the second coup, and again in 1995-7 in the preparation of their submission to the Commission drafting the 1997 Constitution. During that period, Ghai also established the Citizens Constitutional Forum, a non-governmental organisation meant to “bring different races together in the common cause of a democratic and non-racial constitution.” The NGO reflected Ghai’s deep-felt concern about the racial divisions and inequalities in the country, issues which he attempted to address in his recommendations regarding the new Constitution. He had strong faith in the power and importance of civil society, a belief that would continue to drive his work throughout his career. In 2012, when the country’s military regime agreed to hand power back to civilians, Ghai was invited to head the Constitutional Commission.
At the same time, Ghai continued to produce legal analysis, publishing books and articles on decentralisation, the political economy of law, human rights, and multiple works devoted to the politics, law and government of the specific countries in which he had worked. His list of publications, which does not include works completed in the last two years, runs 15 pages in length. Ghai’s 1989 article entitled, “Whose human right to development?” was, according to Cottrell Ghai, a particularly important contribution and an example of his unique approach to the law. “He doesn’t always take the obvious approach. Very often, his analysis is out of the ordinary,” Cottrell Ghai explains. “In [that piece], he questioned the right to development in the sense of saying that it was for elites rather than for ordinary people. He takes a slightly more skeptical approach, and that has been important intellectually.”
In fact, Ghai’s unconventional approach to the law is what continues to impress and inspire lawyers to date. Waikwa Wanyoike, the first Executive Director of the Katiba Institute, the NGO which he founded with the Ghais in Kenya, describes Ghai’s ability to “create possibilities where a lot of people think there are none.” According to him, Ghai can “push new frontiers on nearly every subject. He’s able to find ways to read the same text and expand it in a manner that is so rights-focused. He shows hyper-creative rights-oriented thinking, and that’s probably his biggest contribution. His political savvy is also impressive – his ability to marry politics with the law and make the law work effectively on politics. He will contextualise issues, and he always starts from values and principles. That’s ingenious. He breaks the barrier between the technical elements of the law and values; he infuses rights-based values into the law.”
Despite his multiple responsibilities, Ghai also continued to act as a mentor. Mutunga says, “He made it his business to mentor me by inviting me to conferences in various places, by getting me to Warwick Law School as a visiting fellow when he taught there, by being an external examiner in my courses when I taught law in the University of Nairobi, and by sending me his writings and seeking my comments. Yash is the epitome of collective intellect. Many of his books are co-authored and some of the co-authors were his students.”
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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
The effects of the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.
Two years have gone by since I last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.
It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.
“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.
One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.
“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.” The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.
For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”
The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.
The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.
At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.
Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.
“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”
Return to Kasighau
The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.
It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.
According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.
No land, more problems
In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.
“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”
According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.
Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”
However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.
“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.
“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”
“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”
Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.
“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”
Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.
“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.
It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.
Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid
In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.
The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.
The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.
The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace
Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.
Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.
Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.
This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.
Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter
Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.
The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.
The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.
From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.
Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.
Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.
Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.
Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.
The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku
Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:
1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.
2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:
- It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
- The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
- It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
- It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.
Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.
This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:
- Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
- Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
- Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.
Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:
- The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
- The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent
Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.
Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.
Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya
Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.
He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:
- Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
- A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.
He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.
ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market
According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.
Moving beyond the state?
The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021
In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.
Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.
Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’
This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal.
Omissions of Inquiry: Kenya and the Limitations of Truth Commissions
Gabrielle Lynch provides a radical analysis of the mechanisms of transitional justice. Looking at the case of Kenya, Lynch argues that truth commissions which hope to achieve truth, justice and reconciliation also require ongoing political struggles, and substantive socio-economic and political change. While reconciliation and justice may be goals which truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, they cannot be expected to achieve them.
In today’s world, it is almost expected that a truth commission will be introduced in the wake of conflict or a period of authoritarianism to try and consolidate a transition to democracy and peace. A truth commission generally understood – as per Priscilla Hayner – as a temporary state-sanctioned body that investigates a pattern of past abuse, engages ‘directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences’ and which aims to conclude with a public report.
The underlying idea is that societies need to confront and deal with unjust histories if they are to establish a qualitative break with that past. Proponents of modern truth commissions thus ‘look backwards’, not as interested historians, but as a way to ‘reach forwards.’ As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained in his foreword to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report:
The other reason amnesia simply will not do is that the past refuses to lie down quietly. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt one … However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them, so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past. It is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future.
Motivated by this desire to render the past ‘passed’ in the substantial sense of being ‘dead’ or ‘over and done with’, modern truth commissions dedicate most of their time to two activities: the holding of public hearings and production of a final report.
This is a relatively recent development. Early truth commissions did not hold public hearings and were largely fact-finding bodies. However, ever since the South African TRC of the 1990s, truth commissions have held hearings as a stage for various actors – victims, perpetrators, political parties, state institutions and so forth – to present their account of past wrongs. The underlying idea is that people will have a chance to speak and be heard, and thus regain their humanity; that a wider (and engaged) audience will bear witness to a new human rights-conscious regime; and the overview provided will feed into, and help legitimise, a final report. The latter in turn intended to record and acknowledge past wrongs and provide recommendations that can help to promote truth, justice and reconciliation.
However, while much hope is often placed, and much time and money expended, on truth commissions and their hearings and final reports, it is evident that these processes generally fall far short of ambitious goals and high expectations. But what explains this gap between aspiration and reality?
This is one of the questions that I address in a new book – Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya – which analyses several transitional justice mechanisms introduced following Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8 when over 1,000 people were killed and almost 700,000 were displaced.
This includes the establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Significantly, the Commission’s mandate recognised that, while the 2007/8 post-election violence was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems. In turn, the Commission was tasked with investigating a wide array of injustices – from state repression and causes of political violence to perceptions of economic marginalisation and irregular land acquisition – between Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in February 2008.
Established through an Act of Parliament in 2008, and operational from 2009 to 2013, the TJRC sought to meet its mandate, in large part, by collecting statements (with over 40,000 collected in total), holding public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country and adversely mentioned person (AMP) hearings in western and Nairobi, and publishing a substantial final report that runs to over 2,000 pages.
Despite such achievements, the Commission was soon mired in controversy with calls for the chairman – who was soon linked to three injustices that the Commission was meant to investigate – to resign, while the public hearings attracted little media attention, and the final report is yet to be discussed in parliament let alone implemented.
The Kenyan experience highlights a range of lessons and insights. This includes the fact – as recently outlined in a piece for The Conversation – that transitional justice mechanisms are not ‘tools’ that can be introduced in different contexts with the same effect. Instead, their success (or failure) rests on their design, approach and personnel – all of which are incredibly difficult to get right – but also on their evaluation and reception, and thus on their broader contexts, which commissions have little or no control over.
However, the lessons that can be drawn go beyond reception and context and extend to the inherent shortcomings of such an approach.
First, while victims appreciate a chance to speak and be heard, the majority clearly submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken to redress the injustices described. As one woman explained after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken and how, having told her story, the Commission would ‘come in and help.’
To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included ‘justice’ in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations and institutional and constitutional reforms.
However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated that ‘recommendations shall be implemented.’ However, such legal provisions proved insufficient. Amidst general scepticism about the Commission’s work, parliament amended the TJRC Act in December 2013 to ensure that the report needed to be considered by the National Assembly – something that is yet to happen.
Moreover, to document and acknowledge the truth requires that one hears from both victims and perpetrators. However, the latter often have little motivation, and much to lose, from telling the truth. This was evident in Kenya where, during the AMP hearings I attended, where I heard little that was new and not a single admission of personal responsibility or guilt. Instead, testimonies were characterised by five discursive strands of responsibility denied: denial through a transfer of responsibility, denial through a questioning of sources, denial through amnesia, denial through a reinterpretation of events and an assertion of victimhood, and denial that events constituted a wrongdoing. However, while AMPs denied responsibility, none denied that injustices had occurred. As a result, while the hearings provided little clarity on how and why a series of reported events may have occurred, they simultaneously drew attention to, and recognised, past injustice. In this way, they provided a public enactment of impunity: Kenya’s history was replete with injustice, but AMPs were unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for it.
This ongoing culture of impunity points to another issue, which is that – for most victims – injustices clearly do not belong to the past but to the present and future. The loss of a person or income, for example, often constitutes a course that now seems beyond reach – from the hardship that accompanies the loss of a wage earner to the diminished opportunities that stem from a child’s extended absence from school. However, the past also persists in other ways, from the injustices that never ended, such as gross inequalities or corruption, to fears of repetition and experiences of new injustice.
Unfortunately, the idea that one can ‘look backwards to reach forwards’ downplays the complex ways in which the past actually persists, and possible futures infringe on the present. This is problematic since it can encourage a situation where small changes dampen demands for more substantive reform. At the same time, it can facilitate a politicised assertion of closure that excludes those who do not buy into the absence of the past, the newness of the present, or the desirability of imagined futures and provides a resource to those who seek to present such ‘difficult people’ as untrusting, unreasonable and unpatriotic.
This is not to say that truth commissions are useless and should never be considered. On the contrary, many view speaking as better than silence, while the commission’s report provides a historical overview of injustice in Kenya and a range of recommendations that activists and politicians are using to lobby for justice and reform.
However, when introduced, truth commissions should be more aware of the importance of persuasive performances and how their initial reception and longer-term impact is shaped by broader socio-economic, political and historic contexts. Truth commissions also need to adopt a more complex understanding of the ways in which the past persists, and possible futures infringe on the present and avoid easy assertions of closure.
Ultimately, such ambitious goals as truth, justice and reconciliation require not Freudian ‘talk therapy’, although catharsis and psycho-social support are often appreciated, but an ongoing political struggle, and substantive socio-economic and political change, which something like a truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, but cannot be expected to achieve.
This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
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