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Borders versus People: Part III – Games within a Game

17 min read.

In this final part of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA explains why illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure in crisis or near failure. As a remedy, it seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy.

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Borders versus People: Part III – Games within a Game
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The peeping game

In 2017, some sharp-eyed IT managers at the African Union (AU) realized that bugging devices had been planted in the computer servers and conference rooms of the shiny new headquarters building. It was only inevitable that the Chinese were to be seen as prime suspects, given that it was them that had so kindly met the cost and physical labour of putting up the building.

In the ensuing debates, only then incoming AU chairperson, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, was unbothered.

“I don’t think spying is the specialty of the Chinese. We have spies all over the place in this world,” the chairman said. His only concern was that Africa had not got its act together. “We should have been able to build our own building.” but even then, he mused: “if you bring people to build for you, they may still spy on you.”

Such candour was refreshing, and brings another context about the mutual accusations of spying, subterfuge and intrigue being exchanged between the regimes of Rwanda and Uganda.

Mid-August regional media reports –to the extent that they can be relied upon, given the greatly partisan atmosphere- tell us that the mounting tension in the Uganda-Congo-Rwanda border region may have finally spilled over into open fighting, with Rwanda seeking to eliminate what it has been saying is an armed threat from a Uganda-backed rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (again), and led by former Kigali insiders.

A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true, based on photographic evidence he claimed to have seen.

Since then: a frosty diplomatic process facilitated by the state of Angola, has sought to de-escalate tensions, by coaxing the presidents of the two countries into signing a 21st August Memorandum of Understanding. Its key points are: respecting mutual sovereignty; no acts of subversion in the territory of the other party, as well as third countries (read Congo); do nothing to create the impression of an interest in such destabilization, thereby eliminating all factors that may create such perception; and respecting the civic rights and freedoms of each other’s visiting citizens.

A source close to the Kigali regime recently assured me that reports of the Rwanda Special Forces decimating a significant encampment of Rwandan National Congress (RNC) rebel forces are completely true. His assertion is based on photographic evidence he claims to have seen.

The last clause is critical here. It clearly refers to the many Rwandan citizens that Kigali says are and have been held for long periods of time –some up to two years- by Uganda intelligence operatives, and subjected to inhuman treatment.

The Rwandan state, and its regional media allies point the finger squarely at Uganda’s historically notorious Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).

The facts are that the CMI acquired this fearsome reputation well back in the early days of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) 1986 ascension to power. Known then as the Directorate of Military Intelligence (as its Rwanda counterpart is now called), it was the grinding stone against which many a rebellion, coup attempt and even simple civilian political agitation was ground to dust by very brutally efficient methods of murder, torture, deception, intrusion, and intimidation.

This accusation comes weighed down with a most striking irony: in those early days, the Directorate’s deputy Director was one Paul Kagame, still incarnate as an officer of the NRA.

All this tells us quite a few things.

First, that the accusation that CMI is illegally apprehending and then torturing Rwandans is entirely credible, given its history, particularly of the early days of basically physically crushing the armed resistance that had spring up in northern Uganda. These episodes are not particularly well-known, as the global human rights NGO police, and rising Ugandan corporate feminist movement and the Western diplomatic community seemed to see many opportunities in the freshly-minted NRA regime, and chose to simply “not see”, what was going on. In addition, in the subsequent decade, many of the regime insiders in Uganda who were to become leading opposition voices after the falling out, also seem to have difficulty in making specific references to this foundational period of the regime. This could well be because they were in positions where they were much better informed than others back then, to now claim ignorance.

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This focus on Rwandans could even be considered an act of inclusivity, given that CMI stood accused of torturing everyone else in the days when it was heavily staffed by Rwandans of various citizenship.

Secondly, it is entirely possible, and in fact quite logical, that Rwanda’s government would seek to maintain an information-gathering network inside Uganda. Given President Kagame’s reaction to the AU scandal, it would be naïve to assume that he did not see a need to also build a Rwandan “back door” in the Ugandan intelligence outfit he helped to build. This, as the AU chairman pointed out in that context, is how the spying game works.

 

 

 

By the same token it would be entirely logical and natural to assume that if the Rwanda regime is in fact deploying its spies to Uganda that the Ugandan regime’s security apparatus would endeavor to seek out and apprehend any such person.

Naturally, it would also be quite logical that the human resource of any such network would comprise Rwanda nationals, Uganda nationals of Rwandan descent, and of course even other Ugandan nationals seeking pecuniary or other gain.

So, for any Rwandan national to now find themselves captive of a Ugandan organization designed in part by his or her president, this is a very ironical kind of homecoming indeed, as clearly, those institutional habits did not begin only after (now President) Paul Kagame left.

Thirdly, given the long public record established by President Museveni in reneging on agreements -and also President Kagame’s knowledge of this from his time as a high-level enforcer of Museveni’s will during his own time as a Uganda regime apparatchik- observers would be wise to see the Luanda MOU as the latest stage in a continuing feud, as opposed to the beginning of its end.

The intelligence, combat and diplomatic shenanigans are therefore neither a cause nor a solution to this game; they are merely details in a game still being played out. We need to look deeper.

The labelling game

Since the difference between Ugandan and Rwandans –from throne to commoner- have never really been as real as the current Kigali-Kampala standoff have made it, there can be perhaps no greater illustration of the appearance of Birds fighting their reflection in a window pane. If anything, the dispute is a critical example of how similar the two political cultures –old and new- are.

The concept of Rwandan immigration to “Uganda” is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in certainly northern Rwanda could be considered “Ugandan”.

And Rwandan indigenous communities are organized along lines followed also by communities in south and south-western Uganda, not to mention Burundi, right down to often having the same clans. There are families -some now quite prominent- in what is now south-western Uganda, whose ancestry can be traced to migration from Rwanda as far back as the 16th Century.

Perhaps we should therefore see the colonial project, and this neo-colonial one now being held together by these bickering presidents, as an interruption and distortion to those historical relations.

The concept of Rwandan immigration to Uganda is a rather fluid one. Rwanda existed long before Uganda ever did, and before either colony was created. In some sense, anyone in south-western Uganda could be considered Rwandan just as anyone in northern Rwanda could be considered Ugandan.

Subsequent to colonization, there were groups of people who migrated to Uganda, who were now being called Rwandan. The first known such group was a group of embattled aristocrats from the Rwandan royal court, who had to leave following an internal political upheaval. The eventually settled in Namutamba, mid-western Buganda.

There followed a few waves of economic migration, due to the growth of Uganda’s colonial economy. It should be noted that it was the district authorities in Western Uganda that first passed laws restricting migration from Rwanda, followed eventually by the colonial government as a whole.

The migrations culminated in the almost exclusively Tutsi influx that followed the 1959 Hutu “revolution” mentioned in part II.

Many prominent Ugandans can be traced to all these developments.

The actor-playwright Deborah Asiimwe, proprietor of the Kampala International Theatre Festival once told me of her grandmother whose speaks very fluent Luganda as a result of having lived in the Buganda royal court in the 1930s, where she had been expected to become a wife to then Kabaka Daudi Cwa, whose reign ended in 1939.

The late Dede Majoro (d. 1995), perhaps the most gifted guitarist this region has ever seen, also lived for a while in Buganda royal court in the reign of Kabaka Edward Muteesa (1939-1966), along with many of his siblings. Kabaka Muteesa provided them sanctuary after their father Silas Majoro (and former schoolmate at Buddo), a senior advisor to the deposed Rwandan King Kigeli (1936-2016), who had been assassinated by Belgian agents in their process of actively supporting the Hutu “revolution”. Dede’s sister, Grace Kaboyo was until recently one of President Museveni’s district commissioners.

Mr Robert Kalumba is a very visible public relations officer at Kampala City Council Authority, whose grandfather was granted a tidy parcel of land in Buganda by the sister of Edward Muteesa.

Another member of the Rwanda royal family who also fled to Uganda and married a Ugandan woman. They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. He went on to become a very senior immigration officer. I went to school with him.

They were to have a son who went on to marry one of Edward Muteesa’s daughters. I went to school with him.

The deposed King Kigeli himself took refuge in Uganda for a while. As a child, I recall our mother pointing out to us his very tall frame walking along the street, as she drove us passed the apartment block he lived in, near the city centre.

In short, the problem has never been the presence of Rwandans in Uganda as such, since there have always been Rwandans in Uganda even before Uganda became Uganda (and then took parts of what was independent north Rwanda with it). The problem is the political culture that comes with that presence, given the historical record that continues to show that the biggest single persecutors and killers of Rwandans have always been other Rwandans.

In his play A Time of Fire Uganda writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution of actually bringing the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”, as was said of the early 1800s French Bourbon dynasty exile who, having taken back power in France, then proceeded to replicate all the political mistakes that had caused them to lose power in the first place.

It is a challenge of political culture of Rwanda. Of the stubbornness of old habits, which, as is said, die hard.

But where did it start?

The imposter game

In the biblical tale of Naboth’s vineyard, an unwitting King finds himself in possession of a vineyard he has coveted for a long time. It belonged to his neighbour Naboth, who had declined to sell it, as it was part of his own inheritance from his father, and according to Jewish custom could not be disposed of in such a way.

Wife Jezebel had her own plan to cheer up the frustrated monarch. She had Naboth framed, murdered, and his property seized. The King learns of this only when confronted by the Judges of his Kingdom. For them the real sacrilege is that beyond the murder, the perpetrator then assumes the place of the victim, in the form of claiming to be the rightful owner of his inheritance. This is the true meaning of the verse: “Have you killed and also taken possession?” (Kings 21:19), now colloquially known as the syndrome of “Naboth’s vineyard”.

In his play A Time of Fire, the Ugandan writer Charles Mulekwa reflects on the common failing of political peoples fleeing war and persecution to actually bring the causes of the war with them. It is a case of a refugee and migrant community that has “learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”…

In the biblical story, the King repents and atones. In the real world of African politics, many a murderous usurper has simply soldiered on regardless, with this disastrous game.

But now, the moment of truth is fast arriving, and we are all about to be found out.

With Uganda, the fraudulent nature of the three-decade-old government is better known and a lot more explicit.

In the case of Rwanda, we must begin with a similar usurpation, by one Kanjogera, dowager in the Royal House of Rwanda in 1896, who conspires with the encroaching Germans to have the then monarch murdered in favour of Musinga her own biological son. This is an event replete with the kinds of abominations that shocked the judges in Naboth’s case.

One Muhumuza, mother of the murdered monarch led the initial resistance to this usurpation.

Despite it having been seen as a movement among very ordinary people, Muhumuza became an adherent of the Nyabinghi movement.

Nyabinghi was the sovereign of the 16th Century kingdom of Karagwe, which name now lives on as a district in northern Tanzania.

She was murdered by her husband Ruhinda, king of the Mpororo just to the north, in his attempt to take over her throne.

Her spirit was to haunt him and his accomplices for years afterwards, and became the foundation of a “cult”, that passed it down the generations through initiating young women into its priesthood. The Nyabinghi belief-system soon spread to neighbouring regions, and was taken up by persons nursing deep grievances against existing authority, making it a target for state repression.

This became a particularly acute problem in pre-colonised Rwanda -which included what is now parts of south-western Uganda- where the various Kings had tried to stamp it out.

She can be said to be the African patron saint of the betrayed.

Naturally enough, the anti-colonial sentiments in Rwanda, sparked by Kanjogera’s allegedly German-backed coup, found a home among the Nyabinghi movement.

Having been inducted into the Nyabinghi priesthood, Muhumuza became the incarnation of the spirit of the long-dead queen. This set the stage for the showdown that sucked in the German, British and later Belgian colonial authorities.

“These fanatical women are a curse to the country.” One colonial official reportedly complained.

This was nothing unusual, except for the times it was dealing with. It is something of a tradition here to literally channel a long-passed on leader’s spirit when faced with an extreme leadership challenge.

During the 1953-1955 British exiling of Kabaka Muteesa, a man called Kiganira declared himself the reincarnation of Kibuuka, Buganda’s Achilles-like war-spirit, and began agitations that led to his arrest and execution.

The spirt of a long-dead Shona monarch Nehanda, also inspired the initial resistance to the British colonizing mission. It has been handed down to possess generations of women in particular family lines. At the time of the colonizing invasions, it was held by Charwe Nyakasikana, whose invocation of it was instrumental in the initial anti-colonial resistance, until she and her companion were captured by the British and hanged in 1898.

The colony of Rwanda comes into existence and is later inherited by Belgium. In that success, these imposed imposter states show that illegitimacy can be made to work. Kogonjera’s usurpation becomes an understanding of politics, and produces a form of white Pan-Africanism:

Muhumuza is captured by the colonisers and exiled to be held captive in colonial Kampala, until her passing in 1944.

The history game

The past matters. And this is why those in the present always seek to control it.

With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as current experiences of the apartheid system were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology history which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda; a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda. This Hate History lays the foundation of the Hutu “revolution” of 1959, that created the mass exodus of Tutsi into neighboring countries. Kayibanda becomes president, and Hate History remained taught.

His victory is cut short when his army chief of staff Juvenal Habyarimana, overthrows him and then allegedly has him and his wife starved to death while in detention (thus taking possession and then killing, in his case).

Similar betrayals dogged the rebellion organized from exile against this new set of imposters, and vicious, internecine conflict seemed to have characterized its journey all the way to victory over the Habyarimana regime.

With the rise of later African nationalism, old tales of the initial German conquest, as well as recent experiences of the apartheid system, were mined to design a toxic mix of hate, and racist anthropology-history, which become an official mantra of PARMEHUTU, a party led by one Gregoire Kayibanda, a man until recently the private secretary to the Belgian head of the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda.

Historically, the monarchy had seemed to be the focal point around which all Rwandans within its ambit organised their various identities. There seemed to have been a push within the rebellion to put the monarchy question back on the table.

The standing accusation, best documented by the writer Timothy Kalyegira, is that those now in power in Kigali, first hijacked the initial rebellion, and the formation of RPF was in itself a usurpation of an earlier initiative organised by Rwandan exiles not embedded in the Uganda state, against the Rwandan Habyarimana regime that the current leadership of the RPF suppressed using their then high positions within the Ugandan NRA security apparatus. This initial initiative may have been known as inkotanyi.

This can be framed as a continuation of Kanjogera’s coup: usurpation upon usurpation, and a legacy of illegitimate political inheritances.

The most prominent example of this of course would be the assassination of (former NRA bush war veteran, and Uganda government deputy minister of Defence) Col. Fred Rwigyema who, as first field commander of the RPF invasion, suffered the ignominy of being shot dead within 24 hours of crossing into his country.

Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis or near failure.

It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Kanjogera commits regicide, but then seeks refuge in a “neo-traditionalist” gambit of continuing the same monarchy in the form of her son, so as to hide behind the legitimacy of a throne, despite having just desecrated it.

And given the chance, imperial power will always seek to enter a society, and tilt the balance of power away from the most legitimate in favour of the least legitimate, which must then depend on it to one extent or another. This remains the story of Africa’s domination.

Nearly every historic victory of rebel organisations on our continent holds a record of being tempted by Western powers to reach for absolute power, where a peace-making coalition may have worked more in the mass interest instead.

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In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi’s minority Tigrayan People’s’ Liberation Front was able to militarily dominate the broader anti-Mengistu resistance, and subsequent regime, through the significant logistical resources delivered to it under the cover of Western famine relief, once the West realized that Mengistu’s days were numbered.

Museveni’s NRA dragged out the Nairobi 1985 Nairobi Peace TalkS for months on end while using material support channeled by the West through the notorious LONRHO corporation to increase the size of the army nearly ten-fold, before storming the capital.

All Africans are advised: look again at your resident liberators; how exactly did they come to power?

This is essentially a crisis of legitimacy. For both sides. Illegitimate power cannot rule legitimately, and remains permanently insecure, in crisis and in need of self-validation.

It is often aware of this, and as a remedy, seeks to clothe itself with the garments of legitimacy. Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army brought an exceptional level of illegitimacy to our politics in the way it seized power in 1986, through series of opportunistic exploitation of every old and current political grievance it could harness, and has held on to it. As mentioned in part II, it came carrying the seeds of the Rwanda Patriotic Front in its womb.

The 1993 wholesale invasion of Rwanda by the RPF was therefore –amongst other things- the exportation of that habit of illegitimacy to another country. As said, this was to be the fate of the DRC, even later.

The strategic resources game

This long and twisted story continues. It will create new approaches to known facts, and then bring unknown facts into creation.

I insist that this remains a struggle to be the principal conduit -broker, even- through which to channel the latest generation of strategic minerals, to Western corporations.

This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.

Underneath the usual romanticisation of European conflict lies the story of coal and iron. Until perhaps the 1960s, the Alsace-Lorraine region, which lies where the lands of France and Germany meet, held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the world. Together with the abundant supplies of the coal in the neighbouring regions, this created the opportunity for the bulk production of perhaps the most significant material to the emergent industrial revolution: steel.

Three significant wars linked to this region have been fought in Western Europe: the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which ended with a German occupation; the 1914-1918 British-German war in France; and the 1939-1945 British-French-American-Russian war against Germany and Japan that left much of the continent and beyond devastated.

This is not just an African story. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East.

This recurrent conflict was only suspended for the last eighty years with the creation of a trade mechanism that enabled countries from all parts of the continent to access those and later other resources for their domestic industries, without having to also physically control the territory.

This mechanism was named the European Coal and Steel Commission, which became the European Economic Commission, which became the European Commission, and which is now known today as the European Union. Its core function is to prevent the buildup of the economic pressures that lead to war.

From the 1890s, the military forces of Western Europe and increasingly, the United States and underwent an extensive debate regarding the relative advantages of continuing to rely on steam-powered engines fueled by the burning of coal, over the emergent liquid fuels. By 1912, the liquid fuels camp had won the debate: oil was easier to excavate, transport, store and deliver. It was scalable, yielded more energy per unit, and did not require the maintenance of a global network of “coaling stations” dependent of a small fleet of labour-intensive “coaling ships” supplying their navies.

It did however, require the establishment of a guaranteed supply. This is how the entire middle east, with its vast, accessible oilfields, increasingly became the focus of rival empires seeking to gain a foothold on this strategic reserve.

The British navy, for example, decided to strategically switch from coal in the period just before the 1914-1918 war.

The subsequent dismantling of the Turkish Ottoman empire, leading to the carve up of its Arab dominions into the unstable oil-producing region known today, is one visible result.

Then came the dawn of nuclear energy, particularly its use in warfare, heralded by the 1945 American destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic weapons were being developed by all sides during that war. They came as the logical outcome of the war’s increasing dependence on widespread destruction of cities and the civilian hinterland as a way of hampering the physical capacity of the enemy to maintain war. An atomic bomb offered the opportunity to impose strategic paralysis on an enemy through wiping out an entire city with one devastating operation.

A person no less than Albert Einstein, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, as well as pioneer of nuclear science was among the voices that advised the then US President to ensure it got and stayed ahead in the coming nuclear arms race, by developing the first bomb before Germany, or anyone else did. For this, they advised, the US was going to need a reliable supply of good quality Uranium.

“The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities” they warned in a 1939 letter: “There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.”

This is where the fate of what we now know as the DRC was sealed. In retrospect, it was clear that Patrice Lumumba barely stood a chance. As early as 1947, the newly formed US Central Intelligence Agency had already dispatched agents to establish the viability of Uranium supply from Congo, and how to work with Belgian mining corporations there, to secure it. A truly independent Congo was seen as a threat to that objective, with US president Eisenhower even developing something of a personal obsession with Lumumba,

“The Shinkolobwe stockpile was about 200 times purer than average uranium sources at the time.” Notes Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai, who has researched this subject extensively.

What followed is not just known history, but a continuing story.

Western capitalism still holds a vision for the future: a fully automated world, in which goods and services are made, sorted and delivered by unmanned machinery, and paid for electronically.

This means an administrative layer of control and co-ordination. The vision therefore, is for a fully wired world, centralized around digital, online control, tracking everything from production levels, to individual consumer preferences.

This is the essence of the 5G “fourth industrial revolution”: digital technology stepping up to a level of broad-span interconnectivity primed to a speed and versatility previously unseen.

We are encouraged to think of a “cloud”, but this whole information infrastructure is not ephemeral. It requires physical warehousing and relies therefore on earth-bound space and technologies: wires, server farms hosting acres of capacity, routing stations, transmitters, communication devices and the like.

Three materials among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fiberglass. Of the three, Coltan is the most highly valuable. It makes the heat-resistant circuity in all devices. Its global trade expected only to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.

And once again, the unfortunate Democratic Republic of Congo finds itself as the primary future source for all this bounty. DRC may hold the single largest known reserves (estimated by some to be up 60% of the global supply) of the mineral.

My point is simple: once a strategic resource of the future has been identified, then the region that has them is in for decades, if not centuries of war and destabilization. Control the DRC (or at least part of it), and you control the oils and uraniums of the future. Welcome back to the new Alsace-Lorraine or middle east. Or the old Congo.

As I said in part II of this series, no place deserves a break from this relentless plunder as does the DRC.

Key government figures in Uganda and Rwanda have long been accused of orchestrating this plunder. First directly, during their respective armies’ invasions and occupation there, and then late indirectly, through the proxy militias they propped up and left behind.

Three materials, among many, are absolutely critical to all of this: copper, coltan and fibreglass. Of the three, coltan is the most valuable; it is used to make heat-resistant circuits in all digital devices. Its global trade is expected to expand exponentially as the 5G revolution takes root.

Despite furious denials, these accusations have been given substance by both the United Nations, as well as a whole host of campaigning organisations. And the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Congolese, including children, are now living and dying as exploited artisanal miners of the ore of these and other precious minerals.

But once dug up and loaded, this valuable cargo has to go somewhere. Who talks to whom? Who gets to be the middleman? Whose borders will have to be crossed -or closed- to settle those questions?

The answer lies in the answers to those questions.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misleading aid narratives distract from rebranded structural adjustment 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aid as a lever of regime change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mohamed Bouazizi and Tunisia: 10 Years On

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

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

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

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

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

‘Individual’ suicide and class solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jemna: rights versus law; a disruptive legitimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Kamour: the ‘will of the people’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Need New Names

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

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

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

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

Imperial creations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Westphalian state 

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

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

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

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

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

We need new solidarities 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need new names, donge?

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