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The Miraa Route: How a Road Changed Marsabit’s Fortunes

11 min read.

To trace the history of the transport of a single commodity like miraa into Marsabit is to watch a slow and organic change in the market, in social and economic dynamics, and in the culture of the people. 

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The Miraa Route: How a Road Changed Marsabit’s Fortunes
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For the people of Northern Kenya, the center-periphery dichotomy and its attendant consequences is not a mere framework but rather a lived reality that is burned into their collective consciousness. Their othering and un-belonging continue to animate and mediate their negotiation with the rest of Kenya. It is not uncommon for someone from Northern Kenya to say he is traveling to Kenya when visiting other parts of Kenya, or inquiring when someone visits from other parts of Kenya, “How is Kenya?”

Their sense of un-belonging is magnified by the hierarchy of citizenship imposed on them, by both policy and entrenched official attitude; where they are citizens, but terms and conditions apply. As “Contingency Citizens”, the terms and conditions are always mediated by the disproportionate power asymmetry in relation to the state, which inevitably induces precarity. The state is not, however, the only institution that sees them as contingent citizens; even other Kenyans see them in a similar way.

This state of affairs has a rich historical antecedent beginning from the colonial era but has been deepened by the post-independence administrations. The colonial government saw little economic utility of investing in the region, a trend post-independence governments followed. But that is changing and with it the social-economic reality of communities.

Development and its discontents

One of the central milestones to that change is the completion of the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road, which until now had been a sore reference point for the intergenerational sense of marginalisation the community harbours. The road has made it easier for people and goods from Marsabit to reach the rest of Kenya, and for other Kenyans to also easily get to Marsabit. But with it comes inevitable friction.

The decades-long failure to tarmac the Moyale-Marsabit-Isiolo road was seen as the irreducible sum total of the country’s imagination of Marsabit and the policies that flowed from it. Conversely, the now tarmacked road is seen as a symbol of development. At the immediate level, the road has made travel to and from southern Kenya practically much easier and faster. But at a deeper level, it has also induced a sense of belonging – a sense of Kenyan-ness, of “We are all Kenyans and deserving of the development opportunities that accrue from being Kenyan.”

At face value, development is concrete and an unambiguously positive thing. In fact, when the people of Northern Kenya complain about marginalisation, they say the state has ignored their development needs. However, development is not a straightforward process; it is complicated and at times a source of contention.

The decades-long failure to tarmac the Moyale-Marsabit-Isiolo road was seen as the irreducible sum total of the country’s imagination of Marsabit and the policies that flowed from it.

One such moment came in 2014 when a group of greengrocers and market traders, most of them women, protested in Marsabit over what they termed the “unfair invasion” of Marsabit market by vegetable farmers from the neighbouring areas of Meru and Timau. According to the market traders, most of them women “mama mboga” farmers who supplied them with vegetables at wholesale prices in Meru were now selling the same supplies to Marsabit customers from the backs of their lorries at retail prices. The local branch of the Chamber of Commerce also raised alarm over what they termed an unfair competition from hawkers.

The women wanted the Marsabit County Government to regulate the “outsiders” doing business in Marsabit County. Unbeknownst to them, they were reproducing the same Us vs Them pathologies they had decried in the past. Ideally, development represented by the tarmacking of the road was meant to allow free movement of goods and eventually bring people together.

Paradoxically, in this case, these market women felt that development was disrupting the status quo. Before this incident, the people of Marsabit had enjoyed a symbiotic trading relationship with the people from Meru. Meru has supplied Marsabit with vegetables for decades, and Marsabit has bought the mild-stimulant miraa leaf from Meru for decades.

The mama mboga incident is not an isolated situation but part of an emerging paradox of development versus social harmony in Marsabit following the tarmacking of the Marsabit-Isiolo road.The movement of people and goods is at the centre of this paradox.

A second incidence was witnessed in 2019 when the newly established transport Sacco “MEISO” (Meru and Isiolo transporters) engaged in a physical altercation with Nanyuki Cabs, which was a more experienced transport Sacco with more employees and 14-seater Nissan vans. The local grievance was that Nanyuki Cabs had a wider reach and had denied MEISO space in Nanyuki. The fear that such players had a competitive advantage over local, inexperienced transport service providers has led to control over who does what and how. The same is witnessed in how Crown Bus, which has a countrywide reach, was limited by the local bus companies to operate only two of its buses on the Nairobi-Moyale route.

Lorries, cows and miraa

The distance between Marsabit and Isiolo is 258 kilometers (160 miles). The dry, hot and endlessly picturesque landscape is dominated by acacia trees, acres and acres of land and livestock grazing in the savannah.

Until the Marsabit-Isiolo road was tarmacked, the only means of travel from Marsabit to Nairobi was to, on occasion, catch a lift with Government of Kenya (GK) 110 Land Rovers or lorries transporting livestock to Nairobi and bringing back consumer goods to Marsabit. The Land Rovers’ departure times from Marsabit were kept top secret; drivers kept the dates and times like state secrets as there were few of them and many customers. Unless you worked for the government or knew someone who did, chances are you would not find out.

There were no designated public transport vehicles. The few companies that tried their luck at operating public transport buses eventually gave up because of the inordinate running costs involved due in part to the unforgiving terrain.

Lorries were the other option. They had no designated departure time and embarkation point – they departed from anywhere if they had enough livestock, their primary “passengers”. This left travelers at the mercy of the lorry drivers, turning them and their turnboys into arguably some of the most powerful people in the area. They determined the return to school days, which day people could travel to attend interviews, graduations etc. They wielded this power with elaborate abandon.  It was not uncommon for the lorries to leave passengers by the wayside when they would disembark for bathroom breaks or to buy something to eat. They went about their business with a degree of gleeful terror, simply because they could.

Until the Marsabit-Isiolo road was tarmacked, the only means of travel from Marsabit to Nairobi was to, on occasion, catch a lift with Government of Kenya (GK) 110 Land Rovers or lorries transporting livestock to Nairobi and bringing back consumer goods to Marsabit.

It is not as if traveling on top of a lorry was some luxurious treat; it was, in fact, an extreme sport. Perched on top, one was exposed to the elements – heat, cold or rain – and had to be aware of acacia thorns pricking their faces, or falling off as the lorries were jolted by the potholes, or in certain cases losing a hat due to the strong winds. That lorry ride demanded one to be tough because of what we used to call korogeshen, a corruption of corrugation, or in some cases, or fall onto the livestock.

On the return trip, lorries would bring miraa, the mild stimulant plant grown in the Nyambene Hills by the Tigania and Igembe sub-groups of the Meru, and chewed mostly by men from Northern and coastal Kenya.

Unlike cows, miraa (also known as khat) is perishable, and therefore it has to be transported when the temperature is low, which means mostly at night. This remains the case to date. To be able to stay up late and drive, lorry drivers and the turnboys would something to keep them up at night. This made the drivers and the miraa traders, mostly women, strike a mutual alliance, and a powerful one at that. There was a period in Marsabit and Moyale when the miraa traders and lorry drivers were considered the trendiest people. Miraa traders got the best seats in the lorry. (Back then, riding with a shotgun was considered classy.) The drivers and the turnboys got the best miraa cut, of course for free. If you ever wanted to invite the wrath of the driver, you’d mess around with the miraa.

Nothing exemplifies people of means even in the middle of nowhere than the two small towns between Marsabit and Isiolo – Merile and Laisamis. Because of the time the lorries would leave Marsabit, one had to get lunch or supper either in Laisamis or Merille. The food here primarily involved chapo-karanga (chapati and fried meat). The best bit of chapo-karaga was mainly reserved for the drivers and mama miraa. Before mobile phones came, hotel owners would rely on instinct to keep food for the drivers and mama miraa. (Now they call ahead to place their orders.)

Before social media and mobile phones, miraa journeys from Meru were tracked with an obsessive keenness in Marsabit. Although the lorries did not keep to specific schedules, people in Marsabit waiting for them would get the signal passed by word of mouth when a lorry left Isiolo and when it was about to arrive in Marsabit. When miraa would arrive in Marsabit, most often in the evening, certain parts of the town came to a standstill. But the tarmacking of the road has made the lorry drivers jobless and with this, small towns like Merille and Laisamis are collapsing due to lack of trade.

Miraa and Marsabit

To trace the history of the transport of a single commodity like miraa into Marsabit is to watch a slow and organic change in the market, in social and economic dynamics, and in the culture of the people.

In the 1960s, when colonial policy still regarded the region as a closed district, miraa used to arrive in Marsabit by plane. Local lore mentions Alex, a Caucasian pilot, who used to land twice or thrice a week with the town’s miraa supply before proceeding to neighboring towns, such as Moyale.

At the time, one required a permit from the colonial administration to chew miraa, but even with a permit, men went out of town in their different age groups to chew together. Later, women had to give convincing reasons why they should be allowed to sell miraa. This restriction lasted into the early years of the post-independence era, but was lifted in what a historian sees as a politically convenient move by the Jomo Kenyatta government: miraa was a diversionary tool to “relax” “shifta” fighters and the pro-secessionist agitators.

By the 1970s, miraa had enough consumers to allow a few businessmen to invest in its transport via “short chassis” Land Cruisers and lorries doing regular trips to the town. However, such transport was still quite slow for a perishable commodity.

Inadvertently, new players were emerging. Women were becoming key players, and with their involvement new needs were emerging. The transport of miraa, which was primarily through lorries and Land Cruisers, remained the preserve of local businessmen who owned lorries and Land Cruisers. The lorry owners, lorry drivers’ popularity and their dominance in the transport scene persisted through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. If transport and sourcing was men’s preserve, women emerged as principal players in the miraa supply and distribution scene.

While miraa in Marsabit was predominantly from Meru, a new dynamic emerged in 2000. Local Marsabit farmers started growing miraa in the place of maize and beans due to shifts in rainfall patterns. But this local supply hardly satisfied the demands that had expanded from the town centre to the lowlands of North Horr and the Rendile lands.

Some of the large-scale infrastructure projects launched courtesy of President Mwai Kibaki’s Vision 2030 programme, including Isiolo International Airport, were designed with the aim of transforming the meat and miraa market. The 3-billion-shilling airport at Isiolo is principally aimed to transport miraa from neighbouring Meru County to the Horn of Africa and meat exports from the Northern lands.

But it’s not the airport but rather the Marsabit-Isiolo road that is upending the miraa ecosystem. The tarmacking of Isiolo-Moyale Road in the 2010s heralded a new market supply dynamics: regular buses supplanted lorries, which significantly reduced the time spent on the road. The ripple effect from this came with dire impacts on many established businesses.

While miraa in Marsabit was predominantly from Meru, a new dynamic emerged in 2000. Local Marsabit farmers started growing miraa in the place of maize and beans due to shifts in rainfall patterns.

When the new road was completed, an earlier surprise was the infamous miraa transporting Toyota Hilux from Meru loaded to the hilt with miraa en route through Nairobi to Wajir and Mandera that changed its route and passed through Marsabit to Wajir. Even though this heralded a new era for miraa distribution for other regions, it was the first sign that there were changes coming to the miraa market in Marsabit.

The region’s miraa market dynamic was intractably altered; bigger political changes in the Horn of Africa countries started manifesting around this commodity. Whereas the type of miraa that used to arrive in Marsabit in the 60s on the plane piloted by Alex was Alelee, or Kangeta (expensive and slow withering) lucrative markets were opening up, with Alelee being entirely a reserve of a new wealthy market in Nairobi and in Somalia and Kenyan exports to the neighboring state constituting numerous daily flights from Wilson Airport in Nairobi.

The type of miraa that used to arrive in Marsabit in those earlier years now found a new market elsewhere and is currently sold in Nairobi for upwards of 3,000 shillings.

The road which links Kenya to Ethiopia has also meant that produce and products from Ethiopia easily find their way to the market in Marsabit. Miraa (Gafurr) from Ethiopia also supplements the local produce to meet the demands within the town, especially during the dry season.

With each change discernible in a decade, another equal change was becoming manifest in the region. A more sedentary population came into existence, and pastoral nomadism was ditched as schools, churches, hospitals, government services were concentrated around the newly emerging towns.

Jirma, women and cultural shifts 

By its very nature, of course, a great deal of it is a function of making a virtue out of necessity. Pastoralism as a lifestyle tends to be austere. Chewing miraa is almost a luxury undertaking, although even within it, there are degrees. The shift in the political economy of the region has seen the pastoralist community’s shift from pastoralism to sedentary lifestyles.

This has been accompanied by women breaking barriers, with some becoming miraa vendors. The miraa- chewing culture has evolved quite dramatically, from the consumption of miraa at the vendor’s house in the 1960s through to the 1990s, to women selling miraa from an upturned carton at various spots in the town in the late 1990s to early 2000s, to the emergence of popular farms that provide fresh miraa to new chewing shops and bases where mostly single women sell tea, coffee, peanuts, Big Gs and miraa and provide the right atmosphere that fuels “handass” – the miraa high.

The road which links Kenya to Ethiopia has also meant that produce and products from Ethiopia easily find their way to the market in Marsabit. Miraa (Gafurr) from Ethiopia also supplements the local produce to meet the demands within the town, especially during the dry season.

In 2019, miraa supply and even retail had shifted from women to become a man’s industry. Cartons of a cheap miraa, Mogoka, now started arriving in the town by 11am. Portioned in small combinations of 100 shillings, Mogoka has found a younger, poorer and restless consumer base among the unemployed youth. About 200kgs of Mogoka arrives in the town every day in perforated cartons.

No one captures their trials and tribulations better than Abdullahi Jirma, the “Elvis Presley” of Borana Music. Mirga bitaa lalaann/Wann benni khess jiru/tahn irra namm gaha yathi namm huqissu/ fin akan akan ta ilme tenna thinnu. “If one looks to the east and to the west/ and regards people’s existence/ from this comes thoughts that waste one away/this kind of existence should not be for our children.

Jirma’s effortless lyricism shines through all his works and he has also become a cultural touchstone, especially in miraa “bases”, with his songs becoming the soundtrack during chewing sessions. While some marvel at the depth of his storytelling, unbeknownst to them they are the target of his incisive commentary. Despite being far removed in age from this generation, Jirma’s songs still capture the present cultural zeitgeist; the promise and peril of the rural-urban cultural shift, especially of youngsters who move to major cities to be club-wielding night guards, locally known as Kenya Rungu.

Jirma also speaks about the perishing of livestock, the allure of city freedom, new expenses in the form of school fees for children and spousal neglect that has come with this as women took to the towns to venture into small trade.

The grooves of the old lifestyle were completely worn out in those six decades between the 1960s and 2019, which for most Northern Kenya towns is the average lifespan. Cultural demands, changing sources of livelihoods and the tone of the muezzin’s adhan tossed women between them and they adapted accordingly because these demands were slower and discernible and in the longer arc of history a knowable thing.

Wherever transport and supply change direction so do the players. The new social trajectories are also forged as the new replaces the old.

In Kenya, the framing of transition in the development arena has changed from the ubiquitous “maendeleo” to acquire more sophistry, a transition from an “analogue” state to a “digital” status. In Marsabit, the consuming of Mogoka from Embu is the new digital, with a certain type of Mogoka even branded as Mogoka Digital. With this change, development isn’t the desirable concept of Moi’s famous rhetoric, “na hiyo ni maendeleo”, but a more sophisticated system.

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Dalle Abraham (@Dalle22) is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya. Abdullahi Boru Halakhe (@Qulshtm) is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.

Politics

Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?

Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.

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Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.

During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.

To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.

One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.

Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.

The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.

Infrastructure development

Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.

Political stability and governance

The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.

Economic development and trade

Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.

Security Concerns

Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.

Economic Disparity and Compatibility

Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.

Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.

The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.

Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes

The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.

Conflict in South Sudan

The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.

Assessing Readiness

Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.

Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.

Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.

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Politics

2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?

It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.

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2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.

This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.

The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.

The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.

What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).

But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.

By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.

Challenges facing the plaintiffs

Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.

Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.

We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.

What happened in court

The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.

The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.

Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)

Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.

In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”

Contemporary African resistance

Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.

Enduring myths

The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).

The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.

Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.

Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.

Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?

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Politics

Who Is Hustling Who?

In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.

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Who Is Hustling Who?
Photo: bennett tobias on Unsplash.
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There should be no doubt that Kenya is in an intractable economic crisis. Filling up gas for a drive from Nairobi to my hometown in Limuru cost 10,000 ksh (about USD70). As a result of the high gas costs prices for everything else have gone up, including public transportation. And those who cannot hike up operating costs, such as the hordes of boda boda motorcycle taxis, are hardly making anything or operating at a loss.Tax hikes mean those who are employed are taking less money home. And no point in kidding ourselves, in a corrupt country some of that money being generated from the higher taxes is going to the politicians. As will the promised 1 billion USD loan from the IMF on whose behest the new austerity measures are being implemented. It is a form of madness to think that a corrupt government will only steal money generated by taxes and do public good with the IMF loan. In short, in a country where close to half the population lives on less than USD2 a day, Kenya is simply unaffordable and the promise of relief is a lie—certainly a convenient lie for the government and IMF officials but a devastating one for Kenya’s majority poor.

My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.

We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.

But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.

Voting with the middle finger

But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.

I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.

I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.

I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.

My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.

But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.

Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.

Cuba as Kenya’s north star

Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?

The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?

I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.

Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US,  but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.

But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp.  Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.

In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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