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Who is Policing the Police? Kenya’s Lame Duck Oversight Mechanism

19 min read.

Seven years after an independent oversight body was formed to monitor and investigate police misconduct and abuse, Kenyans are still suffering under the hands of an incompetent and uncaring police force that gets away with excesses with impunity. Has IPOA lived up to its promise?

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Who is Policing the Police? Kenya’s Lame Duck Oversight Mechanism
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I
First Impressions

 

On the right-hand corner at the top of Policing Lens, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA)’s quarterly newsletter, two heavily padded policemen positioned inside the frame of a magnifying glass are holding shields branded ‘Police’. The duo have their baton-wielding fists raised in the air, poised to descend on a seemingly already subdued civilian lying motionless on the ground. This surreal image ushers one into IPOA’s world, a Freudian admission that the National Police Service (NPS) may not be as transformed from what it used to be when it was known as the Kenya Police Force – still deploying brawn in place of brain.

This disturbing yet at once candid logo subconsciously summarises IPOA’s statement of intent, which is that the statutory agency is not afraid of confronting the dark history and the not-so-squeaky-clean present day state of affairs within the police, an unflattering confession they are willing to make publicly. Conversely, the choice of IPOA’s optics could be (mis)construed as an act of concession, confirming that despite its far-reaching powers and mandate, IPOA, just like the overpowered civilian victim of police brutality, remains subdued by police excesses.

Yet the need for IPOA to live up to its full mandate cannot be gainsaid.

 

II
Waki, Alston and Ransley

During the 29 May 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council sitting in Geneva, Switzerland, Prof. Philip Alston, the then UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, faced a dilemma. Coming merely two months after his inaugural Kenya working tour, Prof. Alston was calling for the investigation of the Kenya Police Force in a case where it was suspected of involvement in the execution of two human rights defenders. But as he pushed for an investigation into the police, Prof. Alston regretted that as things stood at the time (and maybe as they still stand to date), it was impossible to investigate the police.

Prof. Alston wrote: ‘‘As there is, according inter alia to the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV, pages 420-421), no existing independent unit capable of effectively and credibly investigating possible police misconduct in Kenya, we consider it imperative that an independent investigation be carried out with support from a foreign police force.’’

Prof. Alston was partly basing his observation on the October 2008 Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV) report authored by Court of Appeal Judge Philip Waki, who chaired the CIPEV, otherwise referred to as the Waki Commission. Apart from pointing out the extent to which it was impossible to investigate the police for suspected police-inflicted deaths and injuries, the Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds. These figures, though supported by morgue data, were disputed by the Commissioner of Police, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali, who knew of only 616 deaths, emphatically telling CIPEV that only the police could give authoritative figures for those who died as a result of the post-election violence.

The Waki Commission showed the extent to which the police were suspected of serious human rights violations during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, where one in every three of the 1,133 deaths documented by CIPEV were as a result of bullet wounds.

It was under these circumstances that CIPEV recommended the establishment of an “Independent Police Conduct Authority” outside the police, with the legislative power and authority to investigate complaints against the police and police conduct. By the time Alston was suggesting international investigation of police killings, nothing had happened to implement CIPEV’s crucial recommendation, but his report now made it imperative to establish an independent police oversight agency to curtail future contemplation of seeking foreign investigative assistance.

As if pre-empting Prof. Alston’s May 29 presentation in Geneva on 7 May 2009, President Mwai Kibaki tasked Justice (retired) Philip Ransley to look into concerns raised by the other two Philips – Alston and Waki – by appointing him to chair the National Task Force on Police Reforms. Ransley’s Commission aimed ‘‘to examine existing policies and institutional structures of the police, and to recommend comprehensive reforms that would enhance effectiveness, professionalism and accountability in the police services.’’ Ransley was given 90 days, and in October 2009, having wrapped up his hearings, Ransley handed his report, which contained a whopping 200 recommendations, to the head of state.

Ransley asked for, among other things, terminological change seeking the establishment of the National Police Service (NPS), a change from the scandal-ridden Kenya Police Force. The idea was to shift the mindset of the police towards civilians, a change from always resorting to force in the course of duty to one of offering a professional service. This was to also influence civilians’ perception of the police, from that of antagonism to one of co-operation and collaboration. Ransley similarly asked for the setting up of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), tasked with overseeing the human resource component of the NPS, starting from recruitment, appointments, promotions, and general welfare of the police, away from the Public Service Commission (PSC), which previously handled these responsibilities.

More importantly, and in responding to Alston’s and Waki’s concerns, Ransley recommended the establishment of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian body mandated by law to keep the proposed NPS in check. In imagining an ideal scenario, Ransley envisioned an IPOA to watch over financial spending by the NPS; ensure the NPS adhered to international best practices in policing; receive and initiate investigations into complaints on police misconduct; monitor, review and audit police investigations; as well as coordinate other institutions on issues of police oversight, among other things.

 

III
The Resistance

That Ransley’s task force completed its work within 90 days and submitted its report soon thereafter came as a surprise to sceptics, including those within the diplomatic corps. This was evidenced in a WikiLeaks cable originating from the US embassy in Nairobi, which read:

‘‘…However, several prominent persons have expressed doubts about the government’s motives in establishing the PRC. They note that the PRC’s short 90-day mandate is far too little for such a massive task and that Police Commissioner Hussein Ali will act to thwart all but superficial reforms. We share some of these doubts, but will take a wait-and-see approach, recognizing that the PRC provides an opportunity – the only one at this time – for much-needed police reform. The UK shares our doubts, but will support the commission financially by paying for a UK and a Commonwealth police expert to serve on the PRC. If the GOK acts to implement real reform we are positioned to support the effort with funds….’’

The Americans and the British might have had valid reasons to second guess the intentions in setting up the Ransley task force, referred to erroneously in the WikiLeaks cable as the Police Reform Commission (PRC). A few months earlier, before the appointment of Ransley and his team on 7 May 2009, the then powerful Minister of State for Internal Security and Provincial Administration, Prof. George Saitoti, had placed a mischievous announcement in the Kenya Gazette, Notice Number 8144 of September 2008. The alert was about a Police Oversight Board, a proposed agency populated by presidential appointees, which the minister wanted domiciled in his ministry, and whose members – named in the gazette notice – the minister had powers to dismiss at will. This therefore meant that the mandate to oversee the police would remain within the state, under the same ministry as the police, a bad attempt at pseudo self-regulation. Prof. Saitoti’s actions seemed pre-emptive.

At around the same time, the non-statutory Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), among others, was busy singing the chorus of the establishment of a civilian police oversight body. In fact, the KHRC had gone as far as drafting a bill proposing the creation of the Police Oversight Board, a name and concept which the minister appropriated. The difference was that the KHRC was proposing an autonomous civilian agency, while the minister wanted to create an appendage of the police within his portfolio. It was these sorts of cat-and-mouse games that eroded credibility on efforts by the state towards police reforms, setting the stage for doubting Thomases as Ransley got working.

Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’. The minister had also been quoted – utterances he denied having ever made – saying that only “normal reforms are required [like] looking into the welfare of officers, adequate facilities to increase the morale and efficiency” of the police. This strategy, of doing cosmetic reforms by focusing on the more bureaucratic end of things as opposed to delving into the more substantive questions of police violations, is one which would later be used to keep IPOA distracted from its core mandate.

 

IV
The Inaugural Term

On 27 August 2010, almost a year after Ransley’s task force submitted its report to President Mwai Kibaki, Kenya promulgated a new constitution. With the new legal regime in place, and staying true to Ransley’s recommendations, Parliament passed the IPOA Act (Act No. 35 of 2011), legislation which paved way for the establishment of the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA). This was a huge milestone. Other than South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), there remains no other policing oversight agency in Africa.

However, rather than looking to South Africa, IPOA heavily borrowed its architecture from the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This was possibly a direct result of the input by the British expert seconded to the Ransley task force, as explicitly intimated in the WikiLeaks cable. Consequently, IPOA’s objectives were outlined in Section 5 of the Act thus: 

  1. a) Hold the Police accountable to the public in the performance of their functions;
  2. b)  Give effect to the provision of Article 244 of the Constitution that the Police shall strive for professionalism and discipline and shall promote and practice transparency and accountability; and
  3. c) Ensure independent oversight of the handling of complaints by the Service.

In adhering to the Act’s requirements on the hiring of the IPOA board, the president, through Kenya Gazette notices 6938 and 6939 of 22 May 2012, appointed IPOA’s inaugural chairman and the agency’s board members, who were all sworn in on 4 June 2012. Ransley’s team had outlined the composition of the board to include two persons with experience in public administration, alongside individuals with knowledge in financial management, corporate management, human rights, and one with experience in religious leadership. The board’s chairperson had to be someone qualified to be appointed a judge of the High Court of Kenya.

Further, in revelations contained in the aforementioned WikiLeaks cable, Prof. Saitoti was reported to have told the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, that what was needed in police reform was ‘‘evolution, not revolution’’.

As fate would have it, Macharia Njeru, currently a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), who had served as a member of the Ransley task force, was picked as IPOA’s first chairman. One would have imagined that having been part of the Ransley team, Njeru would hit the ground running, having had the advantage of being one of the agency’s draftsmen. However, by the end of his board’s six-year term, Njeru’s team came under heavy criticism,for what was considered an utterly dismal performance, especially by victims of police excesses.

 

V
The Numbers

During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions. These were: High Court Criminal Case No. 41 of 2014 (Republic Vs Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee, and Criminal Appeal No. 23 of 2016 (Inspector of Police Veronicah Gitahi and Police Constable Issa Mzee Vs Republic), and High Court Case No. 78 of 2014 (Titus Ngamau Musila).

Pundits argue that strictly speaking, these were two convictions. In the first case, two police officers were convicted, thereafter appealing the ruling. They lost at the appellate court, a development which saw IPOA count the double loss by the officers as two wins on its part.

During its inaugural term, IPOA received an average of four serious complaints a day. As a result, the common refrain against the agency was that of the almost 10,000 cases of police misconduct reported to it, IPOA had only secured a paltry three convictions.

By 30 April 2018, when the inaugural board’s mandate was just coming to a close, the agency had received a total of 9,878 complaints. These were both from members of the public and from within the police service. Of these, 5,085 were classified as needing to be investigated. The rest, as per IPOA’s breakdown of the numbers, were referred to the Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police Service (748 cases), IPOA’s inspections and monitoring directorate (364 cases), the National Police Service (249 cases), the National Police Service Commission (319 cases), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (41 cases), Officers Commanding Police Stations (370 cases), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (289 cases), and another 312 cases were shared between the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Land Commission, and the Commission of Administrative Justice (Office of the Ombudsman).

Of the 5,085 cases meant for investigations, 752 were reported to have been investigated and completed, 458 were closed preliminarily, 72 were still under investigation, 76 were under legal review by IPOA, 103 were forwarded to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, 11 were sent to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, with 6 referred to the National Police Service. Furthermore, 459 complaints were dismissed as falling outside IPOA’s mandate, 1,642 cases were closed for what IPOA terms ‘‘withdrawal by complainants; matters before Court; not actionable; and insufficient information.’’ 64 cases were before the courts.

As of March 2019, the total number of cases reported to IPOA stood at 12,781, with 136 cases taken to court. In a mark of progress, three more convictions have been added to IPOA’s tally since the new board took office in September 2018. It goes without saying that the new board is to a large extent building on the groundwork done by their predecessors, meaning by the end of the six-year mandate, IPOA’s second board should have better figures in comparison.

By any account, IPOA’s 2012–2018 numbers are mind-boggling, its paltry three convictions not doing much in terms of building confidence within the aggrieved civilian population. As a matter of fact, naysayers will be forgiven for thinking the numbers being thrown around are all a well-choreographed game of smoke and mirrors, a case of motion without movement.

However, the question one may want to ask is, was IPOA set up for failure from the word go?

 

VI
The Bureaucracy

While listening to Macharia Njeru campaigning to be picked as the male representative of the Law Society of Kenya in the Judicial Service Commission, it became obvious that the one talking point IPOA’s inaugural chairman wouldn’t let go of was that he had successfully built an institution from scratch.

Njeru’s exit message as his term came to a close was on how much he, his board and IPOA’s senior staffers had worked in putting in place systems. There was talk of financial management awards, all bureaucratic shenanigans – not unimportant but neither were they IPOA’s core mandate. There was certainly need for institution building, but at what expense did this happen? Did Njeru’s team sacrifice IPOA’s primary oversight responsibility at the altar of corporatism, or was it a trap set for him from the word go – to keep him busy paper pushing and not allow his team adequate time and resources to focus on police misconduct?

When looking at IPOA’s founding financials – an annual budget of Sh96 million (US$ 960,000) in 2012/2013 – it is clear that from the beginning one of the ways the state wished to put the agency on a tight leash was by limiting its budgetary allocations. Seeing that the agency needed to build from the bottom up – hire premises, recruit and train staffers, establish regional offices, among other day-to-day operational logistics, it was evident that with a paltry financial allocation, the board would be kept busy micromanaging budget line items as police violations went through the roof. For instance, it is astonishing to note that in 2013, IPOA could only hire an initial staff of six people.

Possibly seeing that the agency had fallen into the institution-building-at-the-expense-of-its-core-mandate trap, IPOA’s budget eventually grew to Sh696 million in 2017/2018 and Sh800 million in 2018/2019, barely Sh1,000 (US$10) per complaint per day, and definitely an insignificant amount of money considering the scope of oversight expected of the agency. By the time Njeru’s team was leaving, IPOA had acquired a total of 27 motor vehicles – a number one might find laughable, seeing that IPOA’s operations needed to cover the entire country – and had a staff roster of a mere 143 employees. How was such an institution, even if perfectly structured, capable of overseeing a National Police Service that recruited an average of 10,000 police officers on an annual basis? Would IPOA ever be fit for purpose?

In 2014, the board developed a four-year strategic plan to coincide with its 2018 exit. The plan was built around four pillars, namely compliance by the police with human rights standards; restored public confidence and trust in police; improved detention facilities; a functional Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) of the National Police Service; and a model institution on policing in Africa. In its usual brick and motor state of mind, IPOA reported that ‘‘it is pleased that the National Police Service has secured an office for the IAU, and indications are that the Unit will be operational by August 2018.’’ Other than that, it is anyone’s guess as to whether any of the other targets were satisfactorily achieved under the strained circumstances the agency was operating under.

 

VII
The Backlash

By all means, IPOA’s inaugural term had too many moving parts that kept the agency busy, thereby making it drop the ball on many occasions regarding delivery of its core mandate to civilians, who continue to suffer in the hands of rogue elements within the National Police Service. According to Wangui Kimari of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), and as has become a common refrain in Kenyan society today, vitu kwa ground ni different (reality bites). For starters, IPOA is not perceived as a friend of the civilians, thanks to its one-size-fits-all bureaucracies.

‘‘Victims of police brutality and families of those killed by the police in places like Mathare and Korogocho are weary of going to report their complaints to IPOA for many reasons,’’ Wangui told me when we met in Nairobi. ‘‘Some of them are broke, they cannot even afford bus fare, yet they are expected to go to IPOA’s intimidating head office to make a statement. Once at IPOA, the majority of the complainants, who are either illiterate or semi-literate, will always be harassed for either not filing their complaints properly or for leaving out crucial information. It is in filling these gaps that trusted grassroots organisations such as the social justice centers come into the picture, but even after lodging the complaints properly, the long periods of time which lapse before IPOA moves on the cases is discouraging to the victims and their families.’’

In a word, IPOA’s operations are not fit for purpose since its user experience remains wanting.

According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media. To Gacheke, the fact that IPOA does not have outposts in places like Mathare shows its top-bottom approach to oversight, where instead of going to the ground, the agency keeps to its air-conditioned offices.

‘‘IPOA needs to come and be in the midst of the people who need it most,’’ Gacheke told me. ‘‘Their presence here can work as a deterrent to rogue police officers. If they think residents of Mathare flood their registry, they will be surprised at the many cases which go unreported.’’

According to Gacheke Gachihi, an MSJC activist, IPOA needs to have its tentacles in places such as Mathare, which record some of the highest numbers of extrajudicial killings. It is public knowledge that informal settlements in Nairobi have well-known killer cops, some whom go as far as parading their past, present and future conquests on social media.

In the opinion of some front line human rights aficionados who wished to remain anonymous – they do not wish to sanitise IPOA’s arrogance with a comment – IPOA’s biggest shortfall has been its opacity. They claim IPOA behaves as if it is ignorant of the fact that for it to succeed it needs to operate within an ecosystem comprising all kinds of stakeholders nurtured by trust. It is this sense of indifference from IPOA, they say, which has resulted in disengagement by human rights defenders, who are getting completely disinterested in IPOA’s work processes. ‘‘They never answer calls or reply to emails,’’ one of them told me. ‘‘It is a complete disgrace.’’

The other battle on IPOA’s plate is that of perception. Wangui told me that when she brought mothers and widows of victims of extrajudicial killings to IPOA’s open day, the majority of them did not want to come close, since they considered IPOA as part of the National Police Service. ‘‘They wouldn’t go to the IPOA stand,’’ Wangui told me, ‘‘because to them, hao ni polisi.’’

 

VIII
The Missing Repository

According to leading human rights lawyer Sam Mohochi – previously executive director of the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) and immediate former executive director of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-K) – any suspicious death, and particularly death at the hands of or while in the custody of the police or of a prison officer, should automatically trigger a Magistrate’s Inquest under Sections 386 and 387 of the Criminal Procedure Code. In Mohochi’s view, IPOA should therefore be the undisputed repository for all such cases in instances where the police are involved, such that IPOA either exonerates or implicates them.

‘‘All custodial deaths should result in an inquiry being instituted,’’ Mohochi told me in Nairobi. ‘‘But you will notice that as things stand, IPOA does not comply with provisions of the law.’’

‘‘If you look at most cases of extrajudicial killings in Kenya, unless the family or other actors complain, no automatic legal action occurs,’’ Mohochi told me. ‘‘But two, now bring in IPOA. All such cases are automatically expected to be referred to IPOA, directly, by the police. That then means that in IPOA’s progress reports, the agency should always indicate how many such cases have been forwarded to it, by the police. Unfortunately, if you look at IPOA’s progress reports, they are completely silent on that. Yet that would have been the repository where you could keep tally of extrajudicial killings, irrespective of whether investigations are complete or not. That way, there could be a credible tally of encounter killings by the police, reported by the police. What we mostly have are statistics of cases reported by victims, against the police.’’

In Mohochi’s opinion, the ideal situation in cases where police bullets have been used to either harm or kill civilians should be that the Officer Commanding Station (OCS) who is in charge of the police in a given jurisdiction should be the one to forward any suspicious police action to IPOA as a measure of accountability. This means that if the police abuse their powers in a locality and the OCS does not report it to IPOA, then the agency should have punitive measures in dealing with such a non-compliant OCS.

And if dealing with an OCS gets cumbersome – which should not be the case since IPOA has statutory powers – then IPOA should at the very least have its own investigators stationed at every police station in order for the agency to get first-hand accounts of police excesses, which are then forwarded to the agency’s legal and investigative units. Failure to do this, Mohochi says, will result in the majority of police violations to go unreported; even if they get reported, there will always be the evidential challenge since the police, in protecting each other, will neither secure the crime scene nor get witness statements of their own volition.

‘‘IPOA should issue a circular to all police stations,’’ Mohochi told me, ‘‘that should any case of extrajudicial killings occur, they need to be notified immediately. Failure to do so, even IPOA’s own investigators will not find it easy investigating a non-cooperative police service.’’

Further, Mohochi told me, what IPOA is doing – documenting police violations and prosecuting rogue officers – is something that was already being done by non-state actors. However, the establishment of IPOA was meant to scale things up in terms of convictions, something which is not happening. In Mohochi’s recollection, police officers have been jailed before IPOA came into place, but IPOA was meant to act as a bigger deterrent through higher conviction rates. If this is not attainable, Mohochi fears that IPOA will not be serving the purpose it was founded for.

 

IX
The Evidence Puzzle

Over the years, and as intimated by Mohochi, insufficient evidence has remained one of the prominent bottlenecks in litigating against police violations in cases of extrajudicial killings. For the most part, aside from entities such as the Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), who were for a long time the go-to place for independent, credible autopsies, especially in public interest cases, attempts to prosecute the police either by IPOA or other actors have run into headwinds for lack of admissible evidence on the cause and circumstance of death. As such, the passing of the National Coroners Service Act of 2017 came as a huge relief for both human rights defenders and evidence-based agencies such as IPOA. This meant that in the event of any suspicious deaths, then there would be a legally mandated entity which would take up the matter, preserve the evidence, institute an inquiry, after which prosecutorial steps can follow.

According to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) handbook on the Act, much as the Kenyan version of the coroner’s office will not be quasi-judicial, as an important starting point, the Act establishes a framework for investigations and determination of the cause of reported unnatural deaths in the country. Some of the anticipated quick wins are that obstruction of investigations, bearing false witness, and refusal to comply with directions from the coroner will be things of the past.

Further, the Act provides immunity from civil and criminal prosecution, or any other administrative action for that matter, for those who give evidence to the coroner. This is a huge improvement from the current reliance on Sections 385-387 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which provide for an inquest in cases of suspicious deaths, but does not have the sorts of far-reaching powers provided by the Act. Unfortunately for IPOA and its civilian complainants, and in that typical Kenyan self-sabotage fashion, since the signing of the Act into law in July 2017, it remains gathering dust, and is still not operationalised.

 

X
The Recruitment Charade

However, after everything is said and done, one of IPOA’s persisting headaches remains the almost always scandalous police recruitment exercise. It goes without saying that if the National Police Service keeps filling its ranks with individuals not suited for policing, then no matter what interventions IPOA resorts to, its in-tray will forever remain full of cases of police misconduct by rogue officers, persons who were never fit to be part of the service from the word go. To date, no matter what IPOA or other statutory watchdog agencies like the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) do, the problem of shoddy police recruitment has kept recurring, courtesy of the now perfected selective application of recruitment guidelines.

For starters, recruitment of police officers is the sole prerogative of the National Police Service Commission (NPSC), as recommended by the Ransley task force. However, the law allows the NPSC some discretion, through which it can delegate this responsibility to the Inspector General of Police. This, however, should not be a recipe for subpar recruitment, because the recruitment process should be strictly guided by the NPSC’s Legal Notice No. 41 of 2015. The legal regulations contain general provisions, recruitment categories, gender, regional and ethnic balance requirements, functions of the NPSC in the recruitment, advertising timelines and positions to be advertised for, contents of the advertisement, composition of recruitment panels, calendar of activities for the entire recruitment process, determination of successful candidates, disqualifications, a complaints management system, training schedule and issuance of certificates upon appointment, and submission of the recruitment report to Parliament.

More importantly, Regulations 11-15 of the Legal Notice prescribe a two-tier recruitment process, where in the initial stage, interested candidates submit applications to the NPSC, which having considered education qualifications, gender and ethnic balance, et cetera, is then required to shortlist three times the number of prospective officers it wishes to enlist at each of the recruitment centers. These names are then meant to be shared with the public so that any objections about the recruitment of any individual can be brought forth. Thereafter, the NPSC is supposed to conduct verification of documents as well as medical and physical aptitude examinations. Taking into consideration how rigorous the process should be, from the time of advertisement of vacancies to when the new recruits report to training, Regulation 17 of the Legal Notice provides for a 90-day period for completion of the recruitment cycle.

Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes. Aside from that, flawed advertisement processes, lack of public participation, cases of bribery and patronage, and the locking out of observers – who are mandated by law to have access to the entire recruitment process – continue to be the order of the day.

In July 2014, the newly established IPOA took a bold step by taking the NPSC to court after it observed incidents of corruption, fraud and massive irregularities during recruitment. IPOA sought for nullification of the entire exercise, prayers which were granted by the High Court. On appeal, IPOA’s victory was upheld by the Court of Appeal under Petition No. 390 of 2014 and Civil Appeal No. 324 of 2014 (The Recruitment Decisions). According to those in the know, the government did not look at IPOA’s actions favourably, resulting in reported cases of not-so-subtle intimidation, with strong attempts at creating factions within the IPOA board.

Unfortunately, the NPSC and the Inspector General of Police have continued practising their traditional one-day recruitment exercises, where they focus not on intellectual aptitude, as the two-tier processes envisions, but give prominence to physical attributes.

In a sad turn of events, neither the NPSC nor the Inspector General of Police seemed to have learnt their lesson. Two years later, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) released a comprehensive report titled ‘‘DisService to the Service: Report of the Monitoring of the 2016 Recruitment of Police Constables to the National Police Service’’, in which it extensively observed that police recruitment continued being marred with serious irregularities characterised by interference from the executive arm of government and a total disregard of the two-tier process, which is meant to attract a higher calibre of trainee officers.

In one of its pleadings, the KNCHR wrote, ‘‘The continuous lack of adherence to follow the two-tier process means that achieving professionalism within the National Police Service will remain a pipe dream. The recruitment process serves as the point of entry into the service, and thus any attempts at professionalising the service should begin at this level.’’

Therefore under the prevailing circumstances, where regulations are ignored at will by the highest organs of the state, IPOA will remain a lame-duck mitigating force inside a garbage-in garbage-out setup.

 

This report is a criminal human rights reporting project of Africa Uncensored and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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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